CLEMSON, S.C. – As far as an introduction to its new conference goes, even the likes of James Cameron couldn’t have planned a better script for the UCF men’s soccer team.
Faced with a road matchup against a top-10 nationally-ranked opponent in their first contest as members of the Sun Belt, the Knights overcame an early deficit to snatch a 2-1 victory over the No. 4/9 Clemson Tigers (Top Drawer Soccer/United Soccer Coaches) at Historic Riggs Field.
“To go down 1-0 so early in the match was incredibly difficult for the group, and our response showed our belief, and that we continued to work our way back in the game,” said head coach Scott Calabrese. “Once our guys figured it out, we really came back incredibly strong in the second part of the first half and started to get ahold of the game.”
The winning effort marked the Knights’ first against a ranked opponent since downing then-No. 13 Charlotte, also by a 2-1 decision, Oct. 21, 2022, and their first against a nationally-ranked top-10 foe since UCF topped then-No. 6 Tulsa Oct. 10, 2021. Going with Top Drawer Soccer’s rankings, UCF earned its first win against an opponent ranked in the top five since Oct. 2, 2010, when the Knights edged then-No. 5 SMU by a 2-1 margin.
The historic victory, the first by the Knights against Clemson in program history, came on the strength of two Knights tallying the first goals of their respective collegiate careers: a strike just before the halftime whistle by freshman Saku Heiskanen in the 43rd minute and a header with pinpoint accuracy from Emmanuel Bam just seconds before the 70th.
“When you go on the road and you play a top team and you suffer a bit of adversity but can find it in yourselves to compete at the level we did, the confidence of the team builds our belief in each other,” Calabrese continued. “Juanvi made some great saves in the game and was a calm presence in goal and transmitted that to the team.”
With his team trailing 1-0 following a Tigers penalty kick goal just seconds into the match, fifth-year senior AJ Seals brought the ball across midfield and made a quick pass to sophomore Clarence Awoudor.
The transfer from Oregon State brought it across to the far side before dishing to Heiskanen at the corner of the box. After taking a few strides toward the middle of the field, Heiskanen unleashed a mighty kick that beat Clemson netminder Joseph Andema to his right, knotting the affairs at one goal apiece with just 2:29 remaining in the first half.
UCF, in firm command of the flow of the match, took the lead for good later in the second half with help from a Tigers infraction that preceded a red card in the 64th minute. Clemson’s Adam Lundegard found himself in a heated pursuit of Heiskanen bearing down on the Tigers net. Just before entering the box, the Clemson defender appeared to trip the Knights freshman and was slapped with the card moments later, dropping the Tigers to 10 men for the remainder of the match.
The Black and Gold wasted no time taking advantage of their opponent’s miscue, started by Yanis Belatrache’s dribble into enemy territory as the clock neared 21 minutes to play. He slowed, and sent a pass toward a surging Heiskanen on the near side of the box.
With Andema out of position near the back line, Heiskanen returned a pass to Belatrache, who immediately sent a cross pass to Bam with enough elevation for a seamless header for the Knights’ second goal of the evening.
The offensive support represented more than enough for UCF netminder Juanvi Muñoz, who, after committing a foul in the box that led to Clemson’s first-minute score, turned aside the final two shots on goal he faced of the Tigers’ seven total shots.
When the final whistle blew, the Knights held a 10-7 advantage in the shot column, including a 5-3 edge in shots on goal.
“I’m really happy for Emmanuel in particular. For him to get [the winner], he has worked incredibly hard the last year and throughout the summer,” Calabrese added. “For Saku to get [a goal], it’s a great start to show [for them both].”
With the emotional win now in the rear-view mirror and a 1-0 record, UCF will look to continue its momentum in its Sunday evening home-opener against the Stetson Hatters. The start time for the Aug. 27 match is slated for 8 p.m. from the UCF soccer complex.
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