The top two men’s soccer teams in New England battled each other on Friday night, as national No. 3 Tufts edged No. 12 Brandeis, 1-0, under the lights at Tufts’ Bello Field. Only a second-half goal by the Jumbos’ sophomore midfielder Brett Rojas separated the two sides, both of which advanced to the final four in last year’s NCAA tournament.
“Brandeis is one of our toughest opponents all year,” junior co-captain defender Sterling Weatherbie said. “We knew that [their loss in the final four] was going to be a motivator, so we were prepared for them to come out hot. We knew that it was going to be a critical game down the line, in terms of making the tournament.”
The game opened up after a cautious first 20 minutes, with both teams generating quality scoring opportunities. First, Tufts sophomore forward Joseph Braun whipped in a cross from the right flank, which fell to the feet of sophomore midfielder/forward Gavin Tasker just inside the 6-yard box. The Concord, Mass. native managed to get off a decent shot, but Brandeis senior goalkeeper Ben Woodhouse was positioned well to make the stop.
Five minutes later, the visitors had their own scoring chance when Tufts senior goaltender Bruce Johnson failed to get a solid punch on a Brandeis corner. With Johnson off his line, the ball bounced free in the box momentarily before Rojas cleared it to safety. The Jumbos’ defense faced another scary moment in the 35th minute, as the Judges’ sophomore forward Jake Warren pounced on another loose ball in the box. Warren’s shot was blocked, but the rebound fell to first-year midfielder Evan Glass, who forced Johnson to make a save.
“Our chances in the first half [were] a testament to our midfield and strikers, especially our young guys,” Weatherbie said. “They’re really stepping into their roles, and that showed in the second half.”
Tufts broke the deadlock in the 48th minute, as Rojas gathered a pass from Tasker at the top of the box and rocketed a shot at Woodhouse. The Brandeis keeper got an outstretched glove to the shot, but the ball was hit with such pace that it deflected into the back of the net. The goal, Rojas’ first of the season, equaled his tally from all of last year. Meanwhile, Tasker’s second assist of the season increased his team-leading point total to six (two goals, two assists).
“It took a deflection out to Tasker on the wing,” Rojas said. “Whenever Tasker is on the wing, he always draws at least one or two defenders, so I was able to set up on the top of the 18 in a good spot and put it in the back of the net.”
The Jumbos’ defense, led by Weatherbie and senior co-captain defender Conor Coleman, kept the Judges at bay for the remainder of the game, as the home side preserved the key victory.
“Coach [Josh] Shapiro is a defensively minded coach, and it’s something that our team focuses on a lot during training,” Rojas said. “Our offense is actually built around our defense.”
Tufts faced one final nervy moment in the 83rd minute, as Johnson was unable to corral a cross by Brandeis senior midfielder Josh Ocel. With the ball trickling dangerously toward an open net, the veteran keeper lunged backward and fell on it, extinguishing any chance for a Brandeis equalizer. The 1–0 result was the Jumbos’ third victory by that scoreline, as they have managed to score multiple goals just twice this season. The defending national champions still have not allowed a goal through their first six games.
“It started last year during the tournament, when we only let in one goal, [and] it’s carried over to this season,” Weatherbie said. “Everybody’s buying in, and the communication’s been really good this year. We basically have 26 guys who could start on any NESCAC team … so when we’re practicing during the week, it’s always a competitive game.”
The teams were almost perfectly even on the stat sheet: Both tallied nine shots (of which Braun had a game-high three), and Brandeis held the slight edge in corner kicks, six to five. Johnson made four saves to preserve the shutout, while his counterpart, Woodhouse, made two for the Judges.
With the victory, the Jumbos moved to 5–0–1 on the season (2–0–1 in the NESCAC). Tufts resumes play on Tuesday, when it visits the Wesleyan Cardinals (5–1–0, 1–1–0 in the NESCAC) for the first of four consecutive matches against NESCAC opponents.
“We’ll use this win to propel us forward into Tuesday,” Weatherbie said. “Wesleyan is going to be a huge game, especially because they beat us last year after we beat Brandeis in overtime.”