August 23, 2017

Buoyed by Winning Gold at Maccabiah GamesIssroff Eyes Bigger Role for PU Men’s Soccer

LEAP OF FAITH: Benji Issroff jumps for the ball on the back line last fall during his freshman campaign for the Princeton University men’s soccer team. This summer, Issroff starred for the U.S. squad at the Maccabiah Games in Israel, helping the team to a second straight gold medal at the competition. (Photo Courtesy of Princeton’s Office of Athletic Communications)

Benji Issroff traveled to Israel six years ago to celebrate his bar mitzvah.

This summer, Issroff, now a rising sophomore defender for the Princeton University men’s soccer team, returned to Israel as a member of the U.S. squad competing in the 2017 World Maccabiah Games and ended up enjoying another celebration as the team won the gold medal.

For Issroff, making the U.S. team for the competition was special on many levels. “It meant quite a lot; the tournament sets up the intersection of a lot of identities of mine,” said the 6’0, 165-pound Issroff, a native of New York City who attended a tryout for the team in Philadelphia.

“My Jewish heritage is very important to me and then soccer, which I devote a lot of time to, forms a big part of my life as well.”

As the team trained in Israel before starting the competition on July 5, Issroff quickly sensed that the U.S. was hungry for gold.

“We won the competition four years ago and we were trying to be the first team to win back-to-back Maccabiah Games for soccer,” said Issroff, who was joined on the team by Princeton goalie Josh Haberman ’17 and Tiger student assistant coach David Goldstein ’17.

“We always had that lofty goal and ambition; obviously you hope you have the talent but you can’t be sure everything is going to fall your way. That first week definitely helped us become more accustomed to each other and get to know each other’s tendencies.”

Although the U.S. fell 1-0 to Great Britain in the second game of pool play at the competition, Issroff believes the setback may have benefitted the squad in the long run.

“In any competition, not everything is going to go your way; part of winning and eventually becoming a champion is learning to deal with adversity,” said Issroff.

“Against Great Britain we had a very close game, they scored in the last seven minutes off a set piece. It was obviously a bit unfortunate and not how we would have preferred it to go but having that bit of adversity made us more resilient as we progressed through the tournament.”

Rebounding with a 2-0 win over Australia in final game of pool play, Issroff and his teammates never looked back after that.

“It got our confidence going, it was quite a comfortable win against Australia,” said Issroff.

“We felt pretty dominant that whole match and that gave us confidence and jump-started our run.”

After beating Uruguay 2-1 in the quarterfinals, the U.S. had to sweat out a tough match as it edged toward host Israel 2-1 in the semis.

“That was a big test, they were the toughest competition we faced by a wide margin,” said Issroff, noting that the Israel squad was comprised of players from the country’s Under-20 national team.

“We were a goal down to them but fortunately for us, they had gone into extra time the day before and won in penalties so they had some tired legs. As the game progressed, that really helped us as they got more tired.”

As a result of the hard-fought win over Israel, the U.S. earned a rematch with Great Britain in the gold medal game.

“We tried to deal with their height and physicality up top; they had two very big forwards and so we tried to better handle them by giving them less space when they were trying to hit long passes into those guys and then making sure that we were collecting the ball after they did,” said Issroff, recalling the team’s game plan coming into the final.

“I think we had a similar mentality as we did in the group stage. We thought we just needed to execute better, be sharper, move the ball quicker. We had quite a lot of motivation to seek revenge.”

Avenging the earlier defeat in style, the U.S. pulled away to a 3-0 win. “All the work we have been putting in really came to fruition in the end,” recalled Issroff, who played defensive midfielder for most of the tournament but moved to center back in the semis and final to help protect leads.

“They got a red card pretty early in the game but we had scored in the second minute so we got off to a really fast start. I think that helped calm everyone’s nerves and really helped us concentrate on playing well.”

Things weren’t as calm in the aftermath of the win for the U.S.

“There was a fireworks display after our game,” said Issroff. “Standing there with all the fireworks and our achievement and letting it sink in was quite surreal.”

Sharing the experience with fellow Princetonians Haberman and Goldstein made the achievement even more meaningful for Issroff.

“They are both people that I greatly admire,” said Issroff.

“I was rooming with Josh throughout the entire experience so I had a lot of time with him. After their last year at Princeton, it meant a great deal to me to be in their company for one last competition. It was also quite fun.”

As he looks ahead to his sophomore season at Princeton, Issroff is looking to utilize some of the main things he gained from the Maccabiah competition.

“It really gives me quite a bit of confidence and hopefully I can try to bring that back to the team as a whole,” said Issroff.

“I learned about resilience and character that I would also like our team to embody next season. It just helps me bridge the gap to stay sharp and fit and mentally acute.”

With Princeton coming off a 2016 season that saw it go 7-7-3 overall and 1-3-3 Ivy League, suffering three one-goal losses in league play, Issroff is confident the Tigers have what it takes to come through in the close ones.

“The Ivy League is always a really competitive league and I think the physical nature of the Maccabiah will help me adjust this year,” said Issroff, who played in all 17 games last fall and made four starts, picking up an assist in a 4-1 win over Rutgers.

“We had a lot of close games last year that didn’t quite fall our way. We will have a very young team and hopefully we will be able to turn some of those games around and win.”

Issroff, for his part, believes he can help guide the squad’s young players.

“I would like to try to have more of a leadership role on the team,” said Issroff.

“Now that I am past my freshman year, I think I am able to contribute more. We had a lot of great seniors last year who were quite big contributors to the team and hopefully I can step up and help fill some of that void.”