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Senior midfielder Matt Poplawski will need to be a major factor if Penn is to take down neighbor Drexel.

Credit: Nick Buchta

An old foe, but a new attitude.

On Saturday at 7 pm, Penn men’s soccer welcomes cross-town opponent Drexel for the 42nd installment of a rivalry that is, as Penn coach Rudy Fuller puts it, “unique.”

What makes the Drexel-Penn rivalry so special? Well, for starters, the geographical proximity of the two schools means that students from either university can easily attend the match no matter which school is the “home” team. In fact, the schools are so near to one another that the yearly basketball game is dubbed the “Battle for 33rd Street.”

However, the real venom in the rivalry comes from the players themselves.

“No question that the intensity of the rivalry helps the guys stay focused as they prepare,” Fuller said. “A lot of our guys have played with their guys on summer teams, so there’s an added something in it too.”

The Red and Blue (1-1-4) finally notched their first win of the season this past Saturday over La Salle by the score of 1-0 in a thrilling overtime battle. Although the win was a relief for a Penn team that had been drawing game after game, players are looking at the game as a foundation to build from.

“Moving forward, getting the initial win is important because we know we can play with good teams,” freshman forward Dami Omitaomu said. “We can use that to push for more. Collectively, we’re still trying to get better.”

Players like senior midfielder Matt Poplawski who remember the poor start that plagued the team last season are especially relieved that the pressure to earn the first win has been eliminated.

“That win was definitely a weight off the shoulders,” Poplawski admitted. “We’ve been trying to put last year behind us.”

Although the Quakers followed up the win with a 1-1 draw against Lehigh, there were many positives that have Fuller optimistic about the direction the team is moving in heading into the Ivy League season.

“I think [against Lehigh] if we were a little sharper in attack we would have won,” Fuller said. “Scoring late on to tie the game says a lot about the determination and resiliency from the guys.”

The Dragons (1-4-2) head into Saturday’s clash having lost two consecutive outings to Northeastern and Princeton, both by the score of 2-0. Even more promising for the Quakers, the Blue and Gold have yet to win a game away from their home field thus far this season.

Still, the Red and Blue know that thinking ahead to the Ivy opener the following weekend would be a grave mistake.

“All of the City 6 teams pose a real physical test for us,” Poplawski said.

In addition to the physical component of the game, the rivalry will inspire the teams to play with an intensity that renders past records and performances nearly irrelevant.

“This game will have the look and feel of an Ivy League game,” Fuller said.

So, who will step up for the Quakers on the big occasion? The obvious people to point at would be experienced veterans such as Poplawski and senior forward Alec Neumann.

However, if you point your finger solely at them, you would be ignoring a large factor in Penn’s improvement from last season: the freshmen. Five rookies took part in the battle against Lehigh, including four that started the game. Clearly, the learning curve for these freshmen is growing smaller and smaller every time out.

“The adjustment has been really smooth,” Omitaomu said. “Getting to know the guys and getting playing time has really helped me settle in and not be as nervous.”

If trends are anything to go by, Penn has another force acting in their favor. In addition to the Dragons’ poor record away from home this season, the rivalry has been kind to the hosting team; since the game was reinstated in 2012, the home team has prevailed every time.

Win or lose, the game is sure to be a spectacle, injected with the passion and fervor that only schools that share a physical border can share.

“We have a lot of respect for Drexel and the program they’ve built there,” Fuller said.

“We’re looking forward to the challenge that they present, but if everything goes well, it’s an obstacle we’re confident we can overcome.”

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