*During the current hiatus of collegiate sport action, UChicago Athletics is running a story series called "Maroon Moments", which will highlight some of the top performances and most pivotal contests from the last two years across all Maroon athletic teams.
CHICAGO – The start of the 2019 season marked a new chapter for University of Chicago men's soccer. The Maroons graduated their most successful senior class in program history over the summer, which had helped produce back-to-back trips to the NCAA Division III Championship semifinals. Additionally, Pat Flinn returned to the Hyde Park campus in the role of head coach in 2019.
With 16 first-years and sophomores on the roster, UChicago was tasked with creating a new identity on the pitch, most notably replacing All-Americans Max Lopez, Matthew Koh and Nicco Capotosto. The youthful squad would be tested right away with a slew of nationally-ranked, postseason participants on their schedule.
By game three, the Maroons were feeling internal pressure from one specific area – they just needed to convert a goal. UChicago had played to a pair of 0-0 double overtime ties on the road at Macalester College and University of St. Thomas. The defense proved impenetrable, but the offense needed to get on track in order to bolster the team's postseason resume.
Their next opponent was formidable – local rival North Park University. The No. 21-ranked Vikings were annually one of the top teams in the region and were fresh off an 8-0 shellacking of Albion College.
"We definitely felt pressure," Flinn said. "By no means did we expect to roll through the season; we had a really tough schedule and had massive turnover on the roster. We would have bounced back, but I knew that if we could get a W in this game, it would accelerate the buy-in process and give us a chance to have a much better September. We wanted our guys to respect North Park, but also wanted them to be very confident that we were setting them up to win if we just took care of our own business."
It proved to be a defining result for the season, as UChicago shook off an early deficit and seized control the rest of the way in a 3-1 victory on the Stagg Field turf.
On a bright Saturday afternoon on Sept. 7, it was the visiting Vikings who dictated the early minutes with pressure on both sides of the field. Six minutes in, NPU's passing produced an open attacker who put the home team in a quick 1-0 hole.
UChicago was now facing its first deficit of the season. Adversity had arrived, and it was time for the group to respond.
"I give full credit to the team for the response," said Flinn. "Honestly, North Park's goal was as clinical a team goal that we've had scored on us at home in years, and it came so early in the game that it had the potential to bury our confidence. There isn't much you can do as a soccer coach in those moments – no timeouts and halftime is 40 minutes away. All you can do is stay on your feet and support your team."
Ten to 15 minutes later, the Maroons found their footing. The home side began to outwork the visitors and take control of the midfield, while also changing formation from a 3-4-3 to a 3-5-2.
The dam finally broke in the 23rd minute. A long free kick from 39 yards out by junior midfielder Ben Brandt found rookie defender Richard Gillespie in the box, who forcefully redirected a header right in front to the feet of midfielder Bryce Millington. The junior pounced and equalized the scoreboard. Just like that, the Maroons were back in it.
"One thing I know this team is capable of is rising to the occasion," Millington said. "Whether a starter makes a big play or a bench player comes on and makes an impact, we are stacked with individuals willing to compete and fight for one another, which is what makes UChicago so difficult to beat even when the opposition takes a lead. Knowing what we were capable of, going down against North Park was by no means discouraging; instead, it was just an opportunity to show why it's so hard to beat us. All we needed was a spark and coming off the bench, I was able to give us that by scoring the first goal of the 2019 season."
Both sides produced quality scoring chances in the rest of the half. In the 35th minute, North Park hit the post with an attempt. Then in the final 30 seconds before halftime, Gillespie's lunging header towards the right post was saved away by the leaping goalkeeper.
All the momentum was firmly on UChicago's side when action resumed in the second half. The defense adjusted expertly to shut down the potent Viking attackers, only allowing two shots over the final 45 minutes.
Then the go-ahead blow was struck in the 51st minute in an unusual manner. A lead pass into the open sent first-year forward Kameron Bloye flying towards the NPU goalkeeper one-on-one. The goalie ran up to the edge of the box to get his hands on the ball first. However, a moment of hesitation on whether to grab the ball or not allowed the ball to travel through his legs and deflect directly to Bloye, who finished the open-goal chance with aplomb.
Sophomore midfielder Vicente Mateus delivered the dagger in the 68th minute. A pass ahead to first-year forward Michael Johnson was reciprocated back to Mateus, who allowed a chasing defender to fly past him before burying the left-footed shot.
"We brought a lot more energy and fight than they did in the second half," Flinn said. "That was the takeaway – that even if this team still had a ways to go in terms of establishing its identity and gaining experience, we did have the necessary grit to be successful."
The final stats saw the Maroons hold the advantage in shots (13-6), shots on goal (9-2) and corner kicks (6-2). Goalkeeper Aaron Katsimpalis earned the win with one save and one goal allowed.
"The win was massive," Flinn concluded. "They are a rival due to history between the teams but also because we compete in the same region for NCAA ranking purposes. Beyond all of the tangible reasons it was big, it lifted the team's confidence at a crucial time. I'd like to think we would have eventually hit our stride had we lost the game, but this accelerated the process."
Millington believed the balanced effort showed what the 2019 Maroons were capable of. "It always means a lot to win, but it means even more when you win as a team," he said. "As an experienced member of the team, when we feel that energy, gain momentum and know we are all locked in, we are a nightmare for other teams. Of course it's always nice to beat North Park as well since they are always a tough opponent and good test for the team."
The win indeed launched another highly-successful campaign for UChicago men's soccer. The team finished the year with a 12-2-5 overall record while also winning its fourth-straight conference title. The Maroons went a perfect 7-0 in the University Athletic Association without surrendering a goal. UChicago eventually advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament.