The Red and Blue offense was no match for a wall of Orange and Blue defense Sunday afternoon.
In what could have been a crushing blowout to conclude Penn’s (13-3-2, 6-1 Ivy) season, an impressive defensive performance limited the damage. When the final whistle sounded, though, No. 3 seed Syracuse (15-2-4) celebrated its 2-1 victory over the Quakers in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Despite the Orange commanding much of the game from kick-off, Penn’s defense continually pushed Syracuse’s pressing offensive front back out into the midfield.
The first shot of the game came after nearly five minutes of play. Sophomore defender Ben Do’s pass across the field met junior midfielder Michael Hewes, but his header sailed high over an open net. This would remain the Red and Blue’s only shot until the final minutes of the first half.
With time ticking down to halftime, miscommunication among Syracuse players in the midfield left senior forward Ben Stitz in possession of the ball, charging toward the net with Syracuse defenders left behind. However, his strike from outside the box just missed the back of the net, deflecting off the crossbar.
Do’s real impact today came on the defensive end, though. His deflections served as a second wall of defense in front of senior goalkeeper Nick Christoffersen and forestalled the score sheet from being flooded with Orange goals.
Although the Red and Blue upheld a strong defensive front throughout the first half, the inability to get the ball to the feet of the team’s biggest offensive stars kept scoring opportunities scarce, and the game held to a 0-0 draw heading in the final 45 minutes.
After halftime, Syracuse hit the ground running, hungry for a goal. The Orange tallied three shots, all on target, in under a minute. Christoffersen did not shy away from the challenge, though. In addition to making diving saves on one end of the field, the vocal leader directed traffic and kept the team organized on the opposing end.
On the first Penn corner kick of the afternoon, senior defender Nick Schimbeno received a head-to-head pass from sophomore forward Stas Korzeniowski. Schimbeno’s header found the back of the net before he even hit the ground, giving the Quakers a 1-0 lead.
Despite Penn drawing first blood, Syracuse’s aggressiveness kept the match’s fate uncertain. Soon, the score sheet would be swarmed with shots from both sides. There was still plenty of time for Syracuse to even the game, but ultimately, the Quakers’ lead only held for seven minutes.
A crucial Penn giveaway gave the Orange the opportunity it needed to answer on the offensive end. Fancy footwork by sophomore forward Nathan Opoku helped him cut through a handful of Red and Blue defenders before burying one in the top left corner of the goal.
With the game tied once again, there was no time to catch a breath as play resumed with 30 minutes of regulation to go. With both teams set on third round play, the pressure to secure the lead intensified. But throughout the final 30 minutes of regulation, neither keeper let up, and the contest headed to overtime.
Just one minute into the extra period, Syracuse would score the goal which would seal the match. A pass from a Cuse player in front of Penn’s net was broken up by Do, but as the ball momentarily escaped his reach, a Syracuse striker swooped in to get it past Christoffersen.
With the future of the 2022 campaign on the line, the team poured everything it had into the final minutes, but still came up short on the attack.
Exhausting all its options, the whistle sounded to end the match, and Penn’s season.
In spite of the loss, advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament marks a drastic turnaround for a team that recorded only one conference win last season. The team found success in its departing senior class throughout the season, but with the underclassmen who are set to fill their shoes — coupled with coach Brian Gill’s guidance — Penn men’s soccer’s future shines bright.