No. 3 men’s soccer falls in round of 32 to end season

| Staff Reporter
A soccer player in a white jersey controls the ball with his right foot and places his left foot behind him as a player in a dark blue jersey sticks his right arm toward him to try to play defense.

Senior Alex Smith dribbles past a University of Chicago defender earlier this month in the Bears’ season finale. (Photo by Curran Neenan / Student Life)

The No. 3 Washington University men’s soccer team exited the NCAA tournament Sunday after winning their first round game against the University of Wisconsin-Superior 1-0 but falling to North Park University 3-1 in the round of 32. With the loss, the Bears end their 2021 season with an overall record of 13-3-1. 

But even with a somewhat bittersweet end to the season, the Bears had a lot to celebrate. Sophomore Owen Culver was named the University Athletic Association Offensive Player of the Year, three players from the team made All-UAA First Team, sophomore Reece Nicholson made All-UAA Second Team and two more players captured honorable mentions. Finally, the UAA Coaching Staff of the Year was awarded to Joe Clarke and his coaching staff team of Oscar Umar, Charles Renken and Jamie Swanner.

WashU vs. University of Wisconsin-Superior

The Bears opening round game was a battle, but a defensive catalyst proved to be the key to victory for the Bears. Controlling much of the momentum in the first half, the Bears registered several shots against Superior but were constantly denied an opening goal by a strong Yellowjackets goalkeeper. Junior Sergio Rivas finished with six shots, including three solid looks in the first half that did not hit, to lead the Bears in shooting on the day. 

Coming into the second half, WashU brought back the same first half domination through ball control and chances created. But despite another fantastic start by WashU, the Yellowjackets matched the Bears’ intensity and looked like a totally different team from the first half, as they controlled much of the ball possession and brought the game to the WashU nets. 

But the Bears were ready to prove themselves the better team, as in the 74th minute, just 38 seconds after being subbed on, Culver put the Bears on the board with a long range shot that found the back of the net. 

After the game, Clarke praised the team’s performance. “[The team] did a good job against [the Superior] defense, creating chances and [stopping] some very dangerous forwards against a team that tries to get behind quickly,” he said. Speaking more on the Bears chances generated but only scoring one goal, Clarke said “I wasn’t frustrated [about not being able to convert our chances]. I was pleased we were creating the chances and making through ball passes. Sometimes you run into a high goalkeeper and sometimes you’re just a little bit off. As long as you create chances, you’ll get some goals.”

WashU vs. North Park

Playing an opponent they beat earlier this season, WashU fell short Sunday to an energetic North Park team by a score of 3-1 to end their run in the 2021 NCAA tournament.

Beginning early in the game, both teams tested each other out with well placed shots. But a breakthrough came for the Vikings when, in the 22nd minute of the game, they were awarded a penalty kick that saw them climb the scoreboard 1-0. 

A mere 10 minutes later, however, WashU freshman Eugene Heger found the back of the net off a follow-up volley that came off a Culver shot to tie the game at 1-1. The goal was Heger’s second of the season.

Coming out after, the Vikings quickly retook their lead. In the 47th minute, a through ball into the Bears’ penalty area found the feet of a North Park forward to slot it home to make 2-1. The Vikings were not done: a 30-yard free kick in the 55th minute saw them extend their lead to 3-1 with senior goalkeeper Matt Martin unable to get it for an easy Vikings tap-in goal. 

As the Bears tried to claw back, things only got worse, as a red card for senior Nolan Wolf saw them play a man-down with 20 minutes to play. The Bears played their hearts out, but time proved to be too little for them to find two goals equalizer before the final whistle of the game.

After the game, Clarke commented on the intensity of the game from his side after the loss. “We were playing to score goals in the game; we didn’t think we were going to lose the game because we were down to goals and a man,” he said. “We just felt like we needed to keep pushing forward more players and play more aggressively, until we got the second goal. We were just ultra risky and aggressive.”

After the loss, Clarke also reflected on the team season and what the loss means to the program going forward. “What we did this year is a base for next year,” he said. “By having a season like this, you know what you are capable of. And with this foundation, [we know] we can develop into the type of a team that can play in a way that will generate more than our share of results.”

With his final game for the men’s soccer program in the history book, Wolf reflected on his final year and the team’s future. “We’ve done something that hasn’t been done in 20-plus years, which is pretty crazy to think about,” he said, referring to how the Bears’ UAA championship was their first outright conference title since 1999. “As a senior, with all the other seniors, we had the same mindset going through this year: leaving the team better than we found it coming in as freshmen. And I think we definitely achieved that. There are a lot of good young players on the team, so they’ll carry that on for the next couple of years.”

Martin had similar words to share. First, in reflecting on the team’s loss, Martin congratulated North Park on their performance. “They did a great job with the chances they had. As a team, I think we tried to execute our game play,” he said. “[North Park] just came out a little bit stronger than us.”

Martin echoed Wolf’s comments about the season being a turning point for the program. “This season [was] a huge stepping point for the team as a whole,” he said. “Not only making the tournament, but also winning the UAA conference. It showed how much progress we’ve made as a team the past few years… That’s the push we needed and it’s going to help us in the future.”

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