Against Santa Clara the UNLV men’s soccer squad were pressed hard in the first minutes of each half. Although they survived the first period, Santa Clara scored two in the opening minutes of the second half and it cost the Rebels the game.
UTRGV came into Peter Johann Stadium ranked in the top 25 nationally but having given #2 St Mary’s a stout battle, the Rebel’s shouldn’t have been awed by the visitor’s country-wide recognition. What did bother the home side was a combination of UTRGV’s quick attack, the strong wind, and UNLV’s repeated slow start. A fast push into UNLV’s half produced a corner at only 3 minutes and a short serve seemed to catch the Rebels by surprise. The Vaquero’s Arthur Rogers took the pass, fired a low ball across the UNLV goal where Angel Lopez hit it into the lower far net. The lightening fast goal indicated the quality of their opponents and only 12 minutes later Lopez hit a through ball to Juan Rivera which was borderline offside. The problem was that Rebel defenders stopped moving and the ball took a high bounce which Rivera poked past a surprised Lukas Betz. The 35 mph wind blowing in the Vaquero’s direction certainly helped them and adjusting to it was a problem for the Rebels.
One positive attribute of this season’s squad has been UNLV’s resilience and after that second goal, the home team settled down and worked a possession-based offense that prevented any further danger from UTRGV’s offense by denying them the ball. At first the play into the visitor’s half did little to threaten their goal, but gradually the Rebels began making inroads into the Vaquero’s territory. UNLV adopted a 2-forward attack for this match instead of their standard 3 and the John Lyman/Marco Gonzales top began interacting with the Rebels expanded midfield to produce some quality strikes at the Vaquero’s goal. During this span Marco and Timo came close with only a last second disconnect between the two preventing a score. And at 39 minutes the Rebels frequent penetration down their right forced a UTRGV foul. Niko Clasen’s direct kick was parried toward the goal, Timo Mehlich fired a blast which blocked, the rebound was poked but unfortunately for UNLV the 4 shot spurt did not find the goal. Only 4 minutes later Skyler Goo fired a ball at the upper near corner (down UNLV’s right again) but keeper Andy Rios somehow got a hand on it and the Reb’s were still frustrated. Considering their top-level opponent, the howling wind blowing against them and the score, this 25-minute span might have been the best soccer played by the Rebels this year. They were patient, confident, mixed their attack with their possession and used their offensive movement force UTRGV’s defense into scrambling to preserve the shutout. Given the change of sides (and wind advantage) things looked optimistic for the second half.
The problem playing with a strong wind at one’s back is mental as much as physical. The temptation to merely put the ball up into the wind will interrupt even the most mature of teams ground -based offenses and the tendency of wind-pushed through passes to run away from potential pass receivers can frustrate the best of teams. The second half found both of these effects stymieing UNLV’s attack. Granted, UTRGV didn’t offer much offense for the Rebels to defend against, but the home team didn’t find the success of the latter first half in the second. The Vaquero’s understood the challenge of defending their lead against the wind and an opponent who had rattled them in the first half and they were much more resolute in the second. The Rebels tried a mixture of long ball and possession attack
and finally earned a couple corner’s in the 60th minute. Clasen has been typically on target with his free kicks and corners this season, but this time he was off on his connections. As time wore down, the Rebels tried moving personnel into better positions, but to no avail. The movement and passing which characterized that excellent period in the first half didn’t appear when needed most in the latter half and this produced a disconnect between the Rebels back line, who continued to play a patient possession game into the last stages of the game and their forward players who seemed to expect a more urgent , although less structured, hit-it-up-into-the-wind approach. The result was little productive offense other than the corners and UTRGV was happy to take the 2-0 result.
The Rebels next opponents are a significant step down from the likes of UTRGV and St Marys. Although the coming matches are away, if UNLV can 1) find the quality they displayed in the 2nd quarter of the UTRGV match and 2) avoid playing to the level of their opponents, they could come back home in mid- October with a couple positive results to turn the season around.