ALBUQUERQUE – In what could have been the upset of the year, the No. 15 Matador men’s soccer team simply fell short, losing 1-0 Saturday in overtime to No. 2 seed New Mexico in the NCAA Tournament’s third-round Sweet 16.
Having already accomplished the staggering feat of winning their first-ever NCAA Tournament game Nov. 22 against the UC Santa Barbara Gauchos, the Matadors came out physically ready, as if a win over the second seed and nearly unanimous No. 1 team in national polls was not only possible, but promising. In fact, it was the Matadors who looked to be the aggressor, attempting eight shots in the final 30 minutes of play.
After 90 scoreless minutes, the Matadors and the Lobos took their battle for a spot in the Elite Eight to overtime, where the first team to score would win the match.
But it would not take long, and with just 34 seconds gone by Lobo Blake Danaher intercepted a loose ball 10 feet outside the Matador box and sent a cross-pass to senior teammate and star forward Jeff Rowland. Rowland immediately took the ball and charged to the left side of the field, chipping the ball over the head of freshman goalkeeper Kevin Guppy for the game-ending score.
“We turned it over in a bad area,” said Matador head coach Terry Davila. “And they capitalized on a mistake. I was disappointed with the result.”
“We gave it away,” Guppy said. “It was one of their guys on two or three of us.”
Although the Matadors failed to score a goal, the team was relentless, attempting 15 total shots. With 21:07 left in the first half, sophomore Sean Franklin attempted a shot on goal, only to be denied by Lobo keeper Mike Graczyk.
The ball was then deflected to the foot of senior Daniel Paladini, who launched it at the top of the post only to watch it redirect off Lobo Andrew Boyens’ head and out of bounds. Just 45 seconds later, Paladini would get another attempt, but it too was denied.
Matador junior forward Willie Sims had the best chances to score for the Matadors, attempting two shots on three breakaway opportunities.
In minute 46, Guppy sent a goal kick soaring high and deep into Lobo territory. Sims took the pass and beat his defender, with only the Lobo goalkeeper left to overcome. But his attempt found the hands of Graczyk, who spoiled the Matador threat.
With nearly five minutes gone by in the second half, Sims received his second breakaway on goal, but while attempting his shot he was plowed over from behind in the Lobo box. The result was an uncharacteristic no-call, which left a deflated Sims lying stunned on the field after expecting a penalty kick.
“In the second half we dominated,” Davila said. “I thought there was a penalty kick late in the game that the (referees) missed, but I am proud of this group, very proud. It should have been our game.”
Guppy was nothing short of amazing throughout the entire game, coming up huge for the Matadors with three pivotal saves, several occurring during key momentum-shifting Lobo possessions.
In minute 23, New Mexico’s Rowland attempted a shot on goal from the right elbow that was pulled out of the sky by Guppy. Guppy would also make two more saves, each requiring him to leave his feet.
The way in which the Lobo’s field is arranged made it possible for selected fans, from the 4,849 people in attendance, to line up around the side and elbows of the field, bringing them within an ears length of Guppy. The disturbing part, however, was the negative, and sometimes profane, taunts that came from the surrounding Lobo fans.
“I really didn’t expect it,” Guppy said. “I knew there would be a lot of fans, but they were even talking about my family.”
For the Matador freshman goalkeeper, maintaining his composure, although not recorded on the stat sheet, was as important as his saves within the posts.
“With all these screaming fans, calling Guppy any word they could possibly think of – that got over the line a little bit,” Davila said. “But it is a hostile area.”
For seniors Zach Feldman, Daniel Paladini, Will Beard and Alec de Mattos, the loss would be their last collegiate soccer game. With that in mind, the result was somewhat bittersweet.
“It’s a great experience,” Paladini said. “Obviously, we wanted to go further – this team is like my family.”
Feldman expressed similar sentiments.
“There is no tomorrow,” he said. That’s it – It was all or nothing.”
Surprisingly, several CSUN students made the long haul across three states and nearly 13 hours away from Northridge to attend this historical Sweet 16 game. Despite temperatures as low as 38 degrees with wind chill, many of the CSUN faithful could be heard cheering and yelling from among the sea of Lobos fans.
“The fans that came out – we felt them and appreciate it,” Davila said. “They should be proud of this group that represented our school very well. They carry the Northridge name with a lot of pride.”
Matt Osias can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org