December 2, 2016

Messiah women claim semifinal victory on OT goal

Cover photo credit: Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com

Other Semifinal Recaps:  Women's Semifinal 2 Men's Semifinal 1 | Semifinal 2
Messiah's Marisa Weaver works against a stingy Chicago defense in their semifinal clash.
Dave Hilbert, d3photography.com

Three minutes into the first overtime period, Messiah finally found the back of the net to advance to the title game for the ninth time in program history. Erin Sollenberger was the goal scorer, flicking on Brooke Firestone's short cross past Chicago's keeper from a couple yards out. It was the game's lone tally after a scoreless ninety minutes of regulation.

First Half

Both teams showed attacking intent from the get-go: Messiah being flagged for offside within the first minute; Chicago pumping a ball into the area for Madori Spiker to head goalward in the third minute. But the theme for this game would be defense as shot totals would be low and quality looks almost non-existent. Neither keeper was especially tested, but both were solid when called upon, Chicago’s Katie Donovan alertly coming off her line in the 11th minute to claim a through ball into her box just before Erin Sollenberger reached it.

Surprisingly, Chicago was advancing the ball from midfield to their attacking third much easier than expected with Messiah yielding space and not closing their opponents down. After the back-and-forth feeling-out period of the first five minutes, the Maroons were seeing more of the ball and Messiah was spending more time on defense in their own half. But for the most part, the Falcons looked competent and unfazed in their defensive third, only conceding half-chances, such as in the 17th minute when Spiker claimed a loose ball near the top of the area going away from goal, and her turn and shot sailed high over the bar.

Despite Chicago applying more of the offensive pressure, Messiah was getting off just as many shots from their counter-attacks and in the 20th minute Marisa Weaver flashed a shot wide of the far post after driving down the left side and shooting from just outside the area. But the nation’s top goal-scorer was largely kept in check throughout the game by the Maroons. Meanwhile, the Maroons were struggling to convert their possession in their attacking third into shots and goal-scoring chances, exemplified when Messiah’s defense was quickest to converge on what looked like a dangerous centering pass from Jenna McKinney to Spiker in the middle of the box in the 26st minute.

Minutes before, Messiah went to their bench to shake up its midfield that was uncharacteristically losing the midfield battle, and as the substitutes settled into the game the desired effect was realized as the balance of play swung the other direction with the Falcons finally finding some rhythm and sustained possession going forward. Two Messiah forays down the right side reached the endline and the services into the center had Chicago scrambling to clear, which they did. The next ten to fifteen minutes saw roles reversed as now most of the play was occurring in Chicago’s half of the field.  But the role reversal was complete: Chicago’s defense was not allowing Messiah’s possession around the area to result in truly dangerous penetration or quality looks. The box score reflected that as no shots were registered (for either side) between the 21st and 44th minutes.  Even fresh Falcon legs sent in up front for the final eight minutes of the half could only muster a single shot.

The half ended tamely and still scoreless, but with Messiah seemingly have found their feet after a lackluster opening 20 minutes. Chicago’s energy in the opening 15 minutes had dissipated and the Falcons looked more primed for a second half breakthrough.

Second Half

Any hopes for a more electric second half with more goal-scoring opportunities went unfulfilled. Both defenses remained resolute and up to the task of dealing with the best punches the opposition could throw. With Chicago trying to move the ball out of their defensive third in the 50th minute, Olivia Snare forced a turnover and quickly found the feet of Weaver who drove into the area, but midfielder Lily Wolfenzon went shoulder-to-shoulder with the All-American forward to prevent her from squaring up and shooting on target.

Messiah was unable to pick up where they left off in the first half, and time of possession and field position—excuse the football terminology—would significantly favor Chicago for most of the second stanza. But for all their possession in Messiah’s half, the Maroons weren’t really getting a sniff of goal, going nearly a half hour without a shot after two untroubling efforts in 51st and 52nd minutes.

Conversely, despite spending much less time in their offensive half and often being limited to counter-attacks, the Falcons managed three shots during Chicago’s shooting drought. And while Chicago’s defense seemed equal to the task, Messiah’s best offensive punches, though few and far between, seemed the more likely to break the deadlock. One of the best chances for a goal in regulation came in the 68th minute when Weaver received the ball near midfield and dribbled all the way into the box on the lefthand side before unleashing a shot, but influenced by the defender on her hip the rip only found side-netting.

Three minutes later when Messiah was able to break out of their own half again, the ball went to Weaver for a shot from the right side, but Donovan was there to make the save at the near post. But overall, it was an uneventful defensive stalemate with most of the play occurring in Messiah’s half. The clocked ticked down under ten minutes with overtime beckoning, and an additional twenty minutes of scoreless soccer seemed the most likely scenario.

But when Messiah’s starting attacking players re-entered the game in the 82nd minute, the Falcons had a rare spell of sustained possession that culminated in the other great scoring chance of the second half when Weaver received the ball in the area and dribbled to the left corner of the 6-yard box with the goalkeeper trying to cut-off the angle. But her shot once again could only find side-netting after ricocheting through the legs of the keeper.

Chicago would get a rare shot off in the 87th minute—just four shots total in the half, none on target—but the Maroons had been lacking in any real impetus or ideas of how to unlock the Falcon defense for some time. On the other hand,  Messiah was displaying some motivation to make a late push for the game-winner to avoid extra time.  And with just over a minute on the clock, Messiah’s Kate Shults cut diagonally left to right through the box to reach the ball and poke it past the goalkeeper, but the effort bounced off the post and was cleared. 0-0. Overtime it would be.

The second half—and the game—lacked quality looks, never mind gilt-edged chances. The concentration of the Messiah defense was impressive given how long they had to play without the ball.  Equally impressive was Chicago’s ability to pin Messiah back for so much of the game, even if they were unable to convert their sustained spells of possession into real chances.These were two of the top defenses in the nation and it showed.

Overtime

Messiah coach Scott Frey made a surprising risk-reward adjustment when he went with a three-person back line to get an extra attacker on the field to start the overtime. The sense right off the tap—which really was a carry-over from the closing minutes of regulation—was that Messiah wanted to end the game as quickly as possible. And the “reward” part was in evidence in the first couple minutes with the Falcons possessing the ball in the offensive half and putting Chicago on their heels. But so too was the “risk” when Chicago took the ball the other direction for a shot at the 92:34 mark.

Whether Frey could afford to stick with the attack-minded formation for very long would become a moot point thirty seconds later when Messiah attacked down the left side with freshman Brooke Firestone dribbling along the left edge of the box to the endline before firing off a centering cross that Sollenberger was just able to flick past the goalkeeper from 2 yards out with a defender on her backside. Game over. 1-0 to the Falcons on the type of cutting-edge attack that was largely missing all game.


Chicago ends their season with an 18-4-1 mark and their first Final Four appearance in ten years.  Messiah advances to the title game for the ninth time in 15 years, but for the first time since 2012 when they completed a streak of six straight finals. In a re-match of last year’s semifinal, the Falcons will face Washington U., winners over Brandeis in the earlier semifinal, in the 2016 championship final.

Other Semifinal Recaps:  Women's Semifinal 2 Men's Semifinal 1 | Semifinal 2
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