In an 18-game regular season, any signs of struggle early on could greatly affect postseason seeding or eligibility. Following a 0-2-1 start, including a loss to Sacred Heart University, the Drexel men’s soccer team remained composed and responded with three consecutive victories.
The Dragons began their season Aug. 30 at home against Fairleigh Dickinson University, a team that advanced to the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament last year. Junior forward Godfred Baafi of the Knights scored what Drexel head coach Doug Hess called the “shot of his life” in the 84th minute. Drexel was held scoreless, and Fairleigh Dickinson hung on for a 1-0 win with five saves from senior goalkeeper Jacob Lissek.
“We never really got settled into the game. That being said, we had plenty of opportunity to win,” Hess said. “As far as we go, I don’t know if we ever got on the ball and got the game moving the way we wanted to.”
Following a 7-2-1 record away from home in 2012, the Dragons hit the road for their second match of the season Sept. 1 at Seton Hall University. In the third minute, the Drexel defense and senior goalkeeper Pentti Pussinen had a miscommunication that allowed Pirates senior forward Max Garcia to score on a wide-open net.
Junior midfielder John Grosh responded for the Dragons with two straight scores in the 15th and 43rd minutes for the first two-goal game in his career. But one minute before halftime, Seton Hall tied it up on a free kick from freshman midfielder Samuel Geiler.
Early in the second half, senior midfielder Ken Tribbett converted a header off a free kick to put Drexel ahead, but it was short-lived, as Geiler scored his second of the day to tie the match at 3-3. That would be all the scoring for the remainder of the afternoon, as the teams went through two scoreless overtimes for a tie.
The Dragons returned to Vidas Field Sept. 6 and faced Sacred Heart, a team that held a 1-2 record coming into the match with a -5 scoring differential. Drexel outshot the Pioneers 21-4 but fell by a score of 2-1. Although the Dragons controlled the ball and spent the majority of the match in the Sacred Heart defensive zone, they were unable to capitalize on chances in close.
“We had a lot of the ball, and that’s great because we need that for the way we play, but if you don’t do anything with the ball, forget it,” Hess said of the Dragons’ offensive play.
The Pioneers, on the other hand, cashed in on their first two opportunities of the night. Senior forward Aaron Burrell scored off a rush in the sixth minute, and sophomore forward Jamal Vinson scored in the 53rd minute to give Sacred Heart a 2-0 advantage.
Drexel senior defender Skylar Olson gathered a failed clear in the 64th minute and fired a pellet from well outside the box for his first career goal, but the Dragons could not find an equalizer as frantically as they tried in the final 25 minutes. Following the game, the coaching staff — especially Hess — was visibly upset at the outcome, trying to figure out how their team lost to a clearly inferior opponent.
Hess was a critic of the team’s forwards: “We’ve played three games now, and there hasn’t been a single goal from our front line. I said to them, ‘What’s the point of playing with front players if you aren’t playing like front players?’
“The main focus at this point is like: Who are you [going to] be this year?” Hess said. “Do you want to be a collection of good players that keep the ball and look nice? Or do you [want to] be a team that wins games and finds ways to win games?”
After three games, Drexel seems to have found a way to win games this season. Hess made a few changes to the starting lineup, adding junior defender Maty Brennan and freshman goalkeeper Tyler Afflerbach. The moves paid immediate dividends just minutes into the Dragons’ Sept. 8 matchup against Stony Brook University.
Brennan rocketed a shot past freshman goalkeeper Jason Orban in the eighth minute, and it ended up being the game-winning goal in a 2-0 Drexel victory. Afflerbach made four saves to post a shutout in his debut, and senior forward Nathan Page ensured the win with a score with 31 seconds remaining; it was the first mark of the season for the Preseason CAA Player of the Year.
Next up for the Dragons was a short trip to Bethlehem, Pa., to face Lehigh University Sept. 12. The Mountain Hawks came in with an 0-2-1 record and no goals. After a scoreless first half, freshman midfielder Danny Gonzalez put Lehigh on the board in the 69th minute with a header from a free kick.
Facing a 1-0 deficit, Drexel finally got into gear late in the second half. In the 78th minute, senior forward Mark Donohue scored his first of the season with an assist from freshman midfielder Adam Arana. Three minutes later, Page netted the deciding goal past Mountain Hawks junior goalkeeper Kevin Motylewski.
“[Our forwards] have responded as of late. We challenged them after our first three games, as we struggled to make opportunities count and get shots on frame,” Hess said. “We have seen our front group respond. It’s a good little run for our guys to keep building on and continue to improve upon as the season progresses.”
In the Dragons’ most recent match, city rival La Salle University came to Vidas Field Sept. 17 for a game under the lights. In the 2012 season opener, the Explorers defeated Drexel 3-2 in overtime. In this year’s edition of the clash, the match looked destined to go past regulation time, as the teams were scoreless through 89 minutes.
But with just seconds remaining, Page rushed up the field and made a pass to senior Michele Pataia. The midfielder returned the ball to Page, who flicked it in the box. Donohue was waiting inside and was able to connect with a strong header past the La Salle goalkeeper to notch a 1-0 victory with seven seconds remaining on the clock.
Afflerbach made two saves for his second shutout in three games. He has made 11 saves on 12 shots on goal through three games, making sure that Hess’ faith in him was rewarded.
“Simply put, we needed a change — three games played, seven goals against and zero results,” Hess commented on the team’s goalkeeping situation. “Since Tyler has gone in the goal, we have played three games with one goal against and three wins. Results matter, and he has played a part in three now.
“Tyler has responded well to the opportunity and has taken on some big moments in each of the three games. Goalkeeping is so much about decision making, and Tyler is showing well in this area, being decisive and being confident in the decisions he makes.”
Drexel’s next game will take place Sept. 24 when the team hosts Rutgers University. The Scarlet Knights and the Dragons last played in 2011 in Piscataway, N.J., when Rutgers topped Drexel by a score of 3-1. In the game, then-freshman John Grosh scored his first career goal.
Both programs have been up and down in recent years. In 2011 the Scarlet Knights advanced all the way to the Round of 16 in the NCAA Tournament, while the Dragons faltered to a 5-10-3 overall record. Last year, however, the tables turned, as Drexel made an NCAA appearance and Rutgers finished 7-7-1. This time around, expect a matchup of two hungry teams seeking a quality out-of-conference victory early in the season.
“It’s a great opponent for us to get at home. It’s not every day you have an opponent of the caliber of Rutgers willing to travel and play away outside of their conference slate,” Hess remarked on the level of his team’s upcoming opponent. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for our guys to be able to play at Vidas … against a [high] level team. We hope to see some solid support for the Dragons out there Tuesday night.”