The University at Buffalo men's soccer team faces a fairly unusual scenario: its opponent in the Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinals, Western Michigan, is the same team the Bulls lost to in last Saturday's regular season finale. Needless to say, the foes are familiar, and the pre-match storylines run even deeper.
We'll be trekking down to the University of Akron for the 4 p.m. match Friday, as observing the Bulls' first conference tournament appearance since 2011 was too compelling to pass up.
Follow BN Soccer on Twitter for live updates of No. 2 seed Western Michigan against the No. 3 seed Bulls, and then stay tuned to the blog for immediate reactions following the game.
If UB pulls out a win, the Bulls would play at 1 p.m. Sunday against the winner of No. 1 seed Akron and No. 4 seed West Virginia (7 p.m. Friday) for the Mid-American Conference championship and a place in the NCAA Tournament.
1) Goals: Early in the non-conference schedule, Russell Cicerone and Marcus Hanson were determined to meet one goal this season: reach the Mid-American Conference Tournament. Just because that aim has been met -- in dramatic fashion against Bowling Green -- it doesn't mean the Bulls' two leaders will rest on their laurels.
Because Hanson commands so much respect as "the father" of the squad -- even though he doesn't always start -- his Bulls teammates will refuse to let his career end with a whimper in the MAC semifinal.
2) Cicerone factor: For the first time since 1999, the UB men boast a conference player of the year: Russell Cicerone, whose 30 points topped the MAC and tied for seventh-most in the country. The junior midfielder embraces pressure situations and high expectations, both of which he'll have in spades against one of the stingiest defenses in the land.
Expect at least one moment of individual brilliance from Cicerone on Friday after he was stymied in the first meeting with Western Michigan.
3) The Riddle Connection: UB head coach Stu Riddle joined the Bulls in 2013 after directing Western for four seasons, including two trips to the MAC title game. Three of his recruits from his final year at WMU -- All-MAC center back Connor Furgason, left back Sean Hazen and defender Cam Jensen -- are now lynch-pins of the Broncos' dominant defense, which leads the conference in shutouts (12) and fewest goals allowed (eight in 18 games).
Since he's been on the sideline for the Bulls, Riddle has yet to knock off his former team; UB got smashed, 4-0, by the Broncos in 2013; drew, 2-2, in 2014; and were blanked, 1-0, last Saturday. The sample size is far too small to call it a curse, but many of the statistics don't fall in the Bulls' favor. In fact, Western Michigan hasn't conceded a goal in 380 minutes.
4) Shutting down the Broncos' attack: A quick glance at Western Michigan's 25 goals scored this year would suggest the Broncos are a proficient offensive team, but that number is grossly inflated by the eight (8!) goals they unloaded on St. Bonaventure. If you dismiss that result as an outlier, then the Broncos averaged just one goal per game for the other 17 matches, which would rank dead last in the conference.
Western head coach Chad Wiseman, who earned MAC Coach of the Year honors on Thursday, thought he'd addressed his lack of a true No. 9 in the offseason, but heralded signing Troy Lindsay, a Jamaican U-20 international, is no longer with the team, and Dzenan Nezirevic and Jay McIntosh have combined for just three goals (or one, if you don't count the Bonaventure rout).
The Broncos' goal to beat UB last weekend was a bit of a fluke; Bulls keeper Joseph Kuta misjudged a sailing free kick from midfield that he wound up batting into his own goal. Two midfielders, Sean Conerty and Nick Wysong, both All-MAC first team selections, are the danger men for Wiseman.
5) How UB can win: Simply put, if the Bulls score first, expect them to win. Perhaps more than most teams, Western would be loathe to chase this game, as the Bulls' defense is physical and smart enough to frustrate anyone in the MAC, as they proved against high-powered Akron.
Plus, if Western has to commit more numbers forward, Cicerone is an absolute nightmare to defend on the counter attack.
Email Ben Tsujimoto at firstname.lastname@example.org
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