ONLINE EXCLUSIVE STORY BY ADAM ROGAN
Going up against one of the best goalkeepers — and best teams — in the nation, the Drake Bulldogs were able to outscore the no. 17 Kentucky University Wildcats 2-1 in the first round of the NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament.
Drake earned its first berth in the tournament since 2009 after winning 1-0 against SIUE in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Final thanks to a 78th minute goal from redshirt freshman Paul Ciszewski.
Against Kentucky, it only took 19 minutes for the Bulldogs to get on the scoreboard.
A corner kick from junior James Wypych led to a headed attempt by redshirt senior Alec Bartlett. That shot was blocked by Kentucky goalkeeper Callum Irving, but Bartlett collected his own rebound and his second shot would not be saved.
Not only did the goal give Drake a 1-0 lead in its biggest match of the season so far, but it was also only the 12th goal that Irving has given up all season.
The Bulldogs were able to take that lead as a result of its high-pressure strategy in the first half. They outshot the Wildcats 11-4 in the first 45 minutes, as well as taking four corners, three more than Kentucky.
Part of the reason the Bulldogs were able to be so aggressive were the losses that the Wildcats are dealing with. They have three players down with injury, as well as one player serving a red card after receiving a red card in his previous match.
And even though the Bulldogs had been able to keep Kentucky on its heels for the beginning of the match, it was clear that they would not go down without a fight. One minute later, the Wildcats revealed their claws.
A 20th minute corner kick found the head of Kentucky midfielder Kevin Barajas for the equalizer, his second goal of 2015. It was the first goal that Drake goalkeeper Darrin MacLeod has surrendered this postseason.
With the match tied, the pace slowed. Neither team wanted to fall behind and give their opponent the advantage going into halftime.
Kentucky took its second corner of the match with less than 10 seconds left in the half. It was a dangerous ball into the box, but a Bulldog header cleared the danger. With 45 minutes gone, the match was all square 1-1.
The second half began in much the same way as the first with Drake still on the attack. The difference was that Kentucky wanted a second goal too.
In the 56th minute, Kentucky forward Zahne Reid was able to slice between two Drake defenders at the side of the box and put a shot on goal. MacLeod fell on top of the ball. Reed didn’t have much of an angle on the net, but it showed the weakness in the Bulldogs’ aggressive strategy.
They were vulnerable to the counter-attack as the Bulldogs’ midfielders continued to push up on the attack, leaving their defenders alone to contain Kentucky’s forwards. However, the Drake defense — headed by the 6-foot-4 Bartlett — was more than capable and continued to create possessions for the Bulldogs.
Drake had another attack in the 60th minute, but two clutch defensive slide tackles turned it into a Wildcat offensive. KU forward Andrew McKelvey was able to take a strong shot from just outside the box on counter, but the ball curled just left of the net out of bounds.
The Bulldogs responded on the following possession. Freshman Nic Jaimes put a strike on the net from 30 yards out, but it was fired directly at Irving for the save.
Kentucky had another prime opportunity on a corner in the 67th minute, but a diving save from MacLeod and a boot out of bounds by the Bulldogs’ defense staved the attack.
Drake wasn’t playing as aggressively in the second half as they had at the beginning of the match, which is part of why Kentucky’s attacks had become more common, but also more easily thwarted. And although the Bulldogs’ aggression had gotten them in the lead earlier on, smarter and more conservative play put them back on top.
An array of passes in the 75th minute prolonged a Drake possession that turned into their second goal of the match. Redshirt sophomore Alex Prusa found some space down the sideline and put a cross into the box. Defender James Grunert was waiting with even more space around him and headed the ball into the corner of the net.
Drake: 2, Kentucky: 1.
This was the first time all season that Irving has given up more than one goal in a match — both of them to defenders — and it couldn’t have come at a better time for the Bulldogs. Drake was in control once again, and now all that mattered was preventing a second Wildcat equalizer.
Kentucky would make significant push into the attacking third as the clock closed in on the 80th minute, but a perfectly executed slide tackle by Bartlett cleared the ball out of bounds.
The Bulldogs controlled possession over the next several minutes in Kentucky territory, successfully running the clock past the 85th minute. Kentucky would regain control in the final minutes and put several crosses into the box, but each was cleared without worry.
A pass from Wypych to Jaimes put the ball in Drake’s possession in its attacking half as the clock reached 90 minutes.
Kentucky’s season came to a close and Drake’s will continue. The Bulldogs will face no. 12 Creighton at 2 p.m. this Sunday in Omaha, NB for the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Drake and Creighton already met on Oct. 6 this season at a time when Creighton was still undefeated and ranked no. 1 in the nation. That match ended 2-1 in favor of the Blue Jays, as the Bulldogs surrendered two late goals after taking a lead in the first half.
Creighton will enter Sunday’s match a first round bye, while Drake has the momentum of four consecutive postseason wins.