ORLANDO – One aspect of the game that the No. 14 UCF men's soccer team had not yet needed to display was its fortitude when trailing late.
Through its first two matches, the first of which came on the road at then-No. 4/9 Clemson and then at home against the Stetson Hatters, the Knights never trailed in the second half of play.
Donning its Canaveral blue kits in honor of its first Space Game since 2015, UCF received its chance to show what it was made of Friday evening and didn't squander it, coming back from an early 1-0 deficit with a trio of second-half goals to win its third straight match to begin the campaign, 3-1, over the visiting NC State Wolfpack at the UCF Soccer Complex.
The victory clinched the first 3-0-0 start to a season in the Scott Calabrese era, and the first such beginning to a campaign for the Knights since the 2011 season, when UCF remained unbeaten through its first seven matches, compiling a 6-0-1 record. UCF also locked up its first victory that included at least three second-half scores in a comeback win since Sept. 15, 2018, when the Knights trailed Stetson 1-0 at halftime and later surged to a 4-1 victory.
"We started the game really strong and we took control of the game. We were able to keep possession and we were able to pin them back," Calabrese said. "Even though [NC State's goal] did happen, there wasn't a ton of frustration. There's a lot of belief in the group that, 'Okay, we're 1-0 down, we've got 45 minutes that we can come back and score goals, and that we would fight our way back into the game."'
Not unlike the now-14th-ranked Knights' first two matches this season, UCF locked down every facet of the contest, surrendering only seven total shots that translated into just two on target and one goal, while recording three goals from three different players on the other end.
With just over 21 minutes to play and the Knights still facing a 1-0 deficit, fifth-year midfielder Robbie Soronellas corralled a pass near the top of the box from fellow fifth-year Jonas Fritschi off a Saku Heiskanen free kick. With a pair of defenders closing in on either side, Soronellas wasted no time cashing in the Knights' long-awaited equalizer, knotting the game at one goal apiece.
"I just saw the ball drop, and Jonas gave it a toe there. It's something I practiced all the time on the training pitch. I took my touch and tried to curl it back-post and execute it in a moment, that's pretty much all it was," Soronellas said. "It means a lot, it's a testament to the group that we have. We're very cool under adversity, we know how to deal with adversity, and the group is very together and strong. There was never a doubt in my mind that we were going to get the goal."
Sophomore forward Emmanuel Bam, for the second time this season against an ACC opponent, notched the game-winner minutes later, cleaning up a pass across the box to the far side from sophomore transfer Clarence Awoudor over a helpless Lucas Hatsios, the Wolfpack goalkeeper who just a moment before pulled off a full spread-eagle dive in an attempt to stop the pass from reaching Bam.
Heiskanen tallied the Knights' third goal as the clock ticked past seven minutes to play, settling a high pop-up just in front of the net before sending it past Hatsios to clinch UCF's first three-goal game of the season.
"It's really important that we can bounce back. We did it in Clemson, we did it today. We showed character, we have a good team spirit, and we just keep going no matter what," Heiskanen added.
With the winning effort, the Knights have also allowed one or fewer goals in each of their first three matches of the young campaign, marking the first such occurrence since the first three matches of the 2022 season, when UCF went 2-1 against then-No. 15 Wake Forest (L, 1-0), North Florida (W, 2-1) and UC Riverside (W, 3-0).
With help from his defense in front of him, Knights goalkeeper Juanvi Muñoz produced another entry into his impressive beginning to his collegiate career, recording his 10th appearance in his 16 total with one or fewer goals allowed. The Valencia, Spain, native lowered his career goals-against average to 1.375 in the process, which would rank 10th on the Knights' all-time list.
"When you want to be the type of team that we're aspiring to be, you can't just have one player who scores goals. That was one of the goals from us as a staff. I think it's really important for us to be able to be successful," Calabrese continued. "Every time we do this, there should be more and more belief from the group in what we're doing."
The Knights will look for their fourth straight win to begin the season when they clash with the No. 7 Florida International Panthers Tuesday evening, with a 7 p.m. start time set from the UCF Soccer Complex.
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