Almost immediately, one got the feeling this wasn’t a normal exhibition soccer game.
From the Haitian music, vendors, and food at the pregame tailgate, to the drums, horns, dancing, and “olé” chants in the stands once the match began, it was clear from the start that this game meant something more.
Over 11,500 people attended the Harvard men’s soccer team’s exhibition match against the Haitian national team last night. Almost all of them were Haitian-Americans who vocally supported their native country from the start, proudly waving Haitian flags and giving Les Grenadiers a standing ovation when the squad came out for the first time.
It was only fitting that such a contest would come down to the most dramatic of finishes, with the 2007 Caribbean Cup winners pulling away to win 4-1 on penalty kicks after a scoreless 90 minutes in which Harvard outplayed the 99th-ranked team in the world for much of the match.
“The official title of the event is ‘Haiti lève,’ which means ‘Haiti stand up,’” Crimson coach Carl Junot said. “The idea for us was to draw national pride, get the Haitian community within the Boston area to come out and support their country, and that’s exactly what happened. So it was absolutely a special environment today.”
After both the Haitian and American national anthems were sung, the game began, and Les Grenadiers outplayed Harvard in the early going.
Haiti had its first good chance to score eight minutes into the match with a corner kick, but an ensuing header sailed wide left. Les Grenadiers had another opportunity soon after when Crimson junior goalie Austin Harms came out to block a header attempt and left the net exposed, but the Harvard defense was able to clear.
The Crimson’s first great look came nearly 28 minutes in when Ben Tsuda had a breakaway, but the junior missed wide left.
Moments later, freshman Kyle Henderson had a wide-open look with no defenders between him and the net. Haitian goalie Peterson Occenat dove and redirected Henderson’s attempt to Harvard junior Jamie Rees, who fired on goal again, but Occenat made another leaping save as the crowd roared in delight.
The fast pace continued a minute later, when Haiti’s Jean Voltaire drilled a shot from 30 yards out, but Harms made a leaping save to keep the game scoreless.
At 33:45, Harvard freshman forward Connor McCarthy made a beautiful move around his defender and got a great look at the goal, but Occenat made a diving save on a ground ball shot. Five minutes later, the rookie took a cross-pass and fired on net, but Occenat made another diving stop.
“I’m in position to make those plays,” McCarthy said. “The team put me in great spots, but I wasn’t coming away with goals today. A lot of the zeros on our part is definitely on my shoulders.”
After a header attempt by Crimson sophomore Richard Smith in extra time sailed wide, the game went into the half scoreless, with Harvard outshooting Haiti 10-4 in the period.
“I thought the backs did a great job,” McCarthy said. “They held a very good team to very few opportunities, and the opportunities they held them to, our goalkeepers did well [to clear out]...The defense was excellent today.”
At halftime, Junot presented a $2,500 donation to Partners in Health on behalf of Harvard Soccer, Friends of Harvard Soccer, and Harvard Athletics, as well as a $2,500 donation to the Haitian Football Federation from Harvard Soccer.