UNH Insider: Men’s soccer ready for America East playoffs

  • Chris Pinkham (left), a 2017 Concord High graduate, delivers a kick for the University of New Hampshire men’s soccer team against Vermont on March 12 in Durham at Wildcat Stadium. Courtesy of UNH Athletics

  • Chris Pinkham (19), a 2017 Concord High graduate, competes for the University of New Hampshire men's soccer team against Vermont on March 12 in Durham at Wildcat Stadium. Pinkham, a junior, has played in all seven games for the No. 10 Wildcats, and started three of the last four. UNH will face Hartford in Durham in Thursday’s America East semifinals. UNH Athletics

Published: 4/14/2021 2:01:36 PM

DURHAM –– They’ve been this way before. But as with most things in this odd, COVID-19 world, the situation is a little different this time around.

The University of New Hampshire men’s soccer team, ranked a program-best No. 10 this week in the United Soccer Coaches poll, is the top seed for the America East playoffs again this year and will be looking for its third straight tournament title.

Only the top four teams made it into the event and, also unlike past years, the entire tournament will be played at one site: UNH’s Wildcat Stadium. Ther will be a pair of semifinal games in Durham on Thursday and the winners will advance to play for the championship, and the league’s automatic bid into the NCAA tournament, on Saturday at 4 p.m. The Wildcats face the University of Hartford in the first semifinal at 2 p.m. Vermont plays NJIT at 7 p.m. in the second.

A limited number of spectators – and only UNH undergraduate students who have participated in the school’s COVID-19 testing – will be allowed into the games.

UNH, which had never won a league title before this streak started, is also gunning for a fourth straight trip to the NCAAs. That quest will start against Hartford, a team the Wildcats beat, 4-0, on March 26.

“Soccer’s a funny game regardless of the opponent,” said UNH senior Jacob Gould. “Things can be different each time you play. The ball can bounce your way or go the other team’s way. We have confidence in ourselves going into the game to get done what needs to be done, but it’s hard to beat a team twice. Hartford’s not a bad team by any means. They’ll probably have some emotion from the last time. It’s going to be tough again.”

UNH coach Marc Hubbard and his staff have reminded the team it faced a similar circumstance in the last America East playoffs in 2019.

The Wildcats beat Hartford, 5-0, in a regular season game and faced the Hawks again in the championship game.

“We won the final 1-0 and were holding on at the end to weather the storm,” Hubbard said.

The Wildcats have survived the challenge of playing sports in a pandemic to reach this point. Thanks in part to their depth, they have had people step up to fill roles when other players have had to sit out because of assorted COVID-19 protocols.

Aside from COVID-19, UNH lost four of its five starters on the defensive end of its formation from the 2019 team. The offense has boosted its production while the defense has developed.

“We knew the back end was going to be a work in progress coming into this year and we knew that we were improved on the attacking side,” Hubbard said. “We’ve scored some goals and have had fun doing that, so it’s been enjoyable. From a defensive standpoint we still have work to do and it’s still a focus for us to try and shore that up.”

The Wildcats are averaging 2.57 goals per game, which is the seventh best mark in the country. Grad student Paul Mayer leads the way with five goals and a pair of assists, but the ‘Cats have a balanced attack.

Sophomore Bilal Kamal and seniors Linus Fallberg and Victor Menudier have three goals each and sophomore Rory O’Driscoll has a pair.

“We’ve played a lot of guys, again because of the circumstances, and the biggest surprise may have been Victor Menudier,” Hubbard said. “He’s been a center back, playing defense, his whole life and we converted him to forward and he’s been real helpful up there.”

Grad student Alejandro Robles, the goalkeeper, is anchoring the defense as he did on the way to the 2019 championship.

A pair of grad transfers, Bridger Hansen (Westminster College) and Sam Henneberg (Catawba College), are among the group on defense.

“Bridger came in in January and keeps getting better,” Hubbard said. “Sam’s consistent at right backer. And having Robles back there has been super helpful. He’s a steady presence and our goalkeeper group overall has been real good and that speaks well for the future.”

Chris Pinkham, a 2017 Concord High graduate, has played in all seven games for UNH and started three of the last four. He’s played all over the field, but most of his starts have come on defense. Liam Bennett, a 2019 Concord High graduate, started the first five games for the Wildcats on the back end but had to miss the last two weeks due to a COVID exposure. Bennett returned to practice this past weekend and he is available to play in the AE tournament, but he’s back with the team now and ready to play this weekend.

The Wildcats have been highly ranked in the region and the country all season and Hubbard thinks they should be in good shape to get an at-large bid into the NCAA tournament if they don’t the league title and earn the automatic bid.

But the NCAA tournament has been trimmed to 36 teams, down from 48, because of COVID-19 and there are only 12 at-large spots available. Teams that don’t win their league’s auto bids leave the decision up to a selection committee.

“You don’t want to put it in anyone else’s hands,” Hubbard said. “We don’t want to think about that. We want to do the business this week.”

Even though having limited attendance in Wildcat Stadium means things won’t be quite the same as usual, Gould and his teammates are still looking forward to playing at home.

“It’s still nice playing at home, on the field you practice on every day,” he said. “You have more rituals when it comes to home games, whether it’s getting the breakfast you want, sleeping in a little more or going for a little jog in the morning that some guys do. Being able to get fans at the games now has been huge for us. It’s one of the reasons we all love to play.”

The tournament field

■Hartford is the No. 4 seed in the tournament with a 3-2-1 record, all America East games.

■No. 2 Vermont is 4-1-1, also with all America East games.

■No. 3 NJIT is 4-4-1 overall and 4-2-0 in America East.

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