After going winless against Ancient Eight opponents last season, there is no better time than the present for the Harvard men’s soccer team to bounce back in the Ivy League.
After battling through the two most difficult weekends of an already challenging non-conference schedule, the squad looks to make a fresh start Saturday night as it faces rival Yale in its first match of Ivy play. The Crimson (1-5-1) will welcome the Bulldogs (3-4-2) to Soldiers Field Soccer/Lacrosse Stadium in its first contest underneath its home lights this season.
Harvard has the upper hand against the Bulldogs in recent history, besting Yale in five of the last six match-ups. But the Crimson’s lone loss in that streak is still fresh in its memory, as it fell, 1-0, last year to the Bulldogs in its Ancient Eight opener. Unable to bounce back from an early goal despite strong offensive pressure, Harvard gave up its bragging rights with the loss. It is eager to earn them back this weekend and to start Ivy play off on the right foot.
“We’re treating this game as our biggest game of the year,” junior defender Ross Friedman said. “When we play Yale it’s more of a battle than a soccer game. It’s about who can give that extra effort to come out on top.”
Both teams enter the match-up coming off close contests against top-ranked opponents, with the Crimson falling, 1-0, to No. 3 UC Santa Barbara on Sunday afternoon and Yale losing, 2-0, to No. 2 Connecticut on Tuesday night. With each Ivy squad holding its own against a talented opponent, both teams enter Saturday’s match with a growing sense of confidence to add fuel to the rivalry.
“Everything before now has been preparation for the Ivy League,” Friedman said. “That’s why we scheduled such a tough non-conference schedule.”
Harvard has also had its turn against the Huskies this season, but with less promising results, falling, 6-0, two weekends ago on Sep. 14 to then No. 3/4 Connecticut. Though the goal differential against their common opponent favors the Bulldogs, the Crimson has renewed confidence in its abilities after its improved game-play against the similarly ranked Gauchos this Sunday.
But Harvard is aware that the defensive strength of Yale should not be underestimated. While both offenses have netted five goals thus far in their schedules, the Crimson has allowed 14 goals in seven matches, giving up six more than the Bulldogs’ defense in two fewer contests. Two of the Bulldogs’ victories have come from shutouts this season, while Harvard’s lone clean sheet came in its single win of the schedule against Michigan State on Sep. 7.
Yet it remains to be seen whether the Crimson’s current losing record will be an indicator of its chances against Ivy League opponents. Harvard coach Carl Junot aimed to challenge his team when designing its non-conference schedule, filling it with consistently top-ranked teams such as the Huskies and the Gauchos to prepare the Crimson for Ancient Eight play. This weekend, Harvard will face its first test to see if Junot’s plan was successful.
“So far our results have not been really good but since the beginning of the season we’ve decided to peak and focus on the Ivy League games,” sophomore forward Hiroki Kobayashi said. “The past three games we’ve played have been against top teams so I think we’re definitely ready.”
Co-captain Scott Prozeller, senior Zack Wolfenzon, Kobayashi, and freshmen Jake Freeman and Oliver White have all netted goals for the Crimson this season, leading a balanced offense going into the team’s first Ivy match. Rookies Evan Mendez and Joe Festa have shared goaltending duties this season, with Mendez receiving red cards in two of the five matches he’s started. Festa currently holds the better goals-against average at 1.86 and a .727 save percentage.
Harvard will face a talented Yale squad led by junior forward Peter Jacobson, who has posted 18 shots on goal thus far this season. Jacobson will be supported by freshman forward Mitch Wagner, sophomore midfielder Peter Ambiel, and senior midfielder Tony Wilbar, whom Yale coach Brian Tompkins said had breakout performances in the team’s match against the Huskies. Senior goalkeeper Bobby Thalman will pose a challenge for the Crimson in the net, currently second in the league with 41 saves and a .837 save percentage.
In the all-time series, Harvard leads 51-37-10 against Yale. The Crimson aims to add to this stretch and snap its winless Ivy streak, setting the tone for the remainder of its Ivy schedule.
“For us, the season starts now,” Friedman said. “Now this is the test to win the Ivy League championship and it starts on Saturday, that’s the way we’re treating it and we’re ready to beat Yale at home.”
—Staff writer Stephanie Herwatt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org