The UMass men's soccer team won their first game of the season 2-1 in an overtime thriller against Fairfield University. The home opener was an emotional night for the entire UMass family as longtime head coach Sam Koch (who tragically passed away from cancer this summer) was honored before the game. The Minutemen went on to play an inspired game, charging out of the gates from the first whistle.
In a game that ebbed and flowed, both sides were able to create strong chances and threaten in front of net. In the first half, the Fairfield Stags held a large amount of possession, effectively neutralizing the UMass midfield forcing the Minutemen to play on the counter-attack.
The best chance of the half however, fell to UMass, as senior Mark Morris intercepted a pass from the left defender and broke through on goal, but his 1v1 shot was saved by Fairfield keeper - Matt Turner. Morris continued to be a bright spot throughout the game, as he was a consistent presence on the left hand side. The Stags continued to press and tried to catch the UMass back line out of position by sending balls in behind, but the defense remained disciplined and successfully kept them out of the danger area.
It was more of the same in the second half and the Stags looked threatening as the forward line continued to link up well. Fairfield almost caught UMass sleeping in the 57th minute when they created a breakaway, but it was called back because of an offside run. In the 58th minute another ball was played over the UMass backline, but it was once again called offside. Breathing a sigh of relief the Minutemen used this opportunity to reorganize and retain their defensive shape.
From this point on, UMass tracked runners and started to force the issue as they poured numbers forward trying to get the go-ahead goal. The chance came in the in the 70th minute as UMass Junior, Will Ellis, came agonizingly close as he struck the post. Fairfield then drove up the pitch in the 78th minute and connected a few crisp passes until drawing a foul just outside the box. Jake Zuniga stepped up for the Stags and curled a brilliant free kick into the top corner leaving UMass scratching their heads.
With the possibility of falling to 0-6, coach O'Neill urged his players to not give up and insisted that captain Matt Keys, the big 6'4 central defender push up and join the attack. Fairfield was wary of this tactical change and made sure to play conservatively in order to not give anything away. They were successful up until the 86th minute when midfielder Luke Pavone broke down the right wing and looped in a cross to Keys, who headed the ball over the keeper and into the back of the net sending the crowd into a hysteric fever. The final whistle blew in the 90th minute and sudden death overtime ensued.
The first few minutes were hard fought and possession was won and lost. In the 94th minute UMass won possession and played a long ball up to Pavone who flicked it into the path of the onrushing senior forward, Josh Schwartz. Schwartz latched onto the ball and took everything from the cut of the grass, to the gravity of the moon into account as he calmly slotted the ball into the bottom left corner of the net. The next few seconds were that of sheer mayhem, as the Minutemen cleared the bench and piled onto Schwartz celebrating their first victory of the year.
This game however was about more than just getting their first win, it proved to the team that they can battle back and win even after falling behind. Coach Devin O'Neill lauded his teams effort and resiliency, "It was a relief to score that winning goal. Coming back like that is a great testament to the team's character, for the whole season we have played until the final whistle and there has been no deviation from that." This win is a large confidence boost for a young team that needed a win and today, they were rewarded for their hard work.
The Minutemen now (1-5), will look to expand on their first win next week as they host Harvard University next Friday at 3pm.