In Doug Hess’ third year as Drexel’s men’s soccer head coach, the team has emerged as one of the Colonial Athletic Association’s most feared programs. The Dragons, tied with Northeastern University for the top spot in the CAA, hit the road this past week for two matches and six vital points up for grabs.
First up for Drexel was a visit to Decatur, Ga., to take on Georgia State University Oct. 20. Hess dubbed the match a “one-day business trip” because the team was to take an early-morning flight out of Philadelphia for an afternoon match and return the same night.
“We were billing this game as the one-day business trip,” Hess said. “There’s a lot of theories on travel, but no matter what, you just have to get there and be engaged mentally.”
The match against Georgia State ended up being one of the season’s most dramatic. Just six minutes after the opening whistle, Panthers senior forward Alex Vivanco chipped a ball over Dragons senior goalkeeper Tim Washam that was destined for the net. However, junior defender Tal Bublil flew in to head the ball away from the goal line, keeping the match scoreless.
After being on the defensive for much of the first half, sophomore forward Fabio Machado earned Drexel’s first opportunity of the match in the 29th minute. Machado pressured the Georgia State zone before being tackled by sophomore goalkeeper CJ Cochran and earning the Dragons a penalty kick.
Junior midfielder Nathan Page took the kick and converted, as he launched a shot past Cochran for a 1-0 Drexel lead. Following the penalty, the Panthers continued their first-half attack. Georgia State recorded the next six shots, although just one found its way to Washam, who was able to save the shot by senior midfielder Gimel Gordon in the 38th minute and send the Dragons into the locker room with a halftime lead.
The Panthers continued their push throughout the second half, outshooting Drexel 9-3 in shots and 5-1 in shots on goal. However, Washam was the great equalizer, as he saved all five shots against him, including his biggest of the season with just 51 seconds remaining.
In the 90th minute, as Georgia State tried furiously to tie the match, Bublil prevented an opportunity by committing an intentional handball violation in the box, and the Panthers were awarded a penalty kick. With potentially three points on the line, Washam stoned junior forward Caleb Kernan and preserved a thrilling victory for the Dragons.
“Seven minutes out of the half, Tim had, to that point, one of the biggest saves of the year,” Hess said. “Only to be trumped by the last-minute penalty save he made at the end of the game.”
With the win, the team clinched its first spot in the CAA Tournament since 2007, when the team finished 8-2-1 in conference play and tied for first place. Although Bublil essentially saved the game for Drexel with two key efforts on the goal line, by rule he is not allowed to play in the team’s next match due to a red card he received for his handball in the final minute.
“It was an exhausting second half, and the team really showed their commitment to defending our goal,” Hess said. “We got some huge saves and team saves with guys just keeping the ball out of our net.”
The Dragons’ road trip continued on to Hempstead, N.Y.. Oct. 24 to face Hofstra University, a team that had defeated Drexel on three consecutive occasions. With a win, Drexel would finish 5-0 on the road in the CAA; an extraordinary turnaround considering the team went 0-6-3 away from Vidas Field last season.
“For us to go 5-0 in a league where anybody beats anybody on any given day is impressive,” Hess said. “The reality and sign of a good team is they can find ways to win on the road in difficult conditions.”
The match was a tale of two halves, with the Dragons putting especially tremendous pressure on the Pride defense early. In the second minute, Machado led the ball up the field and in on Hofstra senior goalkeeper Adam Janowski and passed it to Page. The Norwich, England, native was stopped by Janowski on his first attempt but gathered the rebound and fired it into the net for an opening goal.
It was Page’s team-leading ninth goal of the season and marked the sixth consecutive game in which he had scored. After leading Drexel with six goals in 2010, Page suffered a season-ending injury in the second match of 2011, and the team netted only 14 in 18 matches while finishing 5-10-3. Page’s emergence as a premier goal scorer comes at no surprise to Hess, who fully expected him to return to his form of two years ago.
“Nathan was a second-team All-CAA player two years ago. He can score as an unbalancing-type player and is able to pull our opponents apart,” Hess said during spring practices. “He’s a guy that we missed, and we get him back in the mix. He’s a very effective player, and I look for a lot from him.”
The Dragons peppered the Hofstra net with eight shots on goal in the first half, including three from Page, two from Machado and two from sophomore midfielder John Grosh. The Pride had only two shots on goal in the first half but came out strong in the second half and had better-quality opportunities than Drexel.
Sophomore forward Maid Memic blazed the trail for Hofstra, as he led the Pride with three shots on goal and a shot that hit the crossbar in the 65th minute. Just 10 minutes later, Memic struck with his eighth goal of the season as he headed in an equalizer on a pass from senior defender A.J. Laza. That goal marked the first given up by the Dragons on the road in CAA play.
Just when the match seemed destined for overtime, Drexel defender Robert Liberatore stepped up to take a free kick in the 83rd minute. The ball was placed just inside the midfield line, and the sophomore from Cary, N.C., launched a high shot to the box that went untouched and bounced over Janowski into the top-right corner of the net.
The goal was Liberatore’s first collegiate goal in 33 appearances over the last two seasons. It also marked the first time since junior midfielder Ken Tribbett’s goal Oct. 6 against the University of North Carolina Wilmington that a Dragon other than Page had scored, spanning 500 minutes of game time.
In a testament to the Drexel defense and goalkeeping, the team went through the stretch undefeated. Junior defender Matt DiDomenico made his first appearance of the season in place of Bublil along the back line and filled in admirably as the defensive leader.
“A huge performance from Tim again in goal and from Matt,” Hess said. “I wasn’t hesitant at all in playing him. He’s been ready, willing and able to go, and we are proud of the job he did.”
Hofstra kept pushing in the final seven minutes, forcing Washam to make two outstanding saves on Memic, who was determined to lead the Pride into overtime with time dwindling down. Washam, fresh off being named CLEAR Male Athlete of the Week by Drexel Athletics, made six saves on the night and earned the praise of Hofstra head coach Richard Nuttall as the Dragons handed the Pride a devastating 2-1 loss.
“I thought they dominated the first half, and I thought they were very good in their front third,” Nuttall said in a postgame interview. “In the second half, their goalkeeper pulled out two or three unbelievable saves, so kudos to him.”
With the win, in conjunction with a shocking 2-2 tie by Northeastern against struggling CAA rival Towson University, Drexel gained sole possession of first place in the conference standings. The Dragons (7-1-1 in CAA) currently hold a two-point advantage on Northeastern (6-0-2 in CAA) with two and one matches remaining, respectively.
The Dragons will have a rare weekend off as they begin to prepare for a crucial matchup against James Madison University Oct. 31 for Senior Night at Vidas Field. In their final home match of 2011, the Dragons shocked the No. 12 Dukes with a 2-0 win, but a win this time around would be much more significant.