The University at Buffalo Bulls men's soccer team can't help but feel a little cheated.
Executing an underdog's game-plan to near perfection, UB shocked No. 8-ranked Akron with an early goal and then defended marvelously as a team -- conceding just once before Bulls defender Fox Slotemaker was ruled to have upended Akron midfielder Richie Laryea on the edge of the six-yard box in the 84th minute, resulting in a penalty kick that Victor Souto deposited.
Simply put, UB refuses to believe that the spot kick was earned.
"It's a shame we were undone by a dubious call...," reacted Bulls head coach Stu Riddle immediately following the match. "I could tell by the lads' reactions and what they're saying here that there was really nothing in [the tackle]."
"I guess we have to look at the tape on the PK, but from my angle, it looked soft to me...I don't know," Russell Cicerone said, choosing his words carefully. "It's disappointing to lose that way, but I was proud of the way we played."
With the loss, the Bulls have not won a conference opener since 2011, and now added pressure falls on UB's four remaining MAC games, beginning with another home clash at 7 p.m. Oct. 16 versus the West Virginia Mountaineers. Only the top four of the conference's six teams advance to the postseason tournament.
The game was decided when: Akron's Souto placed his penalty kick inside the right post of University at Buffalo goalie Joe Kuta, giving the Zips the lead for the first time in the 84th minute. After a brilliant diving save to deny Akron's Sam Gainford from the spot in the 35th minute, Kuta couldn't repeat the heroics.
Game balls: Kuta's penalty stop was one of the best I've ever seen in person, and sophomore center back Fox Slotemaker was near flawless in his defensive positioning and dominant in the air, as usual. David Enstrom had a spring in his step, Nick Forrester frustrated Akron's center midfielders, and fullbacks Austin Place and Alec Fisher pitched in with well-timed tackles. Riddle called the defensive performance a "Herculean effort."
The Bulls' best: Two plays jump out as key for UB: Russell Cicerone's penalty-kick goal in the third minute to give the Bulls an unexpected lead, and then Kuta's world-class penalty-kick save to keep Akron off the scoreboard. First, even though he was double-teamed on the left wing, Cicerone cut sharply toward the Akron end-line and was tripped on his next step -- the center official immediately pointed to the penalty mark. By the time Akron goalie Jake Fenlason reacted to Cicerone's PK, the ball was already in the back of the net for the UB star's ninth goal of 2015.
On Kuta's save, the play was more a product of a terrific keeper than a poor set-piece. "The PK that [Gainford] hit was powerful and in the corner, and I don't know how Kuta got there," Cicerone explained. "That gave us a big morale boost."
Xs and Os: UB's staff, led by Riddle, seemed well prepared to stifle the conference favorites. The Kiwi head coach has now faced Akron for seven years, dating back to his time at the helm of Western Michigan when the Zips captured a national title, and his familiarity and his staff's research found that the Zips were lethal attacking through quick combinations near the half-circle at the top of the 18-yard box. When the Zips realized that stuffing the ball down the heart of the Bulls' defense wasn't working, Akron was less eager to build its attack by serving crosses in from the wings.
Riddle entrusted his three bruising center backs -- Fox Slotemaker, David Enstrom and Nick Forrester -- to clog up the central areas that Adam Najem, Richie Laryea and Souto would try to exploit. The trio of Bulls excelled in this role -- aided by a deeper-lying midfield -- and Akron couldn't capitalize on the space down the flanks, as services were errant and no Zip forward seemed adept at winning aerial challenges.
"You could definitely tell on their faces and by what they were saying that they were getting frustrated by our style of play," Cicerone admitted.
Return of Ezana: All-Western New York first-teamer and I-Prep alum Ezana Kahsay entered the match for Akron in the 86th minute to help kill off the game. The red-shirt freshman reserve entered to loud applause and chipped in with a key block of a Cicerone shot in the dying seconds.
He said it: "They're all heartbroken right now, but I'm extremely proud of the effort they put forth, and on a different night we might have gotten a result -- we probably deserved it." -- Stu Riddle, UB head coach
Nuts and Bolts
Final: 2-1, Akron Zips (9-2-1; 1-0) over UB Bulls (5-5-3; 0-1)
Akron goals: Brad Ruhaak, 45'; Victor Souto (PK), 84'
UB goal: Russell Cicerone (PK), 3'
Full box score, via BuffaloBulls.com
[The original version of the blog post had Austin Place, not Fox Slotemaker, as the Bull who fouled Laryea. Our apologies to Place.]
Email Ben Tsujimoto, who's still cold, at firstname.lastname@example.org