Men’s soccer heads to Final Four, seeks third title in five years

The Tufts men's soccer team celebrates its 4–0 Elite Eight win over Montclair State on Nov. 18. Courtesy Evan Sayles

The Jumbos (16–0–3) traveled to Greensboro, N.C. Wednesday ahead of their Final Four match against the University of Rochester Yellowjackets (16–2–2) Friday. Going into the weekend, Tufts is the only undefeated team still in the NCAA tournament.

According to senior co-captain and goalkeeper Conner Mieth, the trip is a chance for the team to redeem itself after losing last year in the Elite Eight.

Senior goalkeeper and co-captain Conner Mieth prepares to board the men’s soccer team bus, ahead of its Final Four match, on Nov. 28. (Yuan Jun Chee / The Tufts Daily)

“All I want is to give the guys the experience of all of our hard work and some unfinished business from last year,” he said. “Basically this is a revenge tour. We’re super excited and pumped up. It’s definitely a sobering experience too, because no matter how we do this [it] is still our last weekend ever.”

In an historic run, the Jumbos tallied nine straight wins to open their regular season, and finished it undefeated. The regular season included victories over NESCAC rivals Amherst and Bowdoin and NCAA foe Brandeis, who was responsible for Tufts’ elimination from last year’s NCAA tournament. The Jumbos drew against the Conn. College Camels and the Middlebury Panthers, the second- and third-seeded teams in the NESCAC tournament, respectively. The Camels gave the Jumbos some fierce competition for the first seed in the NESCAC and briefly surpassed Tufts in the national standings towards the end of the season.

The Amherst Mammoths were responsible for the Jumbos’ only regular season loss of 2017, but on Sep. 29 the Jumbos got their revenge in a 2–1 victory. Tufts outlasted Bowdoin in a seven-goal thriller to close out the regular season in their first victory over the Polar Bears since 2013. In the postseason, Tufts faced bottom-seeded Colby, who orchestrated a shocking defeat of the reigning champions in the penalty shootout, though it did not technically count as a loss in accordance with NCAA rules. Previous defeats in the NESCAC tournament did not seem to faze the Jumbos, as they proceeded to win the national title even after NESCAC quarterfinal defeats in both 2014 and 2016.

So far in the national tournament, the Jumbos have netted eight goals in just three games, while conceding none. The showings are a testament to the team’s much-improved offense — last season’s offense was unable to score a single goal in the tournament — as well as its stingy back line. In total, Tufts has scored 41 goals in 19 games, while boasting a goals against average of only 0.45.

“Looking back on what we learned in the past, last year’s defensive mindset was that if we didn’t let in any goals, we were not going to lose, which is a pretty basic idea,” senior defender Jackson Najjar said. “I don’t think we connected enough throughout the whole team, pushing the offense to cover our backs. This year, what’s been the key contributor to getting eight goals in three games is that the attacking guys really stepped up and learned from last year. The team is much more in it together than last year.”

The most notable change in Tufts’ offense is their potency on set pieces and corners. After scoring only one goal on 148 corner kicks in 2017, the Jumbos have scored eight times so far this season from dead ball situations.

Junior forward Joe Braun leads the Tufts’ offense, having scored a conference-high eight goals in the regular season. He opened his postseason account in the Elite Eight against Montclair State. Braun’s performance this season earned him a place on the United Soccer Coaches All-New England First Team and the All-NESCAC First Team. The Jumbos are also well-represented in other parts of the field, as senior defender and co-captain Sterling Weatherbie and junior midfielder/forward Gavin Tasker were also named to both of the aforementioned teams.

Senior defender and co-captain Sterling Weatherbie chats with President’s Marathon Challenge Director Donald Megerle, as the men’s soccer team prepares to leave for its Final Four match, on Nov. 28. (Yuan Jun Chee / The Tufts Daily)

Meanwhile, Tufts’ opponent in the Final Four, the University of Rochester, finished third in the University Athletic Association (UAA) conference, behind Chicago and Case Western Reserve, and received an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. This is the Yellowjackets’ first trip to the Final Four, an improvement on their Elite Eight finish last year.

En route to the Final Four, Rochester beat the No. 1 seed and reigning national champions Messiah, 2–1. The Messiah Falcons were undefeated until their exit from the tournament. They have also won 11 national titles since the turn of the millennium, making them the most decorated Div. III soccer team in the tournament’s history. But thanks to an own goal, the Yellowjackets took the lead and held on for the remaining eight minutes of the Elite Eight match to move on to the next round.

Statistically, the Jumbos edge the Yellowjackets in both goals scored (41 to 37) and goals conceded (nine to 12). In recent years, the Jumbos have consistently made deeper runs in the NCAA tournament than their opponent. That being said, the teams have a similar possession-based style of play — better statistics on paper alone do not determine the outcome of the game.

“Rochester is going to be a super compact team,” Mieth said. “They have a really long throw that comes in like a line drive and he can put it wherever he wants, so we’ve been practicing defending that all week. Looking at the pool of teams left we’re very eager to be able to play our type of soccer. The deeper you go into the tournament, the more the teams’ play our style of soccer, which actually suits us well. Hopefully … we can stretch the game and really allow our midfield to dictate the terms and get guys scoring from every position.”

Yuan Jun Chee / The Tufts Daily

On the other side of the draw, Chicago (18–2–1) will face Calvin (21–1) for the other spot in the championship match. Chicago came into the tournament with the best overall and conference records in the UAA and makes its second consecutive Final Four appearance. Chicago has scored 47 goals in 21 games, with senior forwards Max Lopez and Matthew Koh scoring conference-leading 16 and 14 goals, respectively. The Chicago Maroons also tout a reliable goalkeeper — sophomore goalkeeper Aaron Katsimpalis has 73 saves on the year, topping the UAA as well.

Meanwhile, the Calvin Knights won the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship for the fifth year in a row, defeating the Adrian Bulldogs, 2–1. Calvin’s offense is deadly, having put the ball in the back of the net 91 times in 22 matches this season. The Knights also have three of the top-five scorers in the MIAA: senior forward Bobby McCaw (20), senior midfielder Jacob Witte (17) and junior midfielder Hunter Olson (13). Sophomore goalkeeper Chris Morrish also has the best save percentage in the conference with .830, suggesting that the Knights’ defense will not be easy to break down.

While the Jumbos have never faced the Maroons before, they beat the Knights 1–0 to win the 2016 tournament. Nevertheless, for the four members of the senior class, this weekend is a bittersweet moment. The quartet had their final practice on Bello Field Tuesday night and will play the final minutes of their careers within the next few days. 

Najjar spoke about the pressures coming in as a first-year in 2015 to a team that was fresh off a national title.

“When my class committed, we hadn’t won a national championship yet, so to come into that, there was a lot of pressure and I think we learned a lot freshman year about what not to do,” he said. “Luckily, we corrected that in 2016. Last year was a big experience for us because that was the first time that people knew who we were and that we were a top team instead of the underdog. As for feelings going into this week, it’s super mixed. You go to bed and you’re nervous as hell, but at the same time you’re excited and happy that you just get to play another week.”

Tufts’ Final Four matchup will start at 1:45 p.m. Friday, with the championship match to be played at 2:30 p.m. Saturday.