After 100 minutes without a goal, Saturday’s first-round tournament matchup between the No. 30 Harvard men’s soccer team and the No. 25 University of Massachusetts suddenly sparked to life.
It seemed like the Minutemen (10-8-3) had grabbed the winner within seconds of the start of the second period of sudden death overtime, when UMass freshman Chris Roswess gained possession right in front of the Crimson goal and poked the ball past freshman goalkeeper Austin Harms. The ball dribbled towards the goal-line, carrying Harvard’s season with it. But with the Crimson inches away from elimination, sophomore Robert Millock was able to clear the ball off the line.
Just two minutes later, junior Andre Akpan scored, giving Harvard (12-5) a 1-0 victory and sending the Crimson through to the second round.
Senior John Stamatis found Akpan out wide on the right, peeling off the back line. Akpan ran at the defender and hit the ball hard and low across goal. Again, it was a matter of inches for Harvard, as the half-shot, half-cross snuck into the far post.
Akpan’s golden goal ended a match that will not only be remembered for its duration, but also for the conditions in which it was played. A temperature well below freezing combined with swirling winds made for a very cold afternoon for the 1,192 in attendance in Amherst, Mass. For the players on both teams, the brutal conditions added the additional obstacle of a rock solid, ice-cold field, described by Crimson coach Jamie Clark as an “ice-skating rink.”
“It was the first time in my career where [the players] just couldn’t change directions,” Clark said.
“Everyone was slipping all over the place,” co-captain Luke Sager said. “It was tough to do anything.”
Anticipating the impact the strong wind would have on the game, Harvard chose to take the advantage in the first half to try and put the Minutemen on the back foot from the start.
The Crimson, however, was unable to break through in the first 45 minutes with the wind at its back. Harvard managed five shots, but only junior Brian Grimm’s effort forced UMass’ All-American senior goalkeeper Zack Simmons into a save.
After switching sides at halftime, the Crimson players knew that they would have to dig deep and fight the conditions for the remainder of regulation.
“They were better prepared for the conditions,” Clark said of UMass. “They had a couple tournament games last year just like this, so they had played on it and been successful on it.”
Harvard, on the other hand, found it difficult to play its usual brand of technical, counter-attacking soccer.
Despite playing into the fierce wind, it was the Crimson who created the better of the chances in the early stages of the second half. Akpan had a shot saved by Simmons, and Stamatis sent a shot wide after co-captain Michael Fucito’s strike was blocked.
UMass came the closest to breaking the deadlock in the 71st minute, when Roswess hit the post with a header.
After 90 minutes of scoreless soccer during regulation, and another 10 minutes in an uneventful first overtime period, the game went into double-OT.
“We didn’t punish them in the first half when we had the wind, so we had to battle against the wind in the second half and in the first OT,” Clark said. “It was an uphill battle, but we were able to hold on.”
It was the ability Harvard to brave the conditions that set up the thrilling finish. Grimm, who played both as a holding player in midfield and also at the back, put in a particularly noteworthy performance.
The game finally ended in the 103rd minute. Akpan’s goal was his 10th of the season and certainly the most important of his collection.
“We want to be a generation of players that changes what Harvard soccer is all about,” Akpan said. “This is a big win.”
While the team recognizes the significance of the win, its celebrations will be muted as the focus turns to tomorrow’s second-round game against No. 8 South Florida.
“Reality is that we haven’t accomplished anything substantial yet,” Sager said.
His coach could not agree more.
“No one’s content yet,” Clark said. “We think we can play for a few more weeks.”
—Staff writer Jay M. Cohen can be reached at email@example.com.