By: Akshai Wadhwani
BOSTON, MA – Through the first 45 minutes of their Friday clash with Massachusetts, the Boston University men’s soccer team looked to be headed for another evening of disappointment.
The Terriers spent much of the opening half on the back foot, seemingly stuck on repeat from their previous matches this season—they ceded the majority of ball possession to their opponents, and failed to put together cohesive offensive maneuvers.
Additionally, BU seemed overeager to hammer home their distinctive tactic of exerting high levels of physicality on their opposition. By halftime, the Scarlet and White had already racked up eight fouls—a figure head coach Neil Roberts expressed distaste towards in his postmatch commentary.
“We just fouled too much,” he said. “We were just fouling too much in their half of the field.”
The real crux in the first half, however, lay not in sloppily conceded set pieces but in the inherent problems of BU’s defensive shape. Roberts deployed his squad in what appeared to be a 3-5-2 formation, with Ben Valek, Josh Barkoff, and David Riccio making up a trio of center backs while Maxwell Aunger and Toti Knutsson looked to be pulling double duty as both wingers and wing backs.
In practice, Aunger and Knutsson were often slow to track back and cover the wide zones of the BU half; that left massive spaces on the wings, which UMass constantly exploited and eventually utilized in opening the goalscoring.
On a breakaway through the midfield, Dylan Cranmer’s aerial pass picked out right winger Yosuke Hanya. With Aunger absent to defend him and BU’s three center backs scrambling to cover oncoming runners, Hanya was left with the time and space to deliver a precision cross which found Jack Fulton for the near post finish. The 41st minute goal topped off a lackluster frame for the hosts.
The second half kickoff, however, served as the introduction for an entirely revamped BU side.
The Terriers demonstrated sharper chemistry, made crisper passes, and employed a far more effective counterpress. Roberts attributed the improvement to cleaner play and better possession of the ball—as well as revitalized midfield play from Satchel Cortet and Gent Celaj.
“We stopped the fouling…and we possessed the ball. We got it from side-to-side,” he assessed. “Satchel did a better job, and Gent came in and played a big role for us. It was good to see.”
After continued pressure, BU struck gold early in the stanza via the familiar face of Matt McDonnell.
The junior forward probably deserves an assist for his own goal. He earned a free kick just beyond the right-side edge of the box by throwing his body in between the goal line and a UMass defender, as the latter tried to shepherd the ball out of play, and resultantly drew a foul in an opportunistic area. Then, on the ensuing delivery from Cortet, McDonnell pounced on a loose ball and drove home a low shot with the outside of his right foot.
The score, which came relatively early in the latter frame, signaled full steam ahead for BU as they continued to push for a second. Their momentum was disrupted by a controversial retaking of the lead by the Minutemen, in which goalkeeper William Bonnelyche appeared to be illegally impeded as Fulton’s corner kick was headed back across goal and flicked in by Brandon Merklin. But, rather than hang their heads, the Terriers reassumed the torch and ruled the half from the 70th minute onwards.
Yet, despite launching wave after wave of attacks, the match was still beginning to look like “one of those days” for BU—especially after McDonnell saw himself somehow denied a second when his point-blank header produced a superhuman save out of Minuteman keeper Trey Miller. All in all, UMass appeared to be outlasting their hosts for a 2-1 victory.
That all changed within 34 seconds.
First, at 83:35, came the equalizer. Barkoff put an excellent cross into the box from the right flank, and Knutsson had the first go at it with a volleyed effort at the near post. Miller made the stop, but could only palm the ball as far as—you guessed it—the ever-present McDonnell, who tapped the rebound into a practically empty net to complete his brace.
Then, at 84:09, came a screamer of a go-ahead goal from Kari Petursson.
The Icelandic freshman maintained the ball towards the left flank, 25 yards or so from goal. Lifting his head to scan the penalty area, Petursson then looped a ball into the box—a ball which then proceeded to brush over Miller’s outstretched fingertips, sail over his head, and nestle in the back of the net. The tally seemed to resemble a cross-turned-accidentally brilliant chip shot; Roberts, however, was adamant that the play was fully intentional.
“That wasn’t a missed cross,” he insisted. “Kari saw the keeper, where he was standing, and he went for goal. It was a very experienced play for a young kid.”
Whatever the case, Petursson’s first career goal was fit to win any match. It certainly did the job for the Terriers, who confirmed a 3-2 comeback triumph—and their first win of the season—when the final whistle sounded less than six minutes later.
Final shot count finished at 12-7 in BU’s favor; likewise shots on goal count, at 6-2. A whopping 33 fouls were committed over the course of the match, with yellow cards issued to UMass’s Davis Smith and BU’s Mana Chavali.
Matt McDonnell now has five goals in three matches, making for what is likely one of the most glorious returns ever by a BU player after he missed much of last season due to injury.
“I’m just trying to get in the right positions, get on the end of some crosses, and just put it home,” McDonnell explained when asked about his prolific form this season. “[I’m trying to] make sure it [my finishing] is clean, just focus, and take a breath before the ball gets to me.”
McDonnell also humbly attributed his success to wing play from his teammates.
“It all comes from the guys out wide, and helping them get the ball out wide and start in that position,” he said.
Coach Roberts added extensive praise for his star forward’s commitment to recovery and overall work ethic.
“I knew from when I saw Matt when he came back for the summer [that] he prepared very, very well physically and mentally [for this season],” Roberts said. “He’d been hurt last year. It was a tough year for him; he was trying to play, but he had some injuries that were not allowing him to get in shape, and not allowing him to play like he likes to play. But he really prepared well. He’s healthy.
“And it’s not just the goals, which obviously will take. It’s the ability to knock balls off, to hold balls up. And [when] we get the lead, he’s playing in the midfield as a defensive player. That man did a lot of running—he easily put in ten miles in this game today. He didn’t stop. He battles…he wins so many balls in the air.”
Aided largely by far more effective cover from their wing backs in the second half, BU’s trio of central defenders were able to bunker down and stave off several offensive pushes by the Minutemen. A particular standout in this operation was Josh Barkoff, who remained an anchor in the middle for the entirety of the match; his shining moment came in the second half, in the form of a sprinting recovery, followed by a crunching tackle, to block UMass forward DeAndrae Brown from entering a one-on-one in the box.
“Josh Barkoff is another guy that just really [works hard],” Roberts said of his senior center back. “We put him in the midfield for this game to battle with number six [UMass’s Smith], and he did an extremely, extremely good job.”
So, first victory of the season accomplished. Where do the Terriers go from here?
“We’re still finding ourselves,” Roberts admitted. “I think the fight and the character of the group is good. We just need to clean some things up.”
Next Up: The Terriers take to the road for the next two weeks, beginning a three-game tour of the Ivy League with a Tuesday slate against Dartmouth.