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10-12-2021-mens-soccer-versus-drexel-matt-leigh-samantha-turner

Senior forward Matt Leigh breaks away with the ball, taking it towards the Drexel goalie at Rhodes Field on Oct. 12.

Credit: Samantha Turner

Penn men’s soccer broke down its neighbor, Drexel, in the span of four minutes in the second half, recording a 2-1 win at Rhodes Field.

The Quakers (5-3-2, 0-1-1 Ivy) were returning from playing Columbia on the road just three days prior, where they leveled against the Lions to seal a 1-1 draw after 110 minutes. 

“In just such a short amount of time, the biggest thing was getting our legs back," goal scorer Matt Leigh said. “A big thing tonight was just practicing and utilizing our depth. A lot of kids made minutes and made plays tonight that we needed to step up, which was really good, so I'd say that was probably the biggest focus: finding a balance that we could come into this game and feel fresh.”

As one of the most close-proximity rivalries in Division I, Penn was headed into a fight at home against the Dragons (5-5-1) for the rights to the city.

“It's always a special feeling playing at Rhodes: trying to defend your home field, and especially coming off a tough draw at Columbia,” fifth-year player Joey Bhangdia said.

Penn immediately began narrow on the defense to starve the Dragons of any chances from the start. But Drexel quickly found their footing, as their long passes were well-received with great first touches by their wingers.

Penn goalkeeper Dane Jacomen leaped into action twice in the first three minutes, which foreshadowed Drexel’s many more attempts at goal to come.

Sophomore Jacob Muchnick, who played the full 90 minutes and has made appearances in every match so far, was directive from the beginning, as he occupied the crucial space between Drexel’s midfield and left wing. He reminded the team of patience, which proved essential to Penn’s win.

Just as vocal was Drexel’s coach Michael Marchiano, who directed his players through a free kick just before the 10-minutes mark. The shot from the right was headed towards goal but was saved by another effort from Jacomen.

Drexel’s Cesar Banacloy, a Spain native, was unrelenting in his runs through the left wing early in the match. Penn put up at least two defenders against his frequent attempts at running into the box, and the Quakers stood solid in clearing the ball away.

“We knew Drexel was going to be a tough group,” Jacomen said. “They had a pretty good record going into this match — being in good form — so we knew [it] was gonna be tough for us, but we were also confident in ourselves that we'd get the job done.”

Unlike many of Penn’s previous matchups, Drexel was not an aerial opponent. They kept their passes and individual possession short and brief, with the ball staying close to the ground.

Penn took a more conservative approach early in the match, leaving enough space to read its opponents who were quick on their passes and progression up the field. By leaving the left wing open, Penn’s defense was able to crowd near the goal and prevent crosses from conversion. Freshman Leo Burney and junior Nick Schimbeno remained on the field for the full 90 minutes to seal a defensively solid win.

At half an hour left in the half, each side seemed patiently keen on a mistake by the other. Drexel played the first half as if they were already up one, and Penn was reading into every possible opportunity.

Penn’s first attempt at goal appeared right before 20 minutes on the clock — a cross from the left wing by Joey Bhangdia that only grazed the top of the net.

At 24 minutes, after seven shots by the Dragons, the scoreline turned 1-0, as Drexel’s Chris Donovan netted a cross from the right with a calm first touch that ended with the ball easing into the bottom left of the net.

Penn was careful to not grow impatient after giving up a goal. After scoring, Drexel sat deep to defend, almost playing a five- back, as their wingers dropped deep against Penn’s advances.

Optimism returned for Penn with a corner at 34 minutes — a low cross that moved nervously between the goalposts but was ultimately swatted away.

At 10 minutes until halftime, Penn’s main goal was to not concede a goal again. Drexel made their first substitutions of the game, which was immediately followed by the Dragons’ effort to run the ball up the field.

For the Dragons, their main objective was to protect possession. They sat again in a three-back, making short passes between each other and maintaining their structure.

The first half concluded with 10 shots by Drexel, including one in the last minute that fell into Jacomen's hands. Penn returned to the locker rooms cognizant of the need to adapt.

“Our coaches definitely put a fantastic scout out for us — there's always a lot of detail that goes into that. We know our responsibilities going in, but we also know that those things can change, and there's a lot of adaptability that has to go on our end. So the guys did a really good job with that and I’m really happy with the result,” Bhangdia said.

Penn was quick from the whistle, barging into the second half with a run into the right corner and a cross towards goal. Drexel’s goalkeeper Cameron Sanders was out of position for a few moments, but the ball was saved as Penn ultimately couldn’t capitalize on the opportunity.

In just two minutes, Drexel was at the goal again. But so was Jacomen, who had another heroic save on a shot from Drexel’s Banacloy.

Drexel sat stiff on its defense, as Penn searched for gaps to pursue and outpace the Dragons.

Penn’s patience and awareness led it to the ultimate reward. A low cross into the box remained unfinished until Matt Leigh took advantage of his positioning and netted the ball straight into the bottom left, with the assist credited to Ben Stitz. Penn capitalized off a disorganized Drexel backline, having found an opportunity in the disarray.

“I mean, after watching the first half, I think anyone could say that it wasn't looking good for us,” Leigh said. “After our team talk at halftime, just trying to motivate the group, trying to get everyone's energy up … we changed some things tactically with how we defended. I think it worked.”

Drexel looked hasty in their counterattack, yet it ended with a poor finish from a run through the left, followed by a denial at the gloves of Jacomen once again.

In the span of four minutes Penn dismantled Drexel once more. A goal kick by Jacomen was won in the air and pushed towards goal by Penn. A cross from within the box was quickly converted into a right-footed shot into the bottom left by Bhangdia.

With less than 25 minutes left, Drexel seemed frustrated, but fought to maintain composure. They were relying on their short, quick passes again, counting on possession to progress the ball towards any chance at goal.

Penn maintained their characteristic defense as well, keeping their defenders crowded along the box.

Drexel’s passes grew quicker in pace, leaving not a moment for Penn’s defense to rest. Penn’s defense also shaped up well, as the Quakers were now more aware. Any run in towards the goal area by Drexel could immediately be countered by three Penn defenders.

Jacomen was the name to remember for the final 10 minutes. He denied the Dragons three times in the span of three minutes, as Drexel hurried for a chance to level the game.

Penn starved the Dragons of options, as their characteristic defense cleared the ball with defenders sitting close to goal. Neither side eased off the pressure until the final whistle, and the Quakers left the field with another toughly contested win at Rhodes field.

“Expectation-wise, I think we know we're as good as we can be,” Leigh said. “It just comes down to us actually making our plays and performing. I've loved the expectations and everything that the season has brought so far; I just think we have a really good team, and we just need to keep building off some things.”

The Quakers next take on Dartmouth (1-8, 0-2) on Saturday at 5 p.m. at Rhodes Field.

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