The Niagara Purple Eagles men's soccer team is significantly better than its 1-6-1 record indicates.
As with most young, inexperienced teams, staying focused for a full 90 minutes has been a challenge - game-altering mistakes occur when minds switch off - but maturation in certain phases can quickly swing a team's trajectory.
Bill Boyle's side turned a corner in Niagara's 1-1 draw with Little 3 rival St. Bonaventure in the home opener on Monteagle Ridge Wednesday, and the Purple Eagles' adjustments were subtle but effective.
Stay disciplined when defending as a team, help out the back four so they're not exposed. Don't panic when you're a goal down. Focus on putting shots on target; serve crosses into the box where there are enough attacking bodies to threaten. Counter attack with purpose.
Behind Zulfikar Karimi's 25-yard blast and strong goalkeeping late in the match from Steve Casey, Niagara emerged with a point from its final match before Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play begins Sept. 30 at home.
"[We're] just trying to get progress every day," Boyle said. "They're doing it - they had to buy in to it - we had to give up 19 goals before buying into it, maybe.
"But tonight they sat together and unified, defended and it leads to more opportunities. Now we can start talking about fun stuff, because we haven't been able to talk about anything except team defense."
*1-0, St. Bonaventure, 38': Picking his head up deep in the midfield, the Bonnies' Kieran Toland sent a high, direct ball forward toward striker Kosi Nwafornso. The Nigerian forward took on Niagara center back Borna Juracic, who rashly hauled down the attacker with an arm tackle that would make Luke Kuechly proud.
From 20 yards away, Toland struck the ensuing free kick with pace to the near post, eluding Casey's reach to dent the back of the net. It was a meaningful goal and a confidence boost for the senior midfielder, who's struggled in his recovery from a shoulder injury suffered in the spring.
— Buffalo News Soccer (@BN_Soccer) September 20, 2017
"That was a dumb foul we gave up - we had two guys in position and they fouled," explained Boyle. "We've got to stop those kind of fouls, because that's killing us, too."
*1-1, 63': Niagara answered with a strike from distance by Canadian sophomore Zulfikar Karimi. The goalscorer initially rolled a free kick over to Bauti Pedezert, whose blast was blocked by the wall. An alert Karimi tried his luck from 25 yards, and he reaped the rewards of Luke Iacobellis' slow reaction to the shot.
"Our plan was for me to lay it off to Bauti and then have a hit, but the wall got in front, so I just put my laces through it and I connected very well," Karimi explained after the game.
— PurpleEagles.com (@NUPurpleEagles) September 21, 2017
BONA'S BEST CHANCES
*15': Nwafornso cut sharply inside and scooted free around the penalty mark; with a clean look on Casey, he scuffed his shot into the chest of the Niagara keeper.
*17': Toland shielded a defender with his body on the right side before hammering a volleyed cross to the back post. His drive struck teammate Isaiah Wilson, and instead of deflecting forward into the empty net, it ricocheted out of harm's way.
*88': Bonnies midfielder Remi Dujardin, one of the Little 3's most improved players, cracked a left-footed volley from the top of the box that seemed bound for Casey's right upper-90. The FC Buffalo keeper used every inch of his 6-foot-6 frame to dive and push dramatically over the bar.
*89': St. Bonaventure wouldn't relent, as Kosi Nwafornso bulled down the right side of the box once again, snapping a low shot to the left post that Casey reacted well to kick away. A tempting rebound was then cleared from danger by a well-positioned Niagara defender.
NIAGARA'S BEST CHANCES
*21': Defending a corner kick, St. Bonaventure goalkeeper Luke Iacobellis left his line to attempt a punch, but he misjudged the curler. Niagara center back Borna Juracic was first to the ball, heading over Iacobellis toward the gaping goal. Fortunately for the Bonnies, center midfielder Remi Dujardin had dropped behind his goalkeeper, and he trapped and cleared from danger in two touches.
*25': Niagara winger Mackenzie Roach, who'd missed the last two matches, was a whirling dervish in the first half, knifing into the middle of the Bona defense and pulling them out of their shape. One particular foray saw Roach lay the ball back to Owen Carter, who's bending right-footed shot missed the left post by inches.
*71': Feeling his strikes from distance, Karimi stepped over a free kick from around 25 yards and sent a bender that forced a diving stop at the right post from Iacobellis, his best denial of the match.
*83': A jaw-dropping counter attack from the Purple Eagles nearly put them in front. Fearless freshman Luca Pacheco dribbled at speed down the left side, dodging defenders and serving a left-footed cross close to the end line. Matching him stride for stride in the middle of the pitch was Carter, who volleyed first time toward Iacobellis' left post - just inches wide. It would have been a brilliant go-ahead goal.
*95': Pacheco was tireless and creative. Out of nothing in the first overtime, the Canadian freshman midfielder settled the ball in the box with his chest and surprised Iacobellis with a bicycle kick. The Bona keeper had a look of terror in his eyes for a split second before punching over the bar. Had that dropped into the goal, it would have been a golden goal that challenged Russell Cicerone's midfield strike from 2014.
*How Niagara held strong: The Purple Eagles had conceded nearly three goals per game entering the contest, so holding the Bonnies to one was a step forward. Boyle elaborated on what made the defense suddenly more stiff.
"It's the front six defending that's key - our back four, we've put them in too many one-on-one situations, and too many where we're stretched too much," the second-year NU head coach said. "Some of that's [the coaches'] fault, trying to press teams too much at times, or playing different styles, but it always comes down to if all 10 of us are defending in 35 - at the most - yards, it's hard for teams to break that down."
*Pacheco can be special: It didn't take long before freshman Luca Pacheco cracked the starting XI as the first-choice forward, and he's improving at a rapid rate. It often took attention from a St. Bonaventure on-ball and help defender to keep him at bay; Pacheco's movement was both smart and threatening.
"He's starting to figure out how to play against these big D-1 center backs, so he can turn left and right, and start to get vertical and go the right way," Boyle explained. "It's a learning curve for every freshman, especially forwards, because they're getting 6-foot-3 guys up their back, and they just are so worried about holding the ball that they're not attacking. So he's starting to turn that corner, and he can be scary."
*Standouts for St. Bonaventure: St. Bonaventure head coach Kwame Oduro switched to a 4-4-2 formation (which still honestly looked like a 4-5-1 for much of it) for the contest, entrusting the second center-back role to freshman Cooper Rosario, who put forth a stellar effort, winning a few crucial tackles and limiting mistakes in distribution. The freshman from Orlando, Fla., isn't a physically imposing center back, but that didn't prevent him from doing his job.
In addition to his set piece strike, Toland had one of his better matches of the season, compensating for a down match by midfield partner Paul Afful. Nwafornso, who was practically invisible in the home match against Canisius, was a thorn in Niagara's side throughout the evening because of his physicality and speed.
*Why Niagara can have success in the MAAC: "They can play with anybody," Boyle said about his team. "I may be biased, but they've had a couple games where it's been unfortunate. We've been chasing games or we give up dumb goals - not to take anything away from those teams we've played - but we've shown we can play with everybody we've played already, and it's just about doing it for the whole 90, or 110 like today. No one is going to take us for granted this year."
St. Bonaventure (3-3-2): Luke Iacobellis; Anthony Sileo, Nicola Bonso, Cooper Rosario, Anthony Gaglianese; Jon-Michael Perkins, Remi Dujardin, Kieran Toland, Paul Afful, Isaiah Wilson; Kosi Nwafornso. Subs used: Kwame Opoku, Isaiah Barrett, Nicholas Mazzola, Jacob Dyck, Peter Routsis.
Niagara (1-6-1): Steve Casey; Kyle Walters, Borna Juracic, Jordan Acevedo, Matthew Krucko-Moeller; Mackenzie Roach, Bauti Pedezert, Owen Carter, Zulfikar Karimi, Josh Tufino; Luca Pacheco. Subs used: Matt Lopoyda, Asante Carroll, Konrad Zydowicz.