Memphis men’s soccer earns first ever NCAA Tournament win, advances to play North Carolina
Just by making the NCAA Tournament this year, the University of Memphis men’s soccer program had made history. This year was the first time that the Tiger have made the NCAA Tournament in consecutive seasons and the first time they had hosted an NCAA Tournament game. But they weren’t satisfied with just making that bit of history and it showed as they won an NCAA Tournament game for the very first time, 2-1 over the visiting Cougars of SIU-Edwardsville. It was Coach Richard Mulrooney’s absolute favorite win in his time as the Tigers coach.
“Top. It’s the top. I mean, just the magnitude of it. First game in history at Memphis for a first round game. Second year we’ve made it, last year we were on the road and took a loss. But at the end of the day, it’s the biggest one. You can’t take anything away from it and we’ve had some big ones even this year.”
The Tigers were facing a formidable opponent as SIU-Edwardsville hadn’t lost a single game all season and were the #24 team in the country. Memphis came out the much more aggressive team and the early aggression paid off as with only ten minutes off the clock the Tigers took the lead through their talisman Lineker Rodrigues dos Santos. They weren’t done yet though, as with just under 20 minutes remaining in the first half, the Tigers launched a devastating counterattack that saw dos Santos bag his second of the night off a great feed from Elie Bokota to give the Tigers a 2-0 lead. Coach Mulrooney, not for the first time this season, expressed pride in the way his team is dangerous on the counter.
“Yeah, I’ll put our team up against anybody with that. The way we can get up the field, the vision, the right passes, obviously balls out wide. And when you’ve got a guy like this up top that can finish anything, whether it’s a ball on the ground or in the air, it makes it easy. But in saying that, he’ll give his teammates just as much credit in that it takes three or four passes to get it up there. I mean, we’re dangerous on the counter.”
For his part, dos Santos was certainly aware of the challenge facing the Tigers tonight, with SIUE having gone 19 games unbeaten all season.
“Oh yeah. I mean we’ve played against ranked teams all year long” he said. “It’s something we’ve worked on during practice to just kind of keep our head down and just work hard and results are going to come. They did beat us in preseason so that was extra motivation for us to just come out and play our hearts out. And the importance of this game just helped even better.”
But as Brooks Monaghan pointed out after the Memphis women’s win over LSU on Saturday night, 2-0 can be a dangerous lead in a soccer game. Sure enough, the Cougars found a way to get back into the game with 30 minutes to play by playing a long ball that caught the Memphis defense napping to halve the deficit. Things then took a dramatic turn as the Tigers, despite holding onto a one goal lead, kept pressing their attack and eventually got dos Santos in on goal for what would have been his hat trick. The goalkeeper for SIUE had other plans, however, and put in a crunching tackle just outside the penalty area with no other defenders around. As a result, he was sent off and shown a red card and the Cougars found themselves not just down a goal, but down a man as well.
From there the Tigers defended very well and were able to hold on to secure a historic win for the program which left Coach Mulrooney bursting with pride.
“Obviously, I’m proud of my guys. That was a complete performance against a team that challenged us in different ways. We bent a little bit but didn’t break. First half was excellent to get the two goals, probably could have been more but don’t want to get greedy. But just the possession and knocking it around. The experience from last year helped. Playing in a game last year, having some experienced guys come back from the first NCAA game last year now this one. They say experience helps and it helped my team tonight for sure.”
With a historic NCAA Tournament win in the books, the Tigers now advance to the second round for the first time in program history. There they will face the North Carolina Tar Heels. North Carolina is a powerhouse program in the ACC. They’ve won two national titles, been to ten College Cups, and won their conference (regular season or tournament) a total of seven times. This year they are the #3 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament after having gone 10-3-6 this season and falling on penalties to Clemson in the ACC Championship Game. It’s a massive challenge for the Tigers but also a tremendous opportunity.
“Yeah, great opportunity. Like I said we all know the name ‘North Carolina.’ There’s championships there, it’s the ACC and playing at their place. Obviously the history of not only the men’s side but the women. Here we have our women’s program and we’re proud of it. They have the same thing there.
Going into the game I can honestly say I haven’t watched any of their games this year. I haven’t had to focus on them. That will change tonight and going into tomorrow. But as I tell my guys, it’s about us. It’s about us. We’ve played some good teams this year. SMU’s been the #3 or #2 team in the country. If I’m not mistaken, North Carolina’s around there as well. Obviously Missouri State was #10.”
And as the press conference wound down, Coach Mulrooney echoed the scene in the movie Hoosiers where Gene Hackman shows his players the measurements for the state championship game are the same as at their home gym in Hickory.
“When we set up our non-conference and obviously our conference schedule to play those teams, it’s to prep us for these opportunities. They’re college student athletes like my players are. They play with the same white ball and play on the same rectangular field. There’s nothing different other than us going out and competing. It’s on their home field but we’ve won on some big fields this year away from home as well.”
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