Men’s Soccer Heads to First NCAA Final Four
The Tufts men’s soccer team scored in the first minute of play and made it stand for a dramatic 1–0 victory over top-ranked Messiah College in the NCAA quarterfinals on Nov. 23 at Muhlenberg College. The win puts the Jumbos into the NCAA Final Four for the first time in team history. They will play Ohio Wesleyan University at the Swope Soccer Village in Kansas City, Missouri, on Dec. 5.
In defeating defending NCAA champion Messiah (22–1–1), Tufts eliminated a Falcons program that is the standard in Division III. Messiah had won eight of the last 10 NCAA Division III titles and 10 overall. The loss to the Jumbos was Messiah’s first since Sept. 24, 2013, ending a 39-game unbeaten stretch.
The Tufts team, unranked for most of the 2014 season, joined the 1994 team in reaching the Elite Eight. The win also established a program record for victories in a season: they enter the semifinals with a 14–2–4 mark, surpassing the 13 wins of the 1994 team.
Tufts started the game with the ball, which proved to be huge. Messiah was whistled for a foul in their own territory, giving the Jumbos a free kick. Junior Rui Pinheiro’s ball into the box was headed away by a Messiah defender, but went right to Tufts junior Jason Kayne outside the box. He turned and a drilled a shot into the top right corner of the goal just 53 seconds into the match. It turned out to be the lone—and winning—goal.
The early goal “gives you a relief and belief in the game,” Tufts head coach Josh Shapiro said. “I can’t say that it’s necessarily the best thing for you always, because it wakes them up and gets them fired up. It would have been nice to play a ho-hum game and then score in the 80th minute and only have to defend for 10. But I think the confidence of knowing that you can get at them and you can cause some problems was great for us.”
Messiah would control possession for most of the first half, but up 1–0, the Jumbos were able to sit a bit defensively and frustrate the skilled Falcon side. Tufts thwarted a pair of back-to-back corners by Messiah in the 14th minute, as well as a pair of free kicks from the side of the box during the half.
“You can’t help but become a little bit more defensive in that moment,” Shapiro said. “That’s not what we set up to do, but we knew we’d be defending a lot. We had to. I think we believed all along that if we got a goal, we could see it out.”
Tufts had another chance to score in the half when Kayne again put a header towards the goal. Falcon senior goalkeeper Brandon West leaped to his left to save in the 22nd minute. That would be the only save of the half. Tufts finished with a 5–3 advantage in shots, but Messiah had five corners to one by the Jumbos.
Building for a Win
Tufts started the second half with more offensive pressure. “We got a little bit too defensive in the first half,” Shapiro said. “We started to fold in on ourselves, so we tried to get the message across that we can play [and] start connecting some passes.”
A header by Messiah’s Mike Kovach just missed wide left, in the Falcons’ best opportunity of the game to that point. After a yellow card was given to the Jumbos right outside their box, Messiah’s free kick by Brian Ramirez whistled wide left in the 64th minute.
That would be the start of some serious Messiah pressure in the final 25 minutes. Jumbos Zach Halliday and Connor Schaible both had to make saves on Falcon shots within a 30-second span as Messiah earned a succession of three corners. Equally dramatic, two Messiah shots off a corner in the 78th minute were blocked; another by Colby Thomas was tipped by sophomore Jumbo goalkeeper Scott Greenwood and hit the crossbar.
“People talk about [Messiah] being just a skillful team and they are,” Shapiro said, “but they also have four or five guys who are 6–3 and are very good in the air. They were getting delivery and attacking our box well. Our guys were going to do everything in their power to not allow a goal to go in.”
The shutout was the 12th of the season for Tufts and just the second time the Falcons were blanked this fall. With the win, Tufts is 6–3 in NCAA tournament games.
Tufts went undefeated through the NESCAC season at 7–0–3, earning the number-one seed in the conference championship for the first time. However, the Jumbos lost 2–1 to Connecticut College in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament at home on Nov. 1.
The team was uncertain about whether they would receive an NCAA berth following that loss, but they earned an at-large NCAA berth. The Jumbos won the Nov. 15–16 regional at Wheaton, with victories over Dickinson (2–1) and the host Lyons (2–0), and won in the third round over host Muhlenberg 2–0.
“I’m very excited for all our guys, especially the seniors who have helped build the program back to where we think we’re pretty formidable,” said Shapiro, who took over as head coach in 2010. “We’re going to take a lot of confidence from this win. We’ve gone on the road for four games in a row and got results against some very, very good teams. Our team has every right to feel as good as anyone about our chances going into the Final Four.”
Paul Sweeney, Tufts’ sports information director, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.