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Title Not in Cards

Behind the Mike

By Michael E. Ginsberg

Maybe it just wasn't meant to be.

The Harvard men's soccer team's 2-1 loss to Princeton leaves the team little chance to retain its Ivy League crown, and all but eliminates it from the NCAA tournament picture.

It's shame, because the way the season started, it looked like Harvard would be one of the teams to beat for the Ivy championship.

In what looked to be a portent of good things to come, it spanked Columbia, a team given a preseason ranking of 13 by Soccer America, 3-0.

It seemed like the Harvard Express was leaving the station, and the way the team was playing, they looked unstoppable.

What happened?

It's hard to say, but a lot of things have gone wrong for the Crimson since their euphoric Columbia win.

At that point, the Crimson had already lost junior midfielder Kevin Silva for the season. At various times since, Harvard lost junior forward Rich Wilmot, junior back John Vrionis, sophomore back Tom McLaughlin and freshman forward Zach Viders to injuries.

Meanwhile, junior forward Will Kohler was being subjected to beatings reminiscent of those lavished on hockey's Steve Martins last year, and junior goalie Peter Albers was playing through injury as well.

All in all, the bench looked as much like a ward of Stillman Infirmary as a soccer team, and it would be impossible to expect tremendous soccer from such a battered bunch.

But there was more than just injury at work against the Crimson, and Saturday's disappointing game may have held a few clues.

For the first 15 minutes, the game was owned by Princeton. Harvard was trying hard--maybe too hard--and just couldn't get anything started.

Harvard couldn't seem to get the ball past midfield. Passes were missed or were intercepted, and both the offense and defensive units seemed confused. At least three goal kicks got caught by Saturday's monsoon-force winds and went out of bounds.

But most importantly, for these first 15 minutes, Princeton just looked like the hungrier team. They continuously beat Harvard to loose balls. Wherever you looked, there was someone in orange. And they played a ball-control oriented game, waiting for their opportunity to break down field.

Princeton finally scored its first goal on a defensive mixup between Albers and his defense.

"We gave away a goal," Harvard coach Steve Locker said. "We just came out flat."

That tally must have gone off like an alarm at 6:00 a.m. for the Crimson.

Suddenly, Harvard stepped its game up to a whole new level, settling down and controlling much of the tempo of the game.

But once in gear, Lady Luck stepped in, denying sophomore Toure McCluskey a sure goal when his shot on a wide-open goal bounded off the right post, then off the left post, but not into the net.

It might have been a great 7-10 split in bowling, but for the soccer team, it was a heartbreaker.

To add injury to insult, McCluskey left the game towards the end of the first half feeling ill, further depleting the team's already ravaged front line.

To the Crimson's credit, it maintained its intensity, culminating in junior midfielder Will Kohler's fabulous, gritty second effort to set up junior forward Rich Wilmot for Harvard's only goal of the game.

But then, just as in so many of its recent games, the team lost control of the action again.

By the second overtime, Harvard was again suffering from bad passing and a lack of ball control, and they put little if any pressure on the Princeton net. It was only a matter of time before Princeton netted the game winner.

In retrospect, despite the convincing wins over Columbia, and later, Yale, the team seemed to be living on borrowed time.

At least three times this season, Harvard's games went into overtime. Two of those games were Ivy League games, Saturday's game and the Penn game two weeks ago.

Overtime games don't indicate a team's dominance, and eventually, you're going to lose a couple.

But in each game, the Harvard story was very similar: periods of brilliance were interspersed with periods of inconsistency.

Indeed, the team was every bit as resourceful as it was talented. In the Columbia game, for example, Harvard outshot Columbia by but one shot, yet came away with the 3-0 victory.

Why? Because it took better shots, and it played a controlled game. You could see this was a unit coming together. But the Crimson was not dominating: Harvard was smarter and played smarter.

Change the lineup week to week, and you lose that edge. And its numerous injuries forced them to do just that.

If Harvard had all its regulars available at any one point of the season, the Crimson might be headed to the NCAA's.

If McCluskey's shot went in, Harvard would have beaten Princeton 2-1 in regulation.

If, if, if.

Maybe it just wasn't the Crimson's year.

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