Men’s Soccer: ‘Nova shuts out No. 1 Duke



Michael Zipf

Heading into the season, the men’s soccer team was often defined by one word: potential. Both supporters and critics questioned whether the Wildcats, who return 10 of 11 starters this season, after suffering a disappointing and injury-plagued ’06 season, would finally reach their full potential.

Knocking off No. 1 Duke and North Carolina State to win the Duke/Adidas Soccer Classic showed many that this year’s edition of the Wildcats are for real and transformed any lingering doubts from 2006 into hopes for 2007.

While the scores of the games may have been miniscule, with the Wildcats winning both games 1-0, the program’s achievement was monumental.

As the team prepared to face perennial ACC powerhouse and No. 1-ranked Duke Blue Devils in the opening round of the annual Duke/Adidas Soccer Classic, the players and coaches viewed the match as an opportunity to evaluate their standing among the nation’s best. However, many experts gave Villanova little chance of pulling off an upset against the No. 1 team in the nation, especially on the road. Villanova players and coaches never doubted their ability and shocked the soccer world, pulling off a 1-0 victory in front of a packed house in Durham, N.C.

Prior to the match, the ‘Nova coaching staff decided to implement a new lineup, wavering on the side of experience by starting only one freshman against a veteran and deft Duke team. In addition, the players and coaching staff spent countless hours watching film in order to develop an effective game plan to combat Duke’s high-octane offense and stalwart defense.

“We spent a significant time preparing for this game by watching a lot of film,” junior co-captain and midfielder Joe Taylor said. “After suffering a disappointing defeat to Richmond in our season opener, we wanted to show what we could do, and this was a great opportunity against the No. 1 team in the nation.”

The players and coaches realized that gaining early momentum and a lead would be critical. Although Duke established a 13-3 advantage in shots in the first half, Villanova capitalized on its opportunities. Senior Mike Del Guercio, who was named to the all-tournament team, silenced a raucous Duke crowd of 3,500 by connecting on a low shot inside the corner post off a sideline feed from sophomore Mike Seamon. Del Guercio’s goal in the 32nd minute of the first half marked the first goal allowed by Duke goaltender Justin Papadakis all season. The goal rejuvenated the Wildcats, who appeared sluggish toward the end of first, after spending most of the half fending off a fury of Duke offensive attacks.

“The turning point of the game in my mind was definitely the goal by Del Guercio,” Taylor said. “We were starting to get tired towards the end of the half and that goal gave us a shot of confidence and energy. And we just kept fighting the rest of the way.”

“After the first two minutes was when the complexion of the game changed,” Coach Larry Sullivan added. “We were able to weather the storm and hold off the Duke attack. Our defense was unbelievable – especially Jason Friel and Matt Sleece – everybody was. Once we gained the lead, it momentarily disrupted and rattled Duke; they were unable to get back on track ’till the beginning of the second half. However, by the second half they were clicking on all cylinders, yet our defense was up to the challenge.”

During halftime, the coaches and players accentuated the importance of continuing to apply pressure and maintain their defensive presence. Entering the second half, the Wildcats demonstrated the same defensive prowess they exhibited in the first half. Senior goaltender Friel, who was named the tournament’s MVP and Big East Goaltender of the Week and senior co-captain and defensive back Matt Sleece, who was named the Big East Defensive Player of the Week continued to anchor the Wildcats’ defense in the second half. Friel recorded 10 saves during the match, including six in the second half. In addition, the Wildcat defense was able to thwart five Duke corner kicks in the second half. In total, the Wildcats were out shot 25-4; however, Friel and the rest of the Wildcat defense prevented the Blue Devils from capitalizing on any of their numerous opportunities.

“We knew that they were going to pressure us defensively,” junior defensive back Miles Harrison said. “However, it made it a lot easier knowing that we had Friel behind the net, who was stopping everything that came his way. He just played amazing.”

The victory marked Villanova’s first victory over an ACC opponent in school history. In addition, the triumph over Duke, which was ranked No. 1 by College Soccer News and No. 2 by Soccer America and Soccer Times, was the highest-ranked opponent Villanova has ever defeated. Although Villanova was proud of its performance, the team recognized that this victory, although extremely beneficial, was just a stepping stone to the team’s goal of qualifying for the Big East Tournament and competing for a Big East championship.

Heading into the final of the Duke/Adidas Classic against a formidable N.C. State team, the Wildcats’ players and coaches stressed the importance of preventing a letdown from their emotional victory over Duke.

“Entering the tournament, we knew beating Duke was not going to be easy,” Sullivan said. “We didn’t expect to beat Duke. We knew we were capable of it, but we didn’t expect it. Against N.C. State, we knew we could beat them, although we were a little tired from the Duke game. Since we had exceeded our expectations, we thought we might as well go out there and capture the tournament.”

Again, the Wildcats were paced by an outstanding defensive performance, with Friel recording his second shutout of the tournament. Seamon’s goal in the 18th minute of the first half was the game winner as the Wildcat’s secured a 1-0 victory over the Wolf Pack of NC State.

Overall, the Wildcats were thrilled by their sound performance in the Duke/Adidas Classic. By capturing the tournament, the Wildcats improved their record to 3-1; more importantly, it solidified the assumption that when Wildcats are meeting their potential, they can compete with anybody in the nation.

“The Duke victory was a great team effort,” Sullivan said. “It showed we could compete against the big guys. We believed in each other and played together as team. Our motto for the season has been stick together and stick to it.”

With the Wildcats sticking together and sticking to it, the team seems poised to fulfill the potential that could make this a dangerous team in the Big East.