The Beatles. The 1990s Chicago Bulls dynasty. One Direction. All good things, all came to an end, repeatedly reinforcing the age-old cliché. The Tufts men’s soccer team experienced this harsh reality this past weekend. Their nine-game unbeaten run concluded on Saturday, as the Jumbos were defeated 3–0 at the hands of the Middlebury Panthers.
The matchup was billed as a clash of the NESCAC’s elite. The Panthers entered the game ranked as the third-best Division III program in the nation, per the United Soccer Coaches poll, and the NESCAC’s top dog, having not lost a game all season. The Jumbos came in as the NESCAC’s No. 2 ranked team, tied with the Amherst Mammoths, who handed them their only previous loss. Thus, in terms of postseason implications, the contest was critical to both sides’ futures.
Saturday’s conditions were less than ideal. Following the three-hour drive up to Vermont, the Jumbos played in the rain throughout the afternoon at South Street Field. Nonetheless, both sides plowed ahead, with the turf pitch smoothing out the play. Despite being the underdogs, the Jumbos made it clear from the start that they wanted to win the game. Instead of sitting back and absorbing pressure from the Panthers, the Jumbos were on the attack from kickoff. They managed to win two corner kicks and register a shot on senior goalkeeper Ryan Grady’s net before Middlebury struck with their first goal.
“With the quality that we have, I think we go into every game expecting to get a result,” sophomore midfielder Daniel Yanez said. “We came out a little flat leading to a few early goals. … Our mentality was there on Saturday, I think it was just a couple of moments where we felt [flat].”
Senior defender Max Clivio was dispossessed in the Jumbo box by the Panthers’ sophomore midfielder Gavin Randolph, brother of Tufts sophomore midfielder Luke Randolph. Gavin sent a pass across the box to junior midfielder Tyler Payne, who rounded Tufts’ sophomore goalkeeper Nikola Antic and unleashed a clean finish, giving the Panthers a 1–0 advantage.
The Jumbos earned two more corners and were flagged offside once before the Panthers scored their second.
In an incredible sequence of play, junior forward Kyle Nilsson sent a silky, line-breaking pass through the Jumbos’ backline, where Gavin Randolph pounced on it and calmly slotted the ball into the back of a diving Antic’s net. The quality of the interplay was superb, and the Jumbos could only tip their caps to the Panthers. Middlebury’s quick decision-making and pinpoint passing had doubled their lead just four minutes after they had first scored.
The rest of the first half was uneventful. Despite trailing 2–0, the Jumbos never backed down nor faded out of the contest, maintaining possession in the Middlebury half for most of the remaining 30 minutes. However, they lacked precision in the final third and could not create a chance to really trouble Grady and the Panther backline. While the Jumbos won eight corner kicks, compared to none by the Panthers, junior midfielder Ethan Feigin registered the Jumbos’ only shot on target of the half. The Jumbos held the ball more, but the Panthers were the more threatening team. Each time they went on a counterattack, their technical quality meant they looked poised to score again.
Just three minutes after play resumed in the second half, Payne was brought down at the top of the Jumbo box. Though contact appeared to be minimal, the referee still pointed to the spot, awarding the Panthers a penalty kick. Senior forward Jordan Saint-Louis, who had dazzled all afternoon with his skill and offensive prowess, blasted the ball into the bottom corner of Antic’s net, all but assuring a victory for the Panthers.
Undeterred by the scoreline, the Jumbos kept putting pressure on the Panthers. The Jumbos outshot their opposition 10 to three following the third goal. The best effort came from Yanez with 20 minutes remaining, though Grady easily gathered his attempt. The Jumbos also won five corner kicks in the second half, while the Panthers garnered zero. In reality, though, the Panthers never relinquished their grip on the match.
“It was tough because, especially in the NESCAC, goals are not easy to get and when you [trail] you have to chase the game a little bit,” Yanez said. “Then Middlebury, honestly, credit to them. They did a good job once they got those two goals, sitting in a block and holding it down for the rest of the game.”
Though the final whistle marked the end of the Jumbos’ unbeaten streak, their run of important games continues. They begin playoffs on Saturday and will face the Bowdoin Polar Bears.
“Regular season games are really fun, but when you get to playoff games … the atmosphere is just so energetic,” Yanez said.
So, while it is true that all good things must come to an end, it is also true that every ending is a new beginning. The Jumbos are hoping that their new beginning can propel them to a fourth NESCAC championship or fifth national crown.
“Everyone on our team would say what we want to do is win both,” Yanez said. “But I think the best thing we can do now is treat every game as if it’s our last [with a] win-or-go-home mentality. And I think that starts with today.”