After the Tigers men’s soccer team made a strong start in the season (10-6, 4-3 American Athletic Conference) as contenders to become the regular season AAC champions, all hope slipped away after they dropped three of their last four matches.
While sluggish play has plagued the team as of late, head coach Richard Mulrooney believes in his guys, but he ultimately knows they will decide if they have a fourth-place conference finish or win three straight to make history, possibly even reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years.
“They control their own destiny,” Mulrooney said after Tuesday’s 3-1 loss against USF. “[If] they come out and compete and win three games in a row, we’re going dancing.”
While they have won the most games since the 2011 season, their biggest test awaits them as they host their AAC Championship quarterfinal match against Temple this Saturday night. Despite a home field advantage any squad would want, the team might have preferred playing elsewhere.
Their overall home record sits at an even 4-4 record, but their most success has come from playing opponents on the road with a 5-1 mark. Even though they dropped their last home match against top-10 ranked UCF in a 1-0 heartbreaker Nov. 1, they won a school-record five-in-a-row away from Memphis (excluding two neutral site matches) and beat two top-10 teams earlier this season (former No. 3 SMU and No. 10 Xavier).
With this type of resume, if the club is able to win Saturday night, their chances of an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament should be almost undeniable. Their lone appearances in the event came in the 1993 and 2004 seasons.
The Tigers have the proper mixture of veterans and young talent on this year’s roster and have shown they can make a run for the title this campaign. Memphis Tigers’ soccer has not seen a conference championship from the men’s side since 2004, when Dayton O’Brien was the program’s first All-American.
Their only major loss from the year prior was the Venezuelan David Zalzman, when he was named to the All-AAC First Team. Keeping Gurman Sangha, Sam Ashton and Parker Lackland has been important.
The team has also seen helpful additions in freshmen Jovan Prado and Brendan Dexter, along with transfers of Christoforos Kourtis and Peter Chang who have both boosted the offense.
Mulrooney’s side has seen a vast improvement in their offense as they tallied nearly a dozen more goals than the previous season (22 in 2018 and 33 so far in 2019). Ashton, the senior from Portsmouth, England, has led the offense with 10 goals and three assists. While other players have been able to boost this once weaker offense, Mulrooney is proud of Ashton’s contribution this season.
“Obviously with Sam scoring goals, (if) you take him away I don’t know where we would be this year,” Mulrooney said. “Every team needs that, but we needed it a lot this year.”
A rematch with the Owls is first on the road to a conference title, and while sitting with a 7-7-2 record, Temple almost came in undefeated in their last six matches, but a 2-1 overtime loss against SMU last Tuesday halted their momentum a bit. Their hot streak all began in Memphis when they were on the winning side of a 2-1 overtime game on Oct. 12.
The key for Memphis will be to take advantage of counter attacks, as the Owls are not a strong offensive team with only 15 goals so far. Revenge should motivate this squad.
If Mulrooney’s side wins this quarterfinal matchup, do not be surprised to see another top-10 upset against host school UCF in the semis. In their previous game this year, Memphis held their own, Lackland had a standup performance, and a goal in the final minutes broke the heart of the team. Again, revenge will be the motivator.
Kick-off against Temple is set for 7 p.m. on South Campus, and I predict the Tigers winning their final home game of the season 3-2.