By Stephen Neukam
For the first time in three years, the men’s soccer team came home from the MAAC Tournament without the championship trophy.
Rider lost a heartbreaking game in the MAAC Championship to Fairfield, falling victim to an own-goal. The Stags ultimately won, 1-0.
Rider, following its semifinal victory against Canisius, was looking ahead to an away contest at Fairfield for the MAAC title.
Fairfield, which was the regular-season champion, had outlasted Quinnipiac in penalties in their semi-final match.
“It’s going to be a different game because it’s going to be a final. It is going to be another special game,” said senior forward Elliot Otmani before the match.
The game began with both teams seeing chances in the first half. Broncs’ senior keeper David Pastuna made three saves in the opening half, and a shot from freshman midfielder Pablo DeCastro hit the post in the 30th minute.
The game looked set to become a late-goal affair, something that Rider had success with throughout the season.
The Broncs this season had been in 12 games that were decided by one goal or less. In those contests, Rider was 8-2-2.
Despite the experience in close games this season, it would be Fairfield that took the first and only lead of the game.
In the 71st minute, Stags’ sophomore midfielder Diallo Simon-Ponte sent a cross into the Broncs’ penalty box. Freshman defender Sylvain Coco, who played hero in the previous game, made a diving attempt to clear the cross, but the ball deflected past Pastuna for an own-goal.
Rider pressed forward for the next 20 minutes, but to no avail. The Stags won their first MAAC Championship since 2011.
“I judge myself in terms of the impact I have on the team results. It is clearly not good enough from me since we did not reach the expected outcomes,” said Otmani.
Otmani said that the goal of the team was to win the regular-season championship, win the tournament final and secure an NCAA Tournament berth.
Otmani reflected on his experiences with his fellow seniors.
During its tenure, the group managed to win 48 games in the last three years. They also propelled Rider to be just the fifth program in MAAC history to advance to three straight championship finals.
Head Coach Charlie Inverso highlighted the fact that the Broncs would be back next year.
“We are a young team and can be a little impulsive at times, but we have great passion and there is a lot of optimism about our team,” said Inverso.
Rider will have nine returning starters next season.
With the loss, the Broncs’ record fell to 4-2 in conference finals, winning championships in 1997, 1998, 2015 and 2016.
In the semifinal, Rider went behind early after a penalty decision was awarded to Canisius in the eighth minute. Freshman forward Filippo Tamburini netted the penalty for the Griffs.
The Broncs struck back quickly with Coco firing home for Rider in the 19th minute, being assisted by DeCastro.
DeCastro would continue his assault on the Canisius defense when he netted a goal of his own just four minutes later. Otmani doubled the Broncs’ lead in the 27th minute, set up by another DeCastro assist.
Otmani, who was named to the First Team All-MAAC and All-MAAC Championship Team, continued an impressive run of form.
“I’ve just got to thank my teammates because I’m actually not doing anything special. We’re just a team, so everyone has a role, and the team is helping me a lot,” said Otmani.
Otmani was just one of the four Broncs to be named to the First Team All-MAAC squad, along with Aguinaga, sophomore midfielder Emmanuel Koumma and Coco.
DeCastro and sophomore defender Arthur Herpreck were named to the Second Team.
DeCastro, Coco, and freshman midfielder Mathis Catanzaro were also awarded All-Rookie Team honors.
“Pastuna is a tremendous player and even more as a person. [Senior forward]José Aguinaga will be remembered as one of the best players who ever played for the program. [Senior back]Todd Oakley is one of the funniest people I have ever met, always in a good mood, always positive,” said Otmani.
Fairfield drew No. 21 ranked New Hampshire in their first-round contest in the NCAA Tournament.