The Harvard men’s soccer team is at a cross-road. More than halfway through the season the team has just one victory—a 1-0 win over Michigan State more than a month ago on September 7. It finished last season with a program-low two wins.
The Crimson (1-6-3, 0-1-1 Ivy) has stressed the importance of the Ivy League after going winless in the Ancient Eight for the first time ever in 2011. A league title seems to be out of reach, but Harvard’s chance at finishing in the top-half of the Ivies will be tested against No. 19 Brown (8-1-2, 1-0-1) in Providence on Saturday.
“We know that Brown is a good team, that they capitalize on a lot of other teams mistakes, and we respect them,” junior defender Ross Friedman said. “We’re going to have to be solid and mistake free. But at the same time they’re nothing we haven’t seen already in our non-conference schedule.”
Coach Carl Junot scheduled a difficult non-conference slate, featuring some of the best teams in the country including No. 6 UConn and No. 8 UC-Santa Barbara.
“I think we’ve got the same mentality we’ve had all season: to try and win games,” Friedman said. “These teams in the Ivy League aren’t at the same level as the teams we’ve played in the non-conference schedule and we’re going to try and capitalize on that.”
The Crimson currently sits tied for sixth in the Ancient Eight with a single point—coming from a 0-0 tie against arch-rival Yale—and escaping Providence with at least a point would position Harvard well as only one of its remaining four league opponents has a winning record.
“I don’t know what kind of schedule Brown has had,” sophomore Hiroki Kobayashi said. “But I know that ours has been difficult and it has definitely prepared us well going into this weekend.”
Saturday’s game also starts a five-game road-trip that will last until senior day on November 3. The Crimson has only scored two goals in four road contests so far this season.
Harvard has traditionally dominated the Bears, with an all-time series record of 46-28-12. Last year’s 1-0 loss to Brown marked the first defeat in the series since 2007. But the Bears will be the overwhelming favorites at home, carrying a seven game undefeated streak. A Brown defense that has already shut out six opponents—the fourth best shut-out percentage in the nation—should prove challenging for a Crimson attack that has struggled to score all season.
“Brown’s always been a team that defends first,” Friedman said. “They’re always a hard-nosed team more than anything, so it’s not going to be anything we haven’t seen before. They are very organized and ready to work on the field.”
Kobayashi and freshman Oliver White share the team-lead with two goals apiece. While there are other scoring options up top, such as the team leader in shots, senior Zack Wolfenzon, none of the Harvard forwards have been able to find the finishing magic required to put fear in their opponents.
“We have to be better at our attacking game this weekend and just work well together as a team,” Kobayashi said.
Though they are known for their defense, the Bears have a balanced scoring attack that has seen 10 Brown players put the ball in the back of the net. Senior forward Thomas McNamara leads the team with three goals.
“We know they are really good at attacking soccer and keeping possession, so we have to try to shut them down and not let them play their game,” Kobayashi said.
Freshman goalkeeper Joe Festa, who appears to have beaten out classmate Evan Mendez for the starting job in goal, will have to rely on a back-line that had only allowed two goals in the previous three games before giving up three against No. 16 Cornell last Saturday.
“I think we see [Brown] as pretty comparable to Cornell,” Friedman said. “We need to just settle down and really gain some momentum by maintaining our possession of the ball. In the back we’re going to try to stay tighter than we have been in the past because we don’t want to give up any goals off of mistakes.”
Over the next month the Crimson will face conference-opponents Princeton and Dartmouth as well as local out-of-conference teams BU and Holy Cross. Junot and his team have repeatedly affirmed that a top-four finish in the Ivy League was a realistic goal for this season; on Saturday we will find out.
“We’ve only won one game so far, so the only thing in our mind is just to win,” Kobayashi said.
—Staff writer Alexander Koenig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org