Heading into its last regular season game, Penn men’s soccer (7-3-5, 4-1-2 Ivy) had full control over its own destiny. A win would guarantee the Red and Blue at least a share of the Ivy League title for the second straight year.
After a nerve-wracking start to the game, the team demonstrated why it was considered one of the top teams in the nation to start the season, coming back from down a goal to emphatically rout the visiting Princeton Tigers 4-1.
The Tigers (4-8-3, 1-4-2) limped into the regular season closer with just one win in conference play and already eliminated from the inaugural Ivy League Tournament. As a result, the team had nothing to lose, knowing that this was the last game of its season. The team played like such, coming out with a creative and intense offensive effort that seemed to catch the Red and Blue completely off guard. In the sixth minute, Princeton’s efforts were rewarded when senior forward Walker Gillespie redirected the ball past Penn senior goalkeeper Nick Christoffersen to open up the scoring.
One thing that defines the quality of a team is how the team responds to adversity. Down early to an inferior opponent on paper on Senior Day and Homecoming Weekend with the Ivy League title on the line, all eyes were on how Penn would respond.
The Quaker response was instant. As soon as the ball was kicked off, the Quakers turned up the intensity with the most noticeable change being the increased number of fifty-fifty balls that were being won. Less than two minutes later, a series of good passes led to a penalty being rewarded to Penn, which senior midfielder Michael Hewes slotted into the bottom left corner past the Princeton keeper to level the score.
“Princeton is always going to be a team that we know is going to be good and pose some real threats,” coach Brian Gill said. “They capitalized on their moment early, and thankfully, we responded. I think it's important for us to have that kind of a moment to respond and feel what that's all about.”
Penn kept the pressure up on Princeton, using the speed of junior forward Stas Korzeniowski on counterattacks to punish the Tigers for their bold and open style of attacking. The go-ahead goal to give Penn the lead came in the 13th minute of play as Korzeniowski, surrounded by three Princeton defenders, laid the ball off to a wide open senior midfielder Mateo Zazueta who squeezed a near-perfect shot into the top right corner that left the goalkeeper no chance.
“I had a feeling because I was waiting for [Korzeniowski] to lay it off,” Zazueta said. “When you lay it off perfectly, I have to hit it. So, I hit it and I don’t know how to describe my emotions. It was crazy.”
Zazueta’s goal completely shifted the momentum of the game. Princeton seemed to lose life with every minute afterward as the team struggled to string together passes under the pressure of a re-energized Penn midfield. Despite Princeton’s best efforts to keep the score a one-goal game, Penn junior Brandon Curran was left open on the back post to safely see the ball into the back of the net off of a header in the 39th minute of play.
A two-goal lead heading into halftime is one of the most dangerous leads in the game of soccer – one that creates a false sense of security for the team ahead. Coming out to play with any decrease in intensity can lead to making one mistake that leads to conceding a goal.
“We didn't want to concede because that's the only way [Princeton would be] coming back,” Zazueta said. “And we didn't want to defend our lead because then we're pinned up against the wall, so we kept looking for that other goal.”
True to his word, the Red and Blue picked up where they left off in the beginning of the second half. After several dangerous counterattacks that forced the Princeton defenders and midfielders to pick up yellow cards with tactical fouls, the Quakers found the security goal that they were pressing so hard for in the 57th minute off of sophomore defender Oliver Pratt’s first-ever collegiate goal, and held the lead for the remainder of the game.
The win, combined with Yale and Harvard ties, rewarded Penn with an outright Ivy League title. It also secured the Quakers home field advantage for the inaugural Ivy League Tournament slated to happen next weekend. The road to the NCAA tournament now runs straight through Penn Park.
While the team is riding the high of winning back-to-back Ivy League titles, Penn has set its sights on more than just winning the conference. After experiencing some success in the NCAA tournament last season, the team is more than ready to push for more this year. There, the margins of error are much smaller.
“I think we're going to take some time to enjoy this first,” Gill said. “It's fun to have the team performing well right now… There's a consistency that we can work with here. And hopefully there's not a whole lot of changes that we have to deal with.”
Penn men’s soccer will take the field again this Friday, November 10 at 6:30 pm in the Ivy League tournament semifinals at Penn Park.