November 21, 2018

Falling to Michigan in Marathon Shootout at NCAAs, Tiger Men’s Soccer Displayed Skill, Competitive Fire

ROUGH FINISH: Princeton University men’s soccer player Benji Issroff heads the ball up the field in a game earlier this season. Last Thursday, junior defender Issroff helped the Princeton defense stymie Michigan in the first round of the NCAA tournament as the teams tied at 1-1 through 90 minutes of regulation and 20 minutes of overtime. The game went to penalty kicks and the Wolverines ended up prevailing 11-10 in a shootout that went 14 rounds, nine past the typical five. The heartbreaking loss left the Tigers with a final record of 10-5-3. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Bill Alden

The Princeton University men’s soccer team didn’t play like an underdog at host Michigan in the NCAA tournament last Thursday.

The Tigers players took exception to an online preview by Top Draw Soccer that said Princeton needed “to keep this low-scoring, sit deep, and look for chances on the counter attack or set pieces,” in order to compete.

“Our guys got really upset that that was the perception of how we could possibly win,” said Princeton head coach Jim Barlow.

“I think our guys went for it. My goalie coach, Ryan Hayward said it best, ‘you couldn’t have watched that game and thought for one minute that Princeton was playing for a tie.’ It was a really good effort.”

Princeton attacked, outshot, and outplayed Michigan for long stretches before falling in the 14th round of penalty kicks after 110 physical minutes on a snow-covered field in Ann Arbor, Mich. The nail-biter left the Ivy League champion with a final record of 10-5-3.

“When we watched Michigan on film, we thought a lot of teams sat back against them,” said Barlow. “We didn’t want to do that. We don’t think we’re very good when we play that way. We think we’re at our best when we’re really going after the other team.”

The Tigers scored first when Benjamin Martin came off the bench, took a short pass laid off by Jeremy Colvin to the left side of the goal and snuck it back past the Michigan goalie for a 1-0 lead 38 minutes into the game. It was more than 35 minutes later when Michigan tied it in the second half, 1-1, to force overtime.

“I think our guys were really ready for the kind of game it was going to be,” said Barlow.

“We talked leading up to the game that it was going to come down to so much about being willing to do the running and being willing to compete because the field was going to be a mess with the weather conditions and it was going to be tough to get the ball moving and tough with passes. You had to be OK with not being able to pass out of the back all the time because of the conditions. Our guys were prepared mentally for a real physical battle.”

Princeton played the same style it had used to stop lesser teams. The Tigers outshot Michigan in both halves and for the game by a 12-7 total. Six of the Tigers’ shots were on goal while only two of Michigan’s were. Princeton ranked fifth in the NCAA in shots on goal per game and sixth in shots per game.

“It all starts with our energy and our defending up the field,” Barlow said. “We wind up winning the ball in parts of the field where we then catch the other team out of shape and we can get forward with some urgency. We do a pretty good job of having a variety of guys joining in the attack.”

Princeton’s pressing style never let Michigan get its strong passing game on track. The Tigers were frustrated by a no-call that led quickly to the tying goal. The 1-1 tie held up through the end of regulation and two 10-minute overtime periods to force the shootout for the right to advance to the second round against seventh-seeded Notre Dame.

“It’s unlike anything else,” said Barlow. “You can practice penalties all you want. It’s just such a unique unusual situation. I don’t think we’ve ever been in a shootout since I’ve been coaching at Princeton. I’ve been in shootouts and I know our guys have been in shootouts with club teams, but with so much on the line and so much pressure on every shot, it’s unlike anything else. I missed a penalty in the NCAA tournament and I know exactly how our guys who missed feel. And it’s the worst. If the goalie guesses right or if you hit it a little bit closer to the middle than you wanted to, that can decide a game. It’s really sad that it comes down to that.”

In the first five penalty kicks, Kevin O’Toole, Cole Morokhovich, and Danny Hampton made goals for Princeton while Tigers goalie Jacob Schachner, who stopped three penalty kicks in the regular season, stopped two of Michigan’s five shots. That sent the shootout into sudden death penalty kicks with each round capable of determining the game’s winner. It went eight more rounds with Gaby Paniagua, Moulay Hamza Kanzi Belghiti, Jack Roberts, Michael Osei Wusu, Richard Wolf, O’Toole, and Morokhovich converting on kicks and Schachner stopping one kick that was matched by Michigan keeper Henry Mashburn. When Mashburn made a stop on Hampton, Michigan advanced thanks to a goal by Jackson Ragen in the ninth extra round of kicks.

“It’s not an easy thing to decide who shoots because any of the guys who are dressed for the game can shoot, even if they didn’t play in the game,” explained Barlow.

“We had some guys who were so banged up and tired after the overtimes that they didn’t feel as confident taking a penalty as they had before the game started. So we had a couple guys, including our back-up goalie, take a penalty without having stepped on the field in the game. So Danny Hampton, and Jack Roberts and Michael Osei Wusu, those guys hadn’t played in the game and they stepped up. The guys handled it really well. We had our chances and it didn’t go our way. We took our best shot and it didn’t quite go our way
on a couple kicks.”

The shootout defeat ended the season and the careers of Princeton’s six seniors – Sean McSherry, Jeremy Colvin, Henry Martin, Moyin Opeyemi, Will Lentz, and Bryan Prudil. McSherry, Colvin and Prudil were starters, and McSherry was named a first-team All-Ivy forward and Colvin a second-team All-Ivy midfielder.

“They definitely took some of the frustrations of the last couple years, in particular how many games we went to overtime in and didn’t win, and they made it a priority in the offseason to change the mindset and make the team tougher in overtime and the mentality of the group became much more determined and resilient and focused,” said Barlow.

“That paid off in so many games this year that, in previous years, we may not have come through with a win. The two years before this, we went to overtime 15 times and I think we only won one of those games and had a bunch of ties and some losses. This year, I think we went to overtime six or seven times and didn’t lose once. I think the seniors deserve a lot of credit for that, all of them.”

Princeton will have a good starting point when it returns in 2019 with so much of its side returning, led by Ivy Player of the Year, sophomore Kevin O’Toole, along with Wolf, an Ivy first-team defender, and Paniagua, a second-team midfielder, and honorable mention defenders Morokhovich, Bobby Hickson, Benjamin Issroff, and goalie Schachner. It, has players ready to try to step into the holes that will be left from a very good season that improved as it developed

“We’d like to build on it,” said Barlow. “The one thing that probably kept us from being even a better team this year was we didn’t finish enough plays when you think about how many shots we took and how much time we spent in the opponent’s half. Our ability to finish off plays still needs to get better and that’s a big priority as we go into the offseason. We have a really solid defense and the ability to play the way we want to and have an identity for pressing and playing in the other team’s end, and now we have to be a little sharper in the final third. That’ll be a big priority moving forward.”

Michigan went on to fall in a shootout to Notre Dame on Sunday. Princeton would have loved the chance to compete together one more time after overcoming a slow start to their season to reach the NCAAs. After a 1-3 start to the year, they rallied to go unbeaten in their first six Ivy League games to clinch the league championship, their first in four years, and earn the NCAA berth that ultimately led to heartbreak.

“We’ll be thinking about the Michigan game for a while; I think we all felt this team could make a deep run,” said Barlow.

“When you watch Michigan probably get a little better of the game against Notre Dame, I think we feel like there’s no one we would be intimidated by or feel like we’re overmatched with. It’s frustrating when it comes down to PKs when you think you have a group that can go that far. That’ll hurt for a while. We also know how incredibly hard it is to win the Ivy League. I’m sure when we look back on that, we’ll feel really good about coming back from two goals down against Dartmouth (to tie) and rolling off wins against Cornell and Brown at home and Harvard and Penn and doing so well against teams that are really good teams.”