Against No. 3 seed Syracuse, Penn men's soccer will encounter its toughest challenge of the season yet.
By virtue of a 3-0 shutout victory against Rutgers (10-5-6) on Thursday evening, the Quakers (13-2-2, 6-1 Ivy) advance to the second round of the NCAA tournament. Their next contest will be held at SU Soccer Stadium on Sunday for a matchup with Syracuse (14-2-4), a team ranked first in the nation by RPI.
Should the Red and Blue topple the Orange, and Cornell defeat Maryland at the same time on Sunday, their branches in the bracket will meet. But before excitement over a potential Ivy League clash on an NCAA field can start to build, Penn must answer to the opposition right in front of it first.
The Orange enter the match undefeated for their last nine games, with their most recent victory coming in the form of a 2-0 triumph over Clemson, the reigning NCAA champions, to win the Atlantic Coast Conference. It marked the program’s eighth tournament appearance, and seventh being headed by coach Ian McIntyre.
Having ranked in the top 16 in a pool of 48 competitors, Syracuse received a first-round bye, meaning Penn will be its first opponent faced in the tournament. The two teams have not met in a century.
Syracuse’s offense is currently led by first team All-ACC selections Levonte Johnson and Nathan Opoku. Each forward has put eight in the back of the net for the Orange this season, while Johnson’s six assists just edges past Opoku’s five.
Trying to get on the scoresheet will be a challenge for the Quakers, though, as the ACC tournament MVP serves as the defender of Syracuse’s net. Goalkeeper Russell Shealy is having a career-best season — recording 58 saves, nine shutouts, and an average of 0.62 goals-against.
Despite the looming offensive pressure needing to be silenced, senior goalkeeper Nick Christofferson has been reliable between the posts all season for the Red and Blue. Sunday will be the keeper’s chance to record his fourth straight shutout — it would be the team’s eighth of the year, a feat that has not been accomplished since 2010.
For the Quakers, Thursday’s win came from the success of names practically engraved atop of this season’s stat sheet. Sophomore forward Stas Korzeniowski added another goal to his impressive tally, as senior forward Ben Stitz knocked in two of his own — now both with 11 apiece. The duo of forwards pose as the biggest offensive threats to the Syracuse defensive front.
The rest of the field will be filled in by steady presences as well, as the roster boasts seven players named to one of this season’s All-Ivy teams.
Riding high after one of the best performances throughout their 2022 campaign, the Quakers will have one shot to take down Syracuse's loaded squad — an opportunity coach Brian Gill relishes despite the seemingly long odds.
“When you are playing an NCAA tournament, which is a single-elimination format,” he said in a press conference following Thursday’s game, “the beauty of it is that sometimes it is not always about the No. 1 team in the country or playing the best conferences in the country — it’s about the best team on the day.”