Very quietly, road-heavy schedules have brought us to the home stretches of both Men’s and Women’s Soccer. The UB Women, a shade under .500 for the season, return home for their final three regular-season matches, two coming this weekend, while the Bulls Men are coming off a KEY road result with a win over West Virginia, and can just about secure a postseason spot with a grudge match win over Western Michigan tomorrow.
The weekend kicks off tonight when Women’s Soccer hosts Eastern Michigan at UB Stadium. Both the Eagles and Bulls currently sit in a tier of teams between 5th and 9th in the MAC jostling for four spots in the conference tournament. The good news for UB is that they do get to close out the season with three at home, where they’ve only suffered one loss in three seasons, so they’re unlikely to be the team that gets jumped by Bowling Green and ends up outside of the postseason.*
*And I do think that happens, but it’s for another post
The bad news is that there’s not much opportunity to move up, as the top four in the conference have breathing room. All we’re doing here is jostling for seeding and tiebreakers before a tough test Sunday against Central and a chance to finish strong next week against Akron.
Anyway, Eastern isn’t a particularly good team, and much weaker on the road, where they’ve lost 5-0 to Western this year and struggled to hold a 2-1 lead against a Bowling Green team that Buffalo controlled throughout. The Eagles are, however, coming off their best match of the season, a 0-0 draw against Kent State in which EMU weathered a first half spurt and then played the Flashes mostly even.
Unlike the Bulls, EMU has two consistent scoring options in Ellie Tillar and Sabrina McNeill, who each have four goals and a handful of helpers on the season. Their defense doesn’t impress me all that much, but turned a corner a few weeks ago and has given up only two goals in the last four matches, over which time the Eagles are 3-0-1. This could be a sneaky tough test for the Bulls against a team that’s improving late in the season.
UB similarly, though, is coming off a better game with their second road result of the season last Sunday. Word on the street is that Julia Benati, UB’s dynamic junior winger who’s missed several weekends, will return to the pitch tonight. Between home-field advantage and Benati, this should be a good start to the Bulls weekend.
Friday night is, in my opinion, the marquee of the weekend, not just for soccer, but for all of UB. It’s our annual grudge match against WMU, Stu Riddle’s former employer, and the last chance we’ll see Russell Cicerone, Steven Stryker, and Alec Fisher face the Broncos after defecting from their commitments to follow Riddle four years ago.
After a tough stretch, which Riddle rightfully pointed out came at the end of a seriously road-heavy part of the schedule, the Bulls helped themselves out in a big way with a come-from-behind 2-1 win at West Virginia last weekend. The benefit is twofold: UB has Akron out of the way* and has three road points in their back pocket with two home matches left to play.
*And the Zips beat NIU 7-0, so don’t feel so bad about 4-0 in Akron
With NIU clearly the worst team in the conference, though not out of it yet, and WVU sitting on zero points with no home matches left, UB is in real good shape for the postseason, and can just about ice it tomorrow with a win. Even a draw would put them in good shape.
That said, WMU is a legitimate threat. Keeper Drew Shepherd is still around, and shouldn’t be as rusty as he was in the final stretch of last year’s semifinal. Brandon Bye (8G, 5A) is one of the most dynamic players in the conference, and just like UB, the Broncos have 25 goals to their name and 13 against on the season without the benefit of Daemen on the schedule.
A possible factor in this one: Western has gone to overtime in five of their last six matches. They didn’t play a midweek match this week, so may not be too fatigued, but that type of thing adds up, and UB should be energized by a return home.
It’s a tough one to call. WMU is 0-0-2, with a bad home draw against NIU, and an OK road draw against Bowling Green, but they’re a talented team that twice outplayed the Bulls last season. The last three matches between these programs have been exciting grudge matches, and there’s little doubt in my mind that tomorrow will play out similarly. The playbook for Buffalo: Get Russell Cicerone going, and a result puts you in great shape for the postseason.
Sunday, we get the Central Michigan women. They’re in my mind the best team to come to UB Stadium since Ball State, Miami, and Western Michigan in 2014. Led by Lexi Pelafas, who stands a great chance to become the first MAC student athlete with 20 goals in a single season, the Chips’ only loss on the season is a shocking 4-0 defeat to Northern Illinois that’s proven entirely out of character for both groups.
The good news for UB is that CMU isn’t particularly deep behind Pelafas, but she’s an absolute force, capable of scoring off set pieces even when teams shut her down in the run of play, and seemingly at her most dangerous after the 80th minute.
The Chips are also off their top form lately, going to overtime in five of six matches, including a pair of 2-1 OT wins against Ohio and Bowling Green, teams that should not have tested CMU in Mount Pleasant to such a degree.
That said, there’s too much of a difference to consider the Bulls anything but underdogs here. CMU has eyes on hosting the MAC Tournament, and it’s easy to see Buffalo playing their best soccer on Sunday and still coming out with a draw. Given how poorly the rest of the MAC has fared against Central this season, even a draw would be a net positive before the regular season finale Thursday.