Penn men’s soccer closed out their season opener in a breathtaking fashion.
Late Friday night, the Quakers faced Monmouth in their first game of the season and the first game with coach Brian Gill at the helm. They looked to avenge last season’s 2-0 loss to the Hawks and win their first season opener since 2014. An incredible header from sophomore defenseman Alex Touche in the final minute of the first overtime period allowed the Quakers to achieve just that, giving them a 3-2 victory.
“This is a good win for the guys, to come out in the season opener, that’s a big deal,” Gill said. “To have lost two goals and find a way to get a third, that’s a big deal. It shows a good amount of maturity and resilience, which are things we’re really stressing.”
Penn (1-0) got off to a hot start, with sophomore midfielder Joey Bhangdia scoring off a stunning cross from senior midfielder and captain Jerel Blades just over a minute into the game. The Red and Blue took a 2-0 lead when Blades finished a corner, and as the rain poured down onto Rhodes Field, the Hawks (0-3) looked all but finished off.
However, there was a lot more soccer left to play. Monmouth creeped back with a successful corner in the 28th minute, leaving the Quakers up by one heading into the half. Although Penn had led on both shots and corners by a wide margin in the first half, the tide turned in the second and the Hawks finally connected for the equalizer in the 64th minute.
Neither team could finish the game off in regulation, and so the battle continued into overtime. Penn struck first off the head of Touche, and sealed a huge victory to begin the season in what could be a momentous turning point for the Quakers moving forward.
“It’s an awesome feeling, we’ve been working since our last game last year [on] Nov. 14 for this game particularly, so to come out, we started off great, then to be able to end it like that is a great start to the season, so hopefully we can do more of that,” Touche said. “I think it’s really important for us, because we had a couple seasons the past two years where we didn’t get off to the right start … this time it went our way, so hopefully we can keep that going.”
This is also an important win for new head coach Brian Gill, who took over leadership of the Quakers after one year as an assistant coach following Rudy Fuller’s promotion to become the University’s senior associate athletic director. However, he’ll be quick to tell you that he’s not interested in self-aggrandizing — just in making Penn soccer and its players the best they can be.
“It’s less about me and it’s more about them, because I just think we spoke so much about building a culture, trying to get the program back into a place where maybe it hasn’t been … at different points,” Gill said. “I suppose so it’s more about coming out trying to make this a tough place to play for other teams.”
It remains to be seen if Rhodes Field has earned a reputation as a tough place to play. The Quakers will be tested again on Monday when they face off against Philadelphia-rival Drexel (3-0) in their second game of the season. The Dragons had better come prepared, though, because the Quakers don’t plan on easing up just because they got a win.
“[The win over Monmouth] is a nice result to get, because we can walk away from it being able to point at our mistakes and not have to deal with the loss. We can look at our set piece defending and say, ‘That’s gonna be something we’ll need to work with,'” Gill explained. “But also, I think things that we’ve been working on and stressing in training came out well here and I think it’s an opportunity to not just point out things that we didn’t do well, but to point out things that we did well and see how it paid off for us here.”
Those changes from training have not gone unnoticed by the team, either. Touche also highlighted the extent to which he feels the team has improved their style of play since last season.
“I think just in general the team’s playing a lot more attacking then they have in the past, we’re keeping the ball, beforehand we had sort of a negative approach, sort of went out into games not to lose, and now we’re sort of trying to work on taking it to opponents,” Touche said. “I think we did that tonight. They got two goals off of set pieces [but] we sort of dominated the game overall.”
When Drexel comes over to Penn on Monday, they shouldn’t expect to see the same team that they beat 2-1 last season. They should expect to see a powerful, attacking force to be reckoned with.