The Fordham men soccer team’s season came to an end last Friday when it lost 1-0 to VCU in the semifinals of the Atlantic 10 Conference Championship, held at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA.
Despite earning six corner kicks and eight free kicks throughout the game, the Rams could not find the back of the net for an equalizer.
“We did everything except score in the match,” head coach Jim McElderry said. “I was very proud of our effort and commitment. I really thought we were going to win the game right up until the end.”
Before the semifinal game, the Rams defeated the University of Massachusetts 1-0 in the quarterfinal game on Thursday, Nov. 12.
The matchup was a repeat of the previous week, when the Minutemen beat the Rams 1-0 on Jack Coffey Field in an overtime contest.
Fordham went into the quarterfinal game with a different and more efficient strategy.
“We really tried to focus on playing out of the back rather than using goal kicks as opportunities to create aerial battles,” senior captain Ryan Cupolo said. “In order to unbalance them and make them feel more uncomfortable off the ball, we wanted to keep it on the ground.”
This strategy worked, as neither squad scored a goal in the first 45 minutes despite having four shots each. However, UMass played better and maintained possession for a higher percentage of time.
Fordham turned it around in the second half by bringing intensity and urgency into every play. The team turned possessions into opportunities, building attacks from the backline forward.
The first of these came early in the second half, when senior Ryan Walsh put a lead pass ahead to freshman scoring sensation Janos Loebe, who was cutting in from the left side. Loebe tried to make it a breakaway, but UMass goalkeeper Jorge Becerra — whom the Rams got a good look at during the teams’ regular season meet-up — came off his line and beat Loebe to the ball to keep the game scoreless.
After continued efforts on net throughout the second half, the Rams finally broke through in the 83rd minute.
Sophomore midfielder Eric Ohlendorf slipped a pass into Jannik Loebe, the older of the German brothers. From the right side, Jannik crossed the ball to his brother Janos, who was pulled down in front of an open net at the top of the six-yard box. The referee awarded Fordham a penalty kick, which Jannik stepped up to take. He drilled it home for his fifth goal of the season, putting the Rams ahead 1-0 for good.
Nuhu earned his sixth shutout of the season — an impressive statistic considering he sat out for a few games due to a red card and injury. His counterpart Becerra made four saves in the Minutemen’s season-ender.
The Rams then moved on to the semifinal game against VCU on Friday, Nov. 13. It turned out to be an unlucky date for Fordham, as they dropped the contest 1-0.
Fordham had one of its best chances of the half in the 10th minute. Junior defender Andy Hickey sent a soaring cross to Janos Loebe, who sprawled out to get his head on the ball, but was unable to direct it into the back of the net.
Moments before the end of the first half, VCU got the play it needed.
Rafa Andrade Santos intercepted a pass near midfield and beautifully beat a few Fordham defenders to reach the top of the 18-yd box. The sophomore from Rio de Janiero, Brazil let off an unbelievable strike that flew past Nuhu and into the upper-90. This gave the Virginia-based Rams a 1-0 lead going into the half.
Following the break, Fordham did everything it could to equalize. Even stronger than in the first half, the team pressed forward, players moved synchronously up the field and connected more fluidly on passes.
In the 54th minute, Janos Loebe’s cross found Cupolo’s head moving toward goal. VCU’s R.J. Roberts cleared the ball off the line for a clutch defensive play.
Fifteen minutes later, Roberts would again save his team. Janos Loebe’s corner kick found another Fordham player’s head — this time red-shirt senior Andres Penfold’s. He directed the ball to the far side of the goal away from VCU’s keeper Pierre Gardan, but Roberts was in the right place at the right time, and cleared the ball off the line for a second time.
“We pushed and pushed and just couldn’t score,” Hickey said. “We hit the post on more than one occasion and they cleared a few off the line. On a different day, all those shots go in.”
In the 78th minute, Fordham almost reversed its Friday the 13th luck when VCU nearly scored an own-goal.
VCU’s Dennis Castillo, a senior and the A-10 Conference Defender of the Year, headed the ball back toward his net, but it grazed over the crossbar for a corner kick.
In the final minutes, the Rams earned two back-to-back corners. Fordham could not get a foot on the ball during a scramble in the box during the first attempt and a header by Penfold went over the crossbar on the second kick.
The game ended in a 1-0 victory for VCU — the eight seed — who had previously upset the number one seed George Washington with a 4-0 victory the day before.
“They had guys in the right spots,” sophomore and Second Team All-Atlantic 10 selection Matt Lewis said. “It was tough because we put the ball in the right areas, [but] they were just able to keep it out of the net.”
The score is not indicative of the Rams’ effort throughout the game or how many opportunities they created. It was a very evenly-matched game and either team could have snagged the win. VCU just capitalized on its best opportunity, while Fordham did not.
The Virgina-based Rams then moved on to the A-10 final against the University of Dayton on Sunday, Nov 15. Dayton came away with a 4-1 win and earnedan automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament in the weeks ahead. Amass Amankona, a graduate student from Ghana, was named the MVP of the tournament.
The Fordham Rams ended their season with a 7-8-4 record overall, and a 4-3-1 record in the A-10 Conference. The team was looking to repeat its championship run from last season, when it beat the number three, two and one seeds in order to win the A-10 championship.
Though the team did not see that result this year, they have a lot to be proud of in the way that they bounced back from a tough first half of the season. They beat No. 21 ranked Columbia on Sept. 23 on Jack Coffey Field — a great result against a highly-skilled team that has since earned a record of 10-5-1.
Additionally, the seniors from this year will be missed come next fall. Cupolo, Walsh, Penfold, Kyle Bitterman, Greg McNamara, Tommy Granot and Tomas Penfold each contributed in his own way over the course of his four years.
“The seniors played a huge impact in our season this year and we appreciate their effort,” Nuhu, who was named to the Atlantic 10 Rookie Team, said. “We will need leaders like them next year.”
The Rams have clear talent from the Loebe brothers, both of whom end the year decorated with honors. Janos won Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year and was named both First Team All-Atlantic 10 and to the Atlantic 10 All-Rookie Team. Jannik was named Second Team All-Atlantic 10, despite battling through injuries.
If the backline and midfield can push the ball forward to these two next year, Fordham will continue to get great scoring opportunities.
The defense will lose leadership in Cupolo, but have great experience in Hickey, current sophomores Lewis and Chris Bazzinni and other youngsters like Vincenzo Zuccala and Patrick Thees. Not to mention the strong goalkeeping by both Nuhu and freshman Dan Miklos — who delivered stellar performances in Nuhu’s absence.
“We will be a younger team for the most part next year, but we will have a lot of guys who have played a lot of college games” Hickey said. “I’m excited to be part of a different team and talk with the guys as to what kind of team we want to be for the coming year!”
Despite the season not ending the way the Rams wanted it to, there is definite promise for the coming years in both experienced underclassmen and rising talent that is sure to keep Fordham in the running for another A-10 Championship.
“We have a good core of players returning next year, even with all of our seniors graduating,” McElderry said. “I fully expect us to build on our last few years of success and compete for a championship again in 2016.”