Call me crazy, but I think the Harvard men’s soccer team (1-5-3, 0-0-1 Ivy) is looking better than it has in a long time. Allow me to explain.
The last two seasons were plagued by high expectations and a lot of individual talent not realized as a team. The Crimson began both campaigns as a national contender and instead finished near the bottom of the Ivy League—including the program’s first winless conference season and a last-place finish in 2011.
Coming into Harvard’s third year under coach Carl Junot, expectations were much more tempered, but the individual talent of the players remained almost unchanged. An offensive reshuffling occurred near the end of the 2011 campaign, and—despite injuries to some veteran players—Harvard found itself starting the fall tactically secure.
The first seven games were less than kind to the Crimson, as Junot’s deliberately difficult non-conference schedule took a toll on a Harvard team still figuring out its identity. Highlighted by a 1-0 victory at home against Michigan State and lowlighted by a 6-0 thrashing at the hands of No. 2 UConn, Harvard entered the first weekend of conference play with a record of 1-5-1.
On Saturday night, it hosted rival Yale at Soldiers Field Soccer/Lacrosse Stadium and—for the first time I can remember since opening weekend in 2010—totally dominated its opponent, although the game ended in a 0-0 tie. Controlling possession and outshooting the Bulldogs by greater than a 2-1 margin, Harvard proved that—barring a catastrophic collapse—it will not be a basement dweller in the Ancient Eight for much longer.
On Tuesday, the Crimson hosted crosstown rival Boston College. Sophomore forward Hiroki Kobayashi scored his second goal of the year off a header at 1:21, and even though the contest ended in a tie, 1-1, Harvard regained some respect in a series in which it hadn’t scored since 2009.
You may think that basing my judgment off of two ties in a three-day span is a little rash, but this is more about the way the team is playing than the results they are seeing in the box score. The Crimson showed a level of team unity this week that had been lacking in the past, and Junot seems to be a couple tweaks away from having a consistently solid starting eleven.
Though Junot has not committed to a starter at goalie, freshman Joe Festa appears to have won favor over classmate Evan Mendez in replacing presumed starter Brett Conrad—his .774 save percentage is fourth-best in the Ancient Eight.
The back four may be Harvard’s best unit. Co-captain Richard Smith and freshman Mark Ashby—who missed a couple games due to injury but appears to be in good form—hold the central line, while sophomore David Barna and junior Ross Friedman double as offensive catalysts up the wing and defensive holders in the back.
A midfield of co-captain Scott Prozeller, junior Kyle Henderson, and sophomore Tim Schmoll has done a good job controlling the ball in the middle third and getting the ball up to the forwards.
The final step for Junot and the Crimson will be finding a consistent threat up top. Prozeller, senior Zack Wolfenzon, freshmen Oliver White and Jake Freeman, and Kobayashi have all scored, but only Kobayashi has scored more than once. Sophomore Michael Innocenzi has also shown promise and junior Connor McCarthy has speed that is always dangerous, but none of the forwards have asserted themselves as the go-to guy so far this season.
The quality of the rest of the team was able to prevent this from becoming an issue in its last two matches, but Harvard’s next two fixtures are against the best the Ivy League has to offer in No. 18 Cornell (9-0-0, 1-0-0) and No. 19 Brown (8-1-1, 1-0-0). The Big Red and the Bears are clearly the class of the Ivy League this season, but if Harvard can contain Cornell forward Daniel Harber—who has scored a league-leading 14 goals this year (second place has just five)—and win a point or three from either the Big Red or Brown, then the Crimson may just find itself in prime position to finish in the top half of the Ancient Eight.
For a program that has won 13 conference titles—including one as recently as 2009—a finish in the top half may not seem like much. But after the last two seasons, it would be a much-needed step in the right direction for Junot and his team. I think they’ll be able to pull it off.
—Staff writer Alexander Koenig can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.