Soccer can be a funny game. For all of the meticulous analysis, hours spent training and constant repetitions that go into preparing for a match, the true determination of a contest’s outcome can sometimes be luck. Luck — that elusive, fickle force that can turn dreams into reality for some and bring nightmares to life for others. Unfortunately, the Tufts men’s soccer team found themselves on the wrong side of chance on Nov. 18 in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Division III men’s soccer tournament against Washington and Lee University. Despite convincing results in the first two rounds of the tournament and a 12–3–3 record across the regular season and NESCAC tournament, a cruel twist of misfortune led to the only goal of the game, meaning the Jumbos fell 1–0 to the Washington and Lee Generals and would not dance on to the Elite Eight.
Having convincingly defeated Bridgewater State University 3–0 and the University of Rochester 2–1 the weekend prior, Tufts earned the opportunity to host the Sweet 16 at Bello Field. Joining them at Bello were Colorado College, Ohio Northern University and Washington and Lee, who — coming off of a weekend sweep against Western Connecticut State University and SUNY Oneonta — were pitted against Tufts.
The conditions at Bello Field on Nov. 18 were far from ideal. The combination of rain, wind and cold temperatures ensured the contest would be a cagey affair. The early goings of the match presented strong opportunities for both sides, with neither being able to convert. Only 55 seconds into the match, Tufts sophomore defender Mateo Bargagna sent a long, diagonal pass into the path of senior forward Sean Traynor. Traynor waited for the ball to bounce once before blasting a one-timer just over the crossbar. Ten minutes later, Generals senior midfielder Grant McCarty weaved his way through the Jumbo backline before fizzing an effort just wide of the left post. Two minutes later, Traynor was at it again. After some fantastic hold-up play from senior forward Mikey Brady, Traynor took the ball on the right flank, beat one defender, cut onto his favored left foot and drilled a shot past sophomore goalkeeper Will Joseph but unfortunately beyond the left post. As the first half progressed, the Generals gained the upper hand, and they finished the half outshooting the Jumbos 10 to three. Nonetheless, sophomore goalkeeper Nikola Antic and the Jumbo defense held firm, and the half ended in a 0–0 stalemate.
“I don’t think we necessarily played as well as we would have hoped to [in the first half]. But going into the second half even is never the worst thing. And we just wanted to kind of keep our foot on the pedal,” sophomore midfielder Daniel Yanez said.
Both sides were confident that they could find the winning goal in the final 45 minutes. However, just three minutes in, Generals sophomore midfielder Matteo Adler won the ball in the attacking zone and unleashed a shot from just outside the 18-yard box. The shot deflected off of junior defender Alex Wall’s outstretched leg, causing it to change trajectory mid-air and end up in the back of Antic’s net. Whether luck was on the Generals’ side or not, Adler and his teammates were happy to take a lead that they would not relinquish.
The Generals were content to see out their lead for the remainder of the contest, but the Jumbos did not go down without a fight. With eight minutes to go, the Jumbos thought they had equalized through junior midfielder Ethan Feigin. Traynor charged down the right flank, darting infield across the byline. He cut the ball back to Feigin, who slotted the chance home. However, the referee ruled that the ball had rolled past the end line and out of bounds before Traynor’s pass. Five minutes later, another contentious decision prevented the Jumbos from tying the game. Senior defender Max Clivio advanced the ball through the midfield to Feigin, who pushed it up to Traynor. Traynor cut into the box, where he was taken down by a lunging tackle. The referee ruled the play clean and waved play on. Traynor, his teammates and the Bello Field crowd were outraged and appealed for a penalty kick, but it was not given.
Commenting on the Jumbos’ fight, Yanez said, “Being able to claw out of situations like that and just like having [the] belief that we’re going to get the next goal, and even though we didn’t get it on Saturday, I was proud of the way that the team pushed for that goal all the way to the last minute.”
At the final whistle, the Generals’ bench emptied out onto the field, as they celebrated an incredible victory and punched their ticket to the Elite Eight. They advanced to the quarterfinal round for just the second time in program history. The following day, they would defeat Colorado College 5–4 on penalty kicks after a 0–0 draw to progress to their second-ever Final Four. Overall, the contest was a tremendous display from two high quality sides.
Although the loss marked the season’s conclusion for the Jumbos, it was a season to be proud of. They improved upon the previous season’s result by reaching the NESCAC Tournament final, progressing a round farther in the NCAA tournament and hosting both the opening two rounds, as well as the Sweet 16. With a large portion of the roster returning, the outlook for the program’s future is bright, and the team has every reason to close the book on their 2023 campaign with their heads held high.
“I think that this year, we got ourselves back on the right track, [and] put Tufts in that upper echelon of teams like where it belongs,” Yanez said. “I think it is frustrating that we don't necessarily have anything to show for it this year … but I think we should hold our heads high. We’re really proud of the season that we had and [we are] incredibly excited to take another shot at it next year,” Yanez said.