Men’s soccer opens conference play with a hard-fought win over Emory
In the 75th minute of the game, on the cusp of leveling the scoreline to 1-1 through a perfect header that even fifth-year goalkeeper Matt Martin could only spectate, Emory University hit the woodwork. The ball ricocheted off of the goal post, and a huge sigh of relief seemed to come off the faces of WashU players as it bounced back into play instead of in the back of the net. But then came the counter.
With a desperate Eagles team congregated in the Bears penalty box, WashU quickly regained possession as freshman Nathan Szpak found junior Carl Vestberg in the midfield. Vestberg quickly passed the ball to freshman teammate Ryan An, who traded it back after dribbling it into Emory’s territory. But with a convocation of eagles breathing down his back, Vestberg found himself one-on-one with Emory’s goalkeeper to slot the ball between his legs and make it 2-0 for WashU.
“Really fun to get the score,” said Vestberg after the game. “The team played really well. I got a really good pass from Ryan, which set me up for a perfect opportunity to [score].”
The Washington University men’s soccer team edged out Emory University in their UAA play opener, with a scoreline of 2-1 to improve their record to 4-3 for the season. While travel trips have been a point of difficulty for the team, the Bears ended their three games losing streak for away matchups to collect a needed win against a tough opponent.
“I thought we played great,” said junior defender Reece Nicholson. “Our mentality was there, and we had a lot more energy. I thought everyone stepped up and played a great game. Experienced guys were trying to pick everyone up, telling each other how intense it was going to be.”
The win was one that the Bears had to work for. They struggled for much of the first half, only managing to register one shot. The Eagles were rolling, registering nine shots in the first half and putting up 20 total.
But a catalytic defense that defined much of the Bears’ UAA triumph last year stood its ground and protected the goaline. Led by Martin, who made four saves in that first half, the team did its job in keeping the scoreline to 0-0 heading into halftime — something that proved to be of great significance when the second-half whistle blew.
In the second half, the Bears were a different animal as they came out aggressively and pressured Emory’s defense. WashU registered 11 shots in the second half, five of them on goal — with Martin only making one save.
“We changed how we were set up on the field,” said Coach Joe Clarke. “We moved some guys around […] to get in better position[s]. Relative to where Emory was set up, they were at a disadvantage with the way that we started out, and we were much more competitive after we did that.”
In the 52nd minute, the Bears’ aggressive start and Clarke’s strategic change in player positioning paid off, as the team managed to get on the scoresheet.
Arriving in the Emory box with the ball at his feet, senior Gavin Morse fired a shot that landed off the post. The ball bounced off to the feet of sophome Eugene Heger, who was denied twice before it reached fifth-year Armando Sanchez-Conde, who finally slotted the ball into the net to bring the scoreline to 1-0.
The winning goal for the Bears came in the 75th minute, when a counter led by Szapk and An was finished off by Vestberg — and the Bears improved their lead to 2-0. An 86th-minute goal from the Eagles brought the game to 2-1.
“I think our team is definitely coming together,” said Heger. “[But] you just gotta take it one game at a time. Take […] each game by itself. I mean, we can look long-term right now while we’re waiting, but I’m just gonna take it one game at a time and focus on getting the most out of each and every minute that we play. If we do that, then the results will come together and we’ll have a good season.”
Teammate and team defender Nicholson agreed with Heger’s assessment.
“Eugene is right. It is one game at a time. We’re defending our title from last year. I know beating Emory at home is amazing — they usually do really well defending their home turf — but we’re looking on to the next game now.”
Coming off a UAA championship winning season, a lot of WashU players are heading into this year’s UAA play with the mindset of defending their title. And with the win over Emory, the team has momentum going forward. But coach Clarke is cynical of this view, stating that what happened last year means nothing.
“What happened last year has nothing to do with this year,” said Clarke. “I know that’s coach-speak, but it’s the reality. It doesn’t matter that we won the title — it only helps with [the] guys’ confidence and [their] belief in themselves that they’re capable of doing it because they did it once. And I think that’s very important. But we’re still coming together, still figuring out what players are […] going to be.”