When Atobra Ampadu cleared a Duke cross to midfield, where Phil Sandgren was surrounded by three defenders, the Boston College men’s soccer team was in a position it had wanted for 58 minutes. As the clearance went over the head of a Blue Devils’ center back, Sandgren read the error and got on the ball. The Swede rushed into the open space ahead only to be met by the studs-up challenge of Markus Fjortoft. Sandgren went to the ground immediately, holding his left ankle, and stayed down for a few minutes. Fjortoft’s challenge at 58 minutes altered the match, and the Eagles would fall to the Blue Devils by a score of 1-0.
The Eagles have two options when it comes to how they attack. One is through intricate passes on the ground between the creative minds of Isaac Normesinu, Zeiko Lewis, and Derrick Boateng, and the other comes through the pivot that is Sandgren.
At 6-foot-1, 207 pounds, Sandgren is a target man. His job is to post up against center backs, receive the ball, then lay it off to a teammate to join the attack. If the option is there, he can turn the defender and shoot. Having a big man is a game-changer, especially as a physical presence in the strength-based game of college soccer is paramount to success.
BC could not cope without Sandgren, though, especially after it went down 1-0 via Nick Palodichuk’s low-curling free kick that snuck between the outstretched right arm of Alex Kapp and the near post at 65 minutes.
The lethal set piece put the Eagles in the position to chase game, and there are three ways to do that: 1) Take shots from distance. 2) Thump the ball forward to the forwards and whip in crosses to a target man. 3) Make incisive runs into the box.
Most players are tempted to try the first two options, because they present immediate opportunities. While the Eagles rarely shot from unrealistically from distance, they hoofed long balls to attackers like Lewis or Normesinu, which proved a sure-fire way to kill off a move forward.
Nevertheless, the Eagles tried to play in their sophomore talents, who stand at 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-7, via balls in the air. Lewis and Normesinu are creative players who thrive with the ball at their feet, so that they can find one another and execute breathtaking pieces of combination play in the middle of the pitch. The pair is not built to win direct balls played to them in the air, especially when the opposing center backs tower over them.
So, when the umpteenth long ball Ampadu thrust ahead to Lewis in 72nd minute saw the sophomore midfielder get bullied off the ball outside of the area, the coaching staff must have realized that it was time for a change.
Without Sandgren at full strength due to injury, the Eagles put Cole DeNormandie on to receive the lengthy passes out of the back. Then Nick Butler, a 6-foot-4 center back and defensive midfielder, was put behind Normandie. The long balls kept coming, but they were easy for Duke to deal with.
BC continued to give into the temptation to play Route 1 soccer, as opposed to the fluid, direct ground game that the team relied upon before entering conference play.
Butler and DeNormandie could not find the ball in the air, though, so the Eagles were back to square one. They had exhausted two of the three ways in which a game is chased. The third plan is to get runners into the channels—otherwise known as the space separating defenders.
A set of players with the speed of Normesinu and the vision of Lewis and Boateng, who returned to the lineup after a serving his suspension for his sending off against Harvard, seem the perfect fit to nuance BC’s forward movement.
By making runs through the defenders, it pins center backs deep into their box and forces the rest of the back four to drop as well. If the ball is received just outside the six, it pushes the opposition further against its own goal. That sort of run never came from the Eagles, though, and Duke’s defense was never penetrated.
Head coach Ed Kelly wants his players to start making those next-level movements off of which professional attackers make livings.
Normesinu and Lewis are so skilled with the ball at their feet, which means they can easily wriggle around defenders to get shots or get fouled and earn penalties. But it will be a learning curve for the pair.
In the overtime period of the defeat to Louisville, Lewis made a run through the right side of the box and put in a cross. Movement like that is what the Kelly wants.
“He starts waiting for something to happen, but he’s got to make it happen,” Kelly said, as he encouraged the player to make more runs into dangerous and uncomfortable areas.
Sandgren does this as well. In the match against Harvard, the Swede pinned the center back he was up against six yards away from goal and got the ball at his feet. With his blonde ponytail in tow, he turned and shot to beat the keeper. It was a fantastic goal. His movement and hold-up play were severely missed by the Eagles on Friday night, and the team’s attack failed to cope.
Featured Image by Drew Hoo / Heights Staff