Hamilton, ON- In some ways, it was a litmus test game for a McMaster Marauders men’s soccer squad on the rise.
The Marauders had just come off a road victory against the Brock Badgers. They were on a four-game winning streak. They were climbing up the standings in the OUA West. Now, two days before Thanksgiving, the number one ranked York Lions came into town.
The Lions showed why they were number one early on, controlling the ball, creating chances and spending a lot of time in the Marauders end.
McMaster defender Xavier Thomas said they made changes to their formation to match up against York’s possession-based attack. “We can congest the midfield and try and counter,” he said.
York found their opening goal as Soji Olatoye got the ball inside the box, made a move and blasted the ball past goalie Ethan Cagalj.
The visitors continued the pressure with 18 shots at halftime to McMaster’s one. Right before halftime, they got a penalty kick.
While Cagalj saved the penalty shot from Jaytin Pabla, the rebound bounced right to Pabla, who shot it in.
The Marauders matched the Lions with five shots each in the second half as Olatoye found Justin Hendricks for another goal in the 52nd minute.
To make matters worse, forward Amir Shirazi picked up his second yellow card in the 56th minute, making the comeback even more difficult. The Marauders pushed but were unable to find the back of the net, losing 3-0.
The Lions’ intensity stood out to Thomas. “We didn’t have any time to breathe,” he said. “We didn’t have any time to relax and come out guns blazing and put a lot of pressure on them because that’s what they did to us.”
The Marauders’ plan was to match the Lions’ intensity, according to him. For him, it also involved matching the intensity of the game as he was coming off an injury. He got onto the field briefly against Brock and was now facing the Lions in his first extended game action back.
McMaster head coach Chris Markou said he knew the first 15 minutes of the game were going to be tough.
“They’re a very technical, very intelligent team,” he said. “They have a system which they play and they play it really well…we were disciplined and we held on for as long as we could.”
The Marauders came into the game on a high. After losing to the defending OUA champion Guelph Gryphons at home, the team won games against Windsor, Waterloo and Brock.
Markou credited the team’s cohesion. He pointed to veterans Gianluca Spadafora, Miles Green, Ahmad Mansour and Dante Morrissette as leaders who helped build that cohesion.
“These are experienced and talented players who have played at a very very high level,” he added. “They carry a lot of responsibility on and off the field and it’s good for all the younger guys who look up to them and realize that this is the standard that they set.”
The veterans have come from different paths. Co-captains Spadafora and Green have been with the Marauders since the start of their university careers. Mansour came from the Waterloo Warriors while Morrissette came from the Michigan State Spartans.
During the winning streak, the Marauders also came together as a team, according to Thomas. He said that it’s a new team coming into the season. Twelve players have departed from last year’s team with several new players coming in, including eight in their first year of university soccer.
“It was a clean slate. Everyone’s kind of on the same level,” he added. “No one came in with too much weight under their belt but there was an understanding that once you come here, you come to play.”
Markou referenced the roster turnover. He knew about the “dogfight” they were facing in the competitive OUA West. “I told them, our unity and our togetherness is what’s going to get us some points down the road,” he recalled.
It’s taken time but they’ve build that cohesion over the course of the season. They also have a chip on their shoulder to carry that momentum forward, according to Thomas.
“We kept the pressure high,” he noted. “The preparation towards training, we pushed each other, tried to lift each other up. Remind each other of the goal. Yeah, we have a four-game winning streak but the goal is the OUA finals and the U SPORTS finals.”
On a brisk Saturday afternoon in October, they faced a team that’s been in those finals numerous times over the years – and won them . It’s a team that could be in their path towards achieving those goals this season. The Lions lead the OUA with 25 points with eight wins and one draw. They are among OUA and national favourites once again.
“I think the guys realized today that maybe how far off the mark we are in terms of the top teams in the country,” Markou said. “There’s a good lesson. We’ll take off, we’ll see the positives from it and move forward.”
Markou talked about the York’s ball movement and possession, their confidence on the ball and ability to use space. “We hope to match that at some point. We have the players that can do it” he added. “Today fell a bit short but just a bad day at the office.”
Featured Image: Kevin Lassel/McMaster Athletics