Men’s soccer slips to No. 5 after Middlebury draw, remains undefeated

Junior midfielder Zach Lane looks for a pass in Tufts' 1–0 victory over Bates at Bello Field on Sept. 15. Evan Slack / The Tufts Daily

Tufts ceded its first non-win of the season against Middlebury on Saturday with a frustrating 1–1 draw in double overtime. Tufts gave away a penalty less than two minutes into the game, briefly forcing the team on its back foot for the first time this season. The Jumbos managed to equalize to keep their unbeaten streak alive, before bouncing back emphatically with a 3–1 win over the Babson Beavers on Tuesday night. With these results, Tufts moved to 10–0–1 on the season but slipped from No. 3 to No. 5 in the national rankings.

The victory over the Beavers was a much-needed boost for the Jumbos and served as a reminder of their potent attack. Only two minutes into the match, junior midfielder Zach Lane played the ball down the right flank. Babson first-year defender Liam Hanlon tried to clear the ball but could only smash it against Tufts junior forward Joe Braun, who turned and found junior forward Gavin Tasker unmarked. Composed as ever, Tasker slotted the ball past the goalie. The build-up play highlighted the attacking unit’s ability to find each other’s feet through traffic in the box and was indicative of the starting unit’s cohesiveness.

“Our ability to play the ball on the ground is about comfort level with each other,” coach Josh Shapiro said. “The [offensive starters] have been playing a lot together, so their comfort level, their ability to know where the other guys are going to be allows them to be a little bit sharper. We want to be a team that plays fast and moves the ball quickly on the ground. Having different ways to attack is always a good quality — if you’re predictable, then you’re going to get stopped. Having ingenuity and creativity is always an asset, but it has to work where the players are aware of what the others are thinking.”

The Jumbos sat comfortably on their lead for the next 20 minutes, but in a rare defensive breakdown, they allowed the Beavers scored their lone goal in the 25th minute. Babson took advantage of a fast-break opportunity to find the gaps in a frantically dropping Tufts back line. Babson sophomore defender Andrew Josephs crossed the ball to senior midfielder Noah Parker, who shot an impressive volley into the net that sailed past senior goalkeeper and co-captain Conner Mieth.

The goal was a shock for the Jumbos, and the pressure was on to retake the lead. Toward the end of the first half, the Jumbos won their second corner of the game, and junior midfielder Brett Rojas stepped up to take it. Rojas’ corner found first-year defender William Raphael, who headed the ball into the net. It was Raphael’s second goal of the season; he scored his first in an identical manner against Keene St. on Sept. 11.

According to Raphael, the team’s confidence in all of its players allows defenders like him to get opportunities to score. During corners, instead of having the taller defenders hang back, often Tasker — one of the faster players on the team — will linger by the midfield line to collect the ball and shut down potential fast breaks.

“Part of us being able to go all the way up for headers is us being extremely confident in the guys that sit back when our defensive players go up for corners,” Raphael said. “Not only is it having confidence in our defense, though, but having confidence in the offensive guys, knowing that when they’re hanging back during a corner [and] they’ll have no problem killing off any fast break chance.”

The second half saw the Jumbos take eight shots, forcing two saves from Beavers junior goalkeeper Steven Heintzelman. Senior defender and co-captain Sterling Weatherbie had two great chances when he ripped long-range efforts from the right wing. Despite the distance, both opportunities had Jumbos fans clamoring in support. Finally, with under 10 minutes remaining, Rojas took advantage of a poor pass in Babson’s defensive third, repossessing the ball in a dangerous spot. He passed the ball to Lane, who beat two defenders with some fancy footwork and shot the ball across the goal into the bottom left corner, securing the win for the Jumbos.

Tufts’ match against Middlebury on Saturday afternoon started as poorly as one could imagine. Sophomore defender Biagio Paoletta fouled a Middlebury player in the box, and a penalty kick was called. Mieth dove the right way but just missed the ball, as Middlebury senior midfielder and co-captain Daniel O’Grady buried his strike into the bottom right corner.

The Jumbos scored the equalizer inside 20 minutes after sophomore midfielder/forward Mati Cano was fouled while going up for a header. The free kick was taken by Rojas from close to midfield. The long ball bounced once in the box, and Weatherbie was there to put a head to the ball as it came off the ground. Middlebury sophomore goalkeeper Matthew Hyer did not have time to react before the ball sailed into the left side of the net.

For the remainder of the game, the Jumbos battered the Panthers with 12 shots. In contrast, Middlebury took only seven shots throughout regulation and one shot in overtime. The contest was extremely physical: Middlebury had 26 fouls to Tufts’ 19.

“We had a hard time playing the soccer that we wanted to play,” Shapiro said. “We didn’t get it down enough, it was a disjointed game and there were a ton of fouls. The ball was bouncing around, guys were smashing into each other all over the field and it was overall a really physical day. I think it suited [Middlebury] a little more than us, so we need to find a way to be up for the battle but still find our calm and still play the game we want to play.”

Following the draw, Tufts is no longer the top-ranked NESCAC team in the nation — a position that it has enjoyed for several years — as Conn. College climbed up seven places to the No. 4 rank on Tuesday. When the Jumbos travel to New London, Conn. on Saturday, it will likely be a contest for the top seed in the NESCAC tournament and have a huge impact on both teams’ national rankings.

“We like to think that it’s a game at a time, and at the end of the day each game counts the same amount as any other,” Raphael said. “But this game is a little bit different. We tend to get everyone’s best performance and Conn. College has been killing it this season. Riding on this game is potentially the No. 1 seed in the NESCAC and an increased national ranking, so it definitely feels like its a bigger game, but we have to go about it as though its just a normal one.”

The team has a packed schedule ahead, with four more conference matchups in less than two weeks to conclude the regular season. The Jumbos kick off against the Camels on Saturday at 2:30 p.m.