By Rob Rose
A second-half surge offensively led the men’s soccer team to a 2-0 victory over Iona in the first round of the MAAC Championship on Nov. 5.
Junior back Sylvain Coco headed in the game-winning goal in the 74th minute off a corner kick from graduate student forward Elliott Otmani.
The goal was Coco’s third of the season and gave Otmani his ninth assist of his final campaign. Otmani had recorded a point in each of Rider’s seven wins against MAAC teams this year.
The game was extremely physical and saw 35 fouls, seven yellow cards and one red card.
After the Broncs took the lead, the Gaels increased their aggressiveness, which resulted in one of their players being sent off. Iona’s Mauro Bravo received a red card for a dangerous play after he took out junior forward Clement Bourret in the 77th minute.
With Iona playing down a man, Rider took advantage and doubled its lead late in the game. After a scoring chance off a free kick by the Gaels, the Broncs sprinted down the field on the counterattack.
Sophomore forward Pablo DeCastro received a pass as he streaked down the left side of the field. He dribbled the ball toward the center of the pitch and unleashed a right-footed missile past the diving goalkeeper. The forward gave Rider a 2-0 lead and allowed the team to lock down defensively in the game’s final moments.
The goal was DeCastro’s seventh of the year, which gave him the team lead in scoring.
The first half was dominated by Iona, who had all of the scoring chances and shots on goal by either team. Iona had five shots to Rider’s zero and also held the advantage in corner kicks with four while the Broncs had just one.
Iona connected on a brilliant strike with seven minutes remaining in the first half, but the goal was taken off the board after an official ruled the Iona player offside. A minute later, the Gaels failed to execute on another golden opportunity when a chip shot was skied over the net.
“I think we dodged a couple of bullets in the first half and I think toward the end of the first half, they started coming on and we were a little fortunate to get out of the first half,” said Head Coach Charlie Inverso.
Rider turned up the heat immediately in the second half. After the Broncs failed to record a shot in the first half, 10 second-half shots led to an increase in scoring chances and flipped the game’s momentum to their side.
“We did what we wanted to do in the second half,” said Inverso. “We just had a great second half.”
The Broncs entered the playoffs as the No. 5 seed, the lowest the team has finished in the regular season standings in the fifth consecutive year they have reached the postseason.
It took a victory on the final day of the regular season for Rider to advance to the postseason. The Broncs had reached the conference tournament in each of the previous four campaigns and advanced to the championship game in the last three years.
“We want to demonstrate to those who did not believe in us what we are capable of,” said DeCastro. “We have fought hard to get here and we are going for everything.”
The Broncs defeated Canisius, 2-0, on Oct. 31 and Manhattan lost to Fairfield, 1-0, which allowed Rider to advance to the playoffs despite entering the day out of the playoff picture.
Junior forward Clement Bourret broke the tie two minutes into the second half on his second goal of the year. Otmani fed the ball to Bourret on the score for his team-leading eighth assist.
After sixth-seed St. Peter’s lost to third-seed Marist on Nov. 4, Rider became the lowest remaining seed in the playoffs. As a result of the first round games, Rider will face a familiar foe in the semifinals, regular-season champion Fairfield.
The Stags were the reigning conference champions after a 1-0 victory over the Broncs in last season MAAC Championship game. Fairfield defeated Rider in the previous three meetings between the teams, including the only match they played this year on Oct. 13, a 3-2 victory for the Stags.
“No one forgot [the 2017 championship] game, and we want revenge,” said Coco. “We play soccer to play this kind of game.”
As the No. 1 seed in the MAAC Championship, Fairfield will host the semifinal match of the tournament, as it did in the 2017 championship game. Even if the Broncs eliminated the Stags, the championship would be a road game for Rider, as the lowest-seeded team remaining.
In the MAAC, the higher-seeded team hosts each round of the conference tournament, including the championship game.
No. 2 seed Quinnipiac and No. 3 seed Marsit play at 12 p.m. on Nov. 8, while Rider and Fairfield battle at 7 p.m. Both games can be streamed online at MAAC.TV through maacsports.com.
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