By Carlos Toro
The Rider men’s soccer team won the MAAC Tournament for the third time, beating top-seeded Monmouth 3-2 on Nov. 9.
The win snapped the 2014 MAAC Champion Monmouth’s 18-game unbeaten streak. Rider (14-5-1, 6-3-1 MAAC) also beat Monmouth for the first time since 1998, the last season the Broncs advanced to the NCAA Tournament. Sophomore forward Elliot Otmani received MVP honors for the conference tournament.
Rider sophomore forward Jose Aguinaga said the team is ecstatic after winning their first conference championship in almost 20 years.
“It feels great winning the MAAC,” Aguinaga said. “Now we have more confidence for the things that are going to come, like the NCAA’s. We have time to enjoy this huge win but still looking forward for that NCAA game.”
The road to a conference championship is always tough. For the Broncs, injuries made that road tougher to traverse.
Otmani said that he was hurt for the past few weeks. Senior midfield/forward Florian Valot and junior midfielder Christian Flath came back from injuries late into the conference schedule and were not playing at 100 percent health-wise.
The team’s run to the top of the conference began on Nov. 6 when the second-seeded Broncs faced off against Quinnipiac for the second straight game. Rider defeated the Bobcats 2-0 on Rider’s Senior Day on Oct. 31.
After a scoreless first half, Rider broke the tie about a minute into the second half when senior back Sonimi Halliday scored on junior midfielder Adrien Huss’s assist on a free kick. They scored again 10 minutes later when junior midfielder Christian Flath scored off of a direct kick 35 yards out to double their lead.
Rider then added an insurance goal near the 79th minute when senior back Rory Duffy scored his first goal this season coming off the bench.
It was then that the Broncs went to the semifinals to face off against sixth-seeded Siena (8-10-3, 5-4-1 MAAC). Rider had previously defeated Siena in a double overtime 3-2 game on Oct. 10 and this game was just as contested. Aguinaga wanted to give Rider an early lead and he did in the fifth minute when he scored his seventh goal of the season.
Aguinaga then helped Rider double their lead, but this time it was via assist. He assisted Otmani’s goal off of a rebound from just three yards out in the 16th minute. The Broncs’ defense shut out Siena’s offense for the first half with Rider senior goalkeeper Ryan Baird making three saves.
The Saints then lit up the scoreboard with a goal just 90 seconds into the second half when Siena sophomore midfielder Paolino Curto scored his second goal of the season, coming off the bench back in the 39th minute.
Siena then marched their offense forward, outshooting the Broncs 7-3 in the closing 45 minutes. Rider managed to make the most of those three shots when Otmani scored a clutch goal in the 83rd minute for his goal in the game.
The Saints did get to make the final score a lot closer as senior back Matt Needham scored on a corner kick play thanks to senior forward Tom Allen’s assist. The goal was made with less than two minutes remaining and the Broncs managed to hold on to their slim lead just enough to advance to the MAAC Championship game
The championship match started with both teams vying for control of the pitch instead of trying to score immediately. Both teams only shot four times in the first half, but it was Rider that struck first.
After a hard sliding tackle from Monmouth senior back and captain David Acuna Camacho, Huss crossed the ball from near the left sideline on a free kick and junior midfielder Matt Fryc scored on a header in the penalty area to give Rider the 1-0 lead in the 43rd minute.
In the 54th minute, Rider doubled their lead when Otmani scored his third goal of the tournament. Aguinaga passed the ball to Otmani from the left side of Monmouth’s half of the field and Otmani scored on the far side of the post, shooting the ball past Monmouth junior goalkeeper Eric Klenofsky’s right side in the 54th minute.
Otmani said that Head Coach Charlie Inverso chose not to make a halftime speech; rather, he let the team talk it over amongst themselves. This made the difference, according to Otmani.
“When we were in the locker room, Coach [Inverso] left us a few minutes to ourselves to just talk,” he said. “We talked a lot together about what we had to do in the second half. Then he came in and just told us to be careful in the second half.”
After the second goal, both teams’ offenses were in high gear as they looked to add points to the scoreboard. Monmouth (13-4-4, 7-0-3 MAAC), finally broke through the Rider defense in the 79th minute when Monmouth freshman defenseman Zachary Pereira scored to cut the Broncs lead in half.
Normally in soccer when a team scores a goal when losing 2-0, the momentum favors the losing team, but Rider made sure that was not the case. Less than 30 seconds after Monmouth’s first goal, the Broncs once again went up by two.
Junior midfielder Aaron Freeman scored thanks to Valot’s assist. They took advantage of the Hawks’ defense not being properly set up after the first goal and the two Broncs went on the attack.
Knowing that their backs were against the wall with less than 10 minutes remaining, Monmouth’s offense kicked into high gear, having three shots on target and putting the ball deep into Rider territory.
While Baird stopped Monmouth’s first three shots after the third Rider goal, he could not stop Monmouth from scoring their second goal. With only a minute remaining in the game, freshman defender Danny Figarella scored to once again cut the Rider lead in half.
The Broncs’ defense broke down after several Hawks tried to get a shot off, but then Figarella took advantage of the ball being in midair and Baird on the ground trying to stop a kick attempt seconds earlier. But by then, it was too little, too late as Rider celebrated their first conference championship in the 21st century.
After the game, the MAAC announced their all-tournament team, which includes Bronc players Aguinaga, Halliday, Huss and Otmani. Rider now heads into the NCAA Tournament with a 9-1-1 record in their last 11 games and a four-game win streak.
Now Rider will wait and see what their future is going to look like. The NCAA Tournament selection show will be on Nov. 16, where they will then learn what their seeding is going to be and who they are facing.
No matter who the opponent is, Otmani knows that they need to improve on their defense if they hope to stand a chance in the national tournament.
“I think we need to be better in a few areas of the game, one of them being to continue to score a lot of goals,” he said. “We also have to play better defensively when we have a lead. We can’t let the other team have an opportunity to score.”