Rutgers survives against Northwestern, advances to semifinals of Big Ten Tournament
Aside from a black banner displayed across from the crowd on the opposite border of the field reading, “BIG TEN MEN’S SOCCER TOURNAMENT,” nothing really deviated from the usual at Yurcak Field.
Although the competition being played in Piscataway was different, the result was the same.
The fourth-seeded No. 16 Rutgers men’s soccer team continued its strong home form Sunday afternoon by defeating fifth-seeded Northwestern, 2-0, in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament to book a spot in its semifinal for the first time in program history.
But the win didn’t come easily.
“It’s a hard fought, gutty win,” said head coach Dan Donigan. “These are the way these games are going to be. You’ve gotta battle, you gotta hang on and you’ve gotta fight and you’ve gotta defend. It’s not always the prettiest, but I’m very proud of the effort our guys put forth today, for sure.”
Senior midfielder Mitchell Taintor scored both goals for the Scarlet Knights (12-5-1, 4-4-0) on the afternoon, including one in the 85th minute that practically sealed his team’s place in the next round of the tournament.
The goals brought his season tally up to five, but these two were easily the most important.
“It’s awesome,” Taintor said. “As a captain, it’s my job to lead the team along with (senior center back Mitchell) Lurie and I think it’s great for all the boys and coach, too. We’ve deserved the success we’ve gotten this season and we can only go up from here, we’ve been playing really well.”
Taintor opened the scoring for the second straight home game in the 24th minute, burying a loose ball into an empty net after Northwestern goalkeeper Zak Allen was unable to control a cross from Lurie.
Just as he did when he scored against Nebraska-Omaha in his team’s last regular season home game, Taintor celebrated his fourth goal this season in exuberant fashion, doing a barrel roll in midair before attempting his best Rambo impersonation.
“So this one, I heard (junior goalkeeper David Greczek) talking about it in the locker room,” Taintor said of his celebration. “He was teaching his little brother how to do it this morning, so it just came to my mind and I kind of just did it.”
Prior to Taintor’s second goal, Rutgers dominated possession and controlled the match in the second half, creating a bulk of the chances and looking closer to scoring its second goal than Northwestern looked to equalizing.
During the stretch, there was a sequence of two minutes where the 544 fans in the stands could not believe the ball didn’t go into the back of the net for the Knights.
Sophomore midfielder Brandon Tetro, who started in place of suspended freshman midfielder Sheldon McKoy, set sophomore forward Jason Wright through on goal with a clearance. With nothing but Allen in the way of his 14th goal of the season, the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year was unable to finish, his shot flashing wide of goal.
Two minutes later, Wright had another chance to give his team some breathing room, but his deflection of a cross rattled the crossbar and the rebound was hit off of a Northwestern defender for a corner.
While it was not the Kingston, Jamaica, native's day to get on the scoresheet, what he did off the stat sheet played a big role in Rutgers' win. He may not have scored in the quarterfinals, but his team expects him to get back on track sooner or later.
“I saw (Wright) coming in and you could see a bit of frustration with him. But at the same time, he’s so good and so talented, he’s a handful,” Donigan said. “Him causing all those problems (to the Northwestern defense) just relieves a lot of pressure for us. I just told him to keep playing, keep going because it’s going to happen for him. Hopefully, it happens sooner than later.”
Rutgers’ fourth straight home win was its second victory over the Wildcats this season, as it left Toyota Park in Chicago with a 4-2 win earlier in the campaign.
With the five minutes sequence where they suffered two goals to Northwestern in that match still burned into their memory, the Knights defense was sure to be aware of the Wildcats threat at all times.
The awareness paid off.
“We knew how they played before, and at the same time, the fact that had given up two late goals the last time we played them was important to us," said senior center back Drew Morgan. "… So we knew they could score late and we were focused on not letting up those goals."
When the Wildcat attackers got past Rutgers’ nearly impenetrable back four, Greczek was there to clean up. The Fairfield, New Jersey, native finished the game with six saves, including a double-save immediately after Taintor’s second goal that prevented a quick response from Northwestern.
The Wildcats may just be Greczek’s favorite opponent. After playing what he called his “best game of the 2015 season” against the Wildcats earlier in the season, he kept his eighth clean sheet Sunday.
Following the match, many of the Knights had their eyes glued to a TV screen tuned into the Big Ten Network to see who the next obstacle in their path to a Big Ten Tournament championship is.
As they watched top-seed Ohio State defeat ninth-seed Penn State in extra-time, they rooted for neither team, knowing that regardless of who they face next Friday, it’s going to be another difficult challenge on their road to success.
“No, not at all,” Donigan said on whether he had a preferred opponent in the next round. “Every team in this conference is so good … there’s great players in every team, in every program. There can’t be a preference in this league. It’s impossible.”
For updates on the Rutgers men’s soccer team, follow @briannnnf and @TargumSports on Twitter.