ORLANDO – Faced with the chance to clinch the Sun Belt regular-season conference championship and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament Tuesday evening, the No. 1 UCF men’s soccer team came up just a bit short.
The Knights enjoyed a fast start to Tuesday’s action, but were upset by a pair of second-half James Madison goals in a 2-1 defeat to the Dukes on Senior Knight in front of a program-record 1,268 fans at the UCF Soccer Complex.
Despite the loss, the Knights (10-2-2, 6-2-1 SBC) still enter the Sun Belt Conference Tournament as the conference’s No. 2 seed and will host the first two rounds of the tournament Nov. 5 and Nov. 8, beginning with a quarterfinal matchup against seventh-seeded South Carolina Sunday evening. The Sun Belt Conference Tournament Championship will be hosted by the highest remaining seed Nov. 12.
“We had a really good start to the game. We were able to possess the ball and do the things we had set out to do,” said head coach Scott Calabrese. “We didn’t get as much from those chances as we would have hoped, and in the second half, there was a drop-off. They had more of the ball and control of the game than we would like. The energy in our pressing wasn’t at the same level, and it allowed them more space, time and success building out.”
As had been the case in each of the Knights’ previous six matches, UCF struck early and brought a 1-0 advantage into the halftime break. Minutes after an emotional pregame ceremony during which the program honored seniors Raphael Crivello, AJ Seals, Beto Ydrach, Zane Bubb, Robbie Soronellas and student manager Matthew Lerner, it was a pair of seniors who helped make the Knights’ first score happen.
Midfielder Saku Heiskanen brought the ball across midfield before dishing it Seals’ way, who then made a quick pass to Ydrach. Sophomore transfer Clarence Awoudor collected a quick redirect from Ydrach, and dribbled a few paces before letting a right-footed shot loose from outside the box. The ball sailed past James Madison (8-3-5, 4-2-3 SBC) netminder Sebastian Conlon, giving UCF a one-goal lead in just the seventh minute of play. Seals and Ydrach were both credited assists on Awoudor's third goal of the season.
The Knights were unable to bring their offensive momentum out of the locker room following the conclusion of the first 45 minutes, though, yielding nine Dukes shot attempts to their seven in the second half after outshooting James Madison 6-4 in the first 45 minutes.
The Dukes finally broke through in the 72nd minute to tie the match and added the go-ahead score in the 88th minute to snap UCF’s six-game win streak and send the Knights to just their second loss of the fall campaign, and their first since the team fell 1-0 at then-No. 1 Marshall Sept. 23.
“The biggest thing is avoiding complacency, especially when we’re starting to get leads now,” Soronellas added. “The level of our play is starting to drop, which is something that we’re going to look at and really try to avoid in the future. We’ve still got a lot of games to play, and hopefully it’s something we can fix.”
The Knights will look to bounce back from their Tuesday defeat in the opening round of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament Sunday night. Kickoff for the team’s quarterfinal matchup against No. 7 South Carolina is set for 7 p.m. from the UCF Soccer Complex.