’Cats eye three-peat: UNH to play for AE men’s soccer title on Saturday vs. Vermont

  • University of New Hampshire junior Chris Pinkham, a 2017 Concord High graduate, keeps the ball away from Hartford’s Jovante Etienne during an America East men’s soccer semifinal match on Thursday at Wildcat Stadium in Durham. Pinkham assisted on the first goal of the 2-0 win.

  • University of New Hampshire junior Chris Pinkham, a 2017 Concord High graduate, controls the ball during an America East men's soccer semifinal match on Thursday April, 15, at Wildcat Stadium in Durham. Pinkham assisted on the first goal and UNH, the two-time defending AE champions, won, 2-0, to advance to Saturday's conference championship game. CHINA WONG—UNHWildcats.com

  • University of New Hampshire freshman Liam Bennett, a 2019 Concord High graduate, surveys the field during an America East men's soccer semifinal match on Thursday April, 15, at Wildcat Stadium in Durham. UNH, the two-time defending AE champions, won, 2-0, to advance to Saturday's conference championship game. CHINA WONG—UNHWildcats.com

  • University of New Hampshire freshman Liam Bennett, a 2019 Concord High graduate, battles Hartford’s Jordan Koduah during an America East men’s soccer semifinal match on Thursday. UNH, the two-time defending AE champions, won, 2-0, to advance to Saturday’s conference championship. CHINA WONG photos / UNHWildcats.com

Monitor staff
Published: 4/16/2021 4:55:58 PM

They passed all the COVID tests, didn’t drop a game in the regular season and now, after beating Hartford in Thursday’s semifinals, the University of New Hampshire men’s soccer team will play for a third straight America East conference championship on Saturday in Durham against Vermont.

“To have a chance to win a championship on your home field is a real special thing,” UNH coach Mark Hubbard said after Thursday’s 2-0 win. “So, we’re looking forward to recovering and preparing for Saturday.”

The Wildcats (7-0-1) earned the right to host the AE playoffs by winning the league’s regular-season championship, which they clinched with a 2-1 win at Vermont (5-1-1) back on April 9. The two teams also met on March 12 in Durham, a match that ended in a 0-0 draw, the only blemish on New Hampshire’s record in this shortened 2021 season.

The winner of Saturday’s AE final will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. Even with a loss, No. 10 UNH has a chance to receive an at-large bid to the NCAAs, but that event has been reduced from 48 to 36 teams this season, so there are only 12 at-large bids available.

The Wildcats won the AE title in 2018 and 2019, and since there was no 2020 tournament, they now have a chance to become just the third team in conference history to three-peat. They won the 2019 title on their home field, so Hubbard is speaking from experience when he says winning a championship on your home field is a, “real special thing.” Of course UNH likes playing in Durham no matter what the occasion – the team is 33-1-5 all-time at Wildcat Stadium, outscoring the opposition 76-14 in those games, and 4-0-1 this year at home.

Vermont earned its trip to the final with a 1-0 win against NJIT in Thursday’s second semifinal at UNH. The Catamounts scored in the eighth minute and then posted their fifth shutout of the season. They came into the semifinal ranked fifth in the country in goals against, allowing just 0.43 goals per contest (three total).

The two matches between Vermont and New Hampshire this spring have been physical, especially the March 12 game, when there were 37 fouls (20 for UVM, 17 for UNH) and eight yellow cards (four each).

Concord’s Chris Pinkham came on as a first-half midfield sub for UNH against Hartford on Thursday and contributed to the scoring. Pinkham, a 2017 Concord High grad, sent a ball into the box that found UNH’s Victor Menudier. Hartford keeper Rotem Fadida stopped Menudier’s first shot, but Menudier stuck with it and his second attempt gave UNH a 1-0 lead just before halftime.

“A goal right before half is always good,” Hubbard said. “It’s an important time on either side of the half.”

Menudier, a converted defender, struck just two minutes after halftime, as well, this time on an assist from Sam Henneberg.

“We were happy to lead (at) halftime, but it was a big concern to score the second one,” Menudier said.

Liam Bennett, a 2019 Concord High graduate, was back in UNH’s starting lineup after missing the last two weeks due to COVID-19 protocols. A redshirt freshman defender, Bennett started the first five games for the Wildcats as part of a fully revamped back line.

“Trying to find some rhythm there has been a challenge, and we’re definitely giving up cleaner chances than we would like to or that we’re accustomed to,” Hubbard said of his defense. “But we have a pretty decent rotation of guys who understand what they’re doing, and going forward, if we can remain healthy, we’re only going to get better back there.”

The former anchor of that back line, Bedford’s Josh Bauer, signed a contract with Atlanta United of MLS on Thursday. Bauer was the AE Defender of the Year in 2018 and 2019, and he was the No. 31 overall selection in the 2021 MLS SuperDraft.

“It’s a great message for all of the guys that come into our program that you can come into a program like ours and develop into that level of a player. It’s possible,” Hubbard said of Bauer’s signing.

In Atlanta, Bauer will play for coach Gabriel Heinze, who was a defender for Manchester United and Real Madrid during his playing days.

“Josh has done well during preseason and will add competition to our defensive group,” said Atlanta United Vice President and Technical Director Carlos Bocanegra, a two-time MLS Defender of the Year himself who played professionally in England, France and Spain. “He’s a player we tracked throughout his college career and were pleased to have the opportunity to select him where we did.”




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