Coming off a 2-1 win Sept. 28 over The College of William & Mary, the Drexel men’s soccer team held a five-match winning streak and was confident that its play was beginning to heat up following an 0-2-1 start to the season. The Dragons strolled down 33rd Street to Rhodes Field to take on the University of Pennsylvania in what seemed to be a mismatch on paper, but the rivalry game mantra held true.
“Penn has had an up-and-down go right now, but they’re our cross-street neighbors, so that’s [going to] be a grind,” head coach Doug Hess said before the matchup, assuring that his team would not take the Quakers for granted. “It was a one-goal game last year; we know it’s [going to] be a tight game this year.”
The Quakers, carrying a six-match losing streak, stunned the visiting Dragons Oct. 2 by a score of 3-2 and sent the visitors back up the street with a tally in the loss column. Penn’s win served as some payback for a 2-1 loss last season, which was Drexel’s first victory in the series since 1990.
Three times during the match, the Quakers were able to cash in on one-on-one opportunities against freshman goalkeeper Tyler Afflerbach in the Dragons’ box. In the 19th minute, junior midfielder Duke Lacroix caught up to a beautiful through pass by freshman forward Alex Neumann. Lacroix dribbled around a challenge by Afflerbach and deposited it into a wide-open net.
The match reached halftime with a 1-0 score, and it remained that way until the 68th minute when Penn struck again. This time, freshman forward Sam Hayward received a pass on the left side of the box and struck a liner through the Drexel defense and past a diving keeper for a 2-0 lead.
Then the Dragons finally got on the board. Junior defender Robert Liberatore put a free kick into a trouble area, and senior midfielder Ken Tribbett finished with a header to bring Drexel within one goal in the 76th minute. It was the third consecutive game with a goal from Tribbett, who has racked up the accolades recently, earning Colonial Athletic Association and Philly Soccer 6 player of the week honors, as well as being named to the CollegeSoccerNews.com Team of the Week.
But just when the Dragons got back into it, the Quakers added another goal. It was from Hayward again, as he weaved his way through the Drexel defense and beat Afflerbach on a nifty low shot to the keeper’s left. It was a backbreaking score, as it came only 55 seconds after Tribbett’s goal and put Penn ahead, 3-1.
With a sense of desperation, the Dragons earned another goal, this time off the foot of senior midfielder Jared Girard, who poked through a shot after a scrum in the box. Liberatore tallied his second assist of the match on the goal in the 88th minute, but that would be the end of the day’s scoring.
The three goals allowed to Penn were more than the Dragons had given up in the entirety of their five-game winning streak. But even though it was an impressive offensive showing from the Quakers, their game MVP had to be sophomore goalkeeper Max Polkinhorne, who stopped seven of nine shots on goal from a pressuring Drexel team, with many of the saves being of the diving or leaping variety.
As disappointing it was for the streak to end, the fifth and final match of that streak against William & Mary was one of the most exciting wins of the season. The Tribe was coming off a three-match winning streak against ranked opponents, two of which were No. 1 in the country at the time.
Hess commented on the hottest team in the country coming in, which would, in hindsight, resonate to Drexel’s matchup against Penn a few days later. “We weren’t so concerned with who they beat or who they didn’t beat. It’s soccer; anyone can beat anyone.”
As it has proved in the past, Vidas Field was not a welcoming place for the opponent. Although the Tribe got out to a lead in the 17th minute on a beautiful cross from junior midfielder Chris Albiston to junior forward Josh West, the Dragons answered right back.
Senior forward Nathan Page fed a ball through the William & Mary defense that found junior midfielder Maty Brennan all alone with the keeper. He stayed composed and finished under the outstretched arms of freshman Mac Phillips to tie the match at 1-1 in the 19th minute.
“We are in a good streak of wins that gives you the confidence to try stuff and play differently,” junior midfielder Michele Pataia said about the team’s creativity and confidence in playing together. “We’re pretty much the same team as last year and that helps building and getting to know each other.”
But Drexel was not satisfied, as just 11 minutes later, Tribbett intercepted a Tribe pass attempt and rushed up the field. He let a shot fly from 25 yards out that deflected off the head of a William & Mary defender, changed directions and fluttered into the net for a 2-1 lead.
“You leave a clear path for Ken Tribbett. I’ve never seen a kid clip a ball so clean with either foot in my time as a coach,” Hess said about his goal-scoring senior. “Any time there’s a ball bouncing and [he] gets a volley, our entire coaching staff thinks, ‘That’s a goal.’”
Up to that point, the Tribe had been sloppy, but the deficit seemed to inspire them to put on pressure for the final 15 minutes of the half. But Afflerbach and the Dragons defense stood tall for the rest of the half and the rest of the match, as the final score stood from the 30th minute, making Tribbett’s goal the game-winner.
Not only did it extend the winning streak, but it also meant that Drexel holds a 1-0 record in CAA play, a conference that Hess has called one of the most competitive in the country. Although a loss to Penn hurts the ultimate chances of making the NCAA Tournament as an at-large bid, being able to host and win the CAA Tournament in November takes care of that, no questions asked.
With two more matches to round out the out-of-conference schedule, against Temple University at home and Princeton University on the road, the Dragons must get back to their winning ways in time for the remainder of conference play. The next CAA opponent, preseason favorite Northeastern University, looms on the schedule for an Oct. 12 matchup at Vidas Field. Drexel will need to play its best in order to beat the best.