In a complete reversal of last season, Bradley soccer (4-0-4) has not lost a game on the road since the season started back in mid-August. The Braves have outscored opponents 9-2 away from home and their four road wins are already the program’s most since 2013.
In a more unfortunate reversal of last season, they also have not won a game at home, a streak that was extended in their 0-0 draw against Green Bay (3-2-2) on Tuesday afternoon.
Indeed, all four of the Braves’ ties this year have come at Shea Stadium, the most they have ever tied at home in a single season in the team’s 40-year history. They’ve drawn their last three times out on the pitch, fighting tough battles against Mercer, SIUE and now Green Bay. The ties keep the undefeated season intact, but junior midfielder Joao Saraiva says he’s sick of them.
“We need to get back at it and get more wins because drawing and losing, we can’t have that anymore,” Saraiva said.
With over 500 elementary school kids banging their boom sticks for the team’s Education Day, Bradley played its first full game without leading scorer Kevin Mejias. The junior forward sustained a leg injury on Saturday against SIUE, leaving the Braves without one of their star newcomers.
“He’s our best player, [but] it’s an opportunity for somebody else,” head coach Jim DeRose said. “You don’t have to do what Kevin does, but you gotta bring forth a great effort and do the things that you do well, not what Kevin did well.”
Bradley held possession for the majority of the start of the game, getting a good look in the ninth minute after a steal at midfield by Saraiva. The swipe set up a 3-on-2 for the Braves, but senior Caleb Ribeiro took an extra second to set up his shot and it was blocked on the left side.
“We worked hard and we kept the ball in the last third,” Saraiva said. “Just should’ve taken our shots and taken our chances more.”
The Braves continued to press the attack for the rest of the period, but could not break through the stingy Phoenix defense. They finally got their chance in the 37th minute, when junior midfielder Jared Sinnaeve launched one from outside the goalie box that was eerily similar to the one that landed him on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays. This time, the shot sailed high.
“I’m sure if they had [the shots] they’d want them back,” DeRose said. “One more touch, a little more composure, but at the end of the day they got into good places.”
The Bradley defense was the highlight of the first half, as they allowed very little to sneak through from the visitors. Green Bay got perhaps their best chance in the 43rd minute, when a corner kick led to a shot by forward Dylan Moua that was blocked by the Braves’ backline. Still, Bradley kept the ball on Green Bay’s side of the field for most of the half, not allowing the visitors many clean looks at a goal.
“The best part about the defending in the first half is we had the ball, and we had the ball deep in their end,” DeRose said. “Attack is the best part of defending sometimes.”
Green Bay owned the possession battle for the start of the second half, outshooting the Braves 4-0 in the first 20 minutes. Most of the shots missed high, but a corner kick in the 51st minute led to a strike at the goal that was blocked by freshman Ian Ferguson.
Those first 20 minutes felt like a precursor for the rest of the game, as the Phoenix held the ball and thus, the momentum, for most of the contest. Midfielder Tommy Coughlin had a run for Green Bay in the 73rd minute and tried to pass it ahead to forward Luke Nicholson, but Bradley goalie Alex Grow dove and grabbed the ball before the visitors could capitalize. Four minutes later, Grow was put to work again as midfielder Luca Contestabile sent a low shot that Grow corralled for his first save.
“Green Bay did a good job,” DeRose said. “They have some really talented players and they’re a very good ball possession team and created some problems for us on tired legs.”
The home team had a few chances themselves, mostly because of Saraiva. In the 67th minute, the Portugal native sent a shot from the left side that missed right, and two minutes later he had a chance from the right side that was blocked by the Phoenix. Missing these chances, Saraiva knows he has room for improvement.
“Maybe take a couple more touches, drive a little bit more, maybe shoot more,” Saraiva said. “Just better decisions.”
With the game up for grabs, both sides searched for the winning goal as time winded down. In the final 11 minutes, there were four shots and four fouls, the latter of which were all on Green Bay. As missed shots and bad passes rained all over the field, frustration set in for the Braves and it was evident in their play.
“A lot of times there’s that fine line between dribbling to get into spaces and dribbling to convince someone playing the simple passing [lanes],” DeRose said. “Second half, when you don’t feel like you have as many of those, you feel like ‘oh my gosh, we gotta get this going’ and we rushed it.”
The frustration almost resulted in a goal for the Phoenix, but Grow was able to punch out the attempt by midfielder Jake Parish with just 10 seconds to go. The Braves ended the match with no shots on goal.
“I’m sure [Green Bay] walked away feeling they missed a good chance [but] we didn’t put anything on target,” DeRose said. “We got good moments but we never hit the target.”
Despite the offensive woes, Bradley was still able to subdue a high-flying Phoenix offense that has as many goals as the Braves this season. With a revamped backline and the rotating hands of Grow and sophomore Drew Berry in the net, DeRose is happy with what he’s seen on the defensive side.
“Probably the strength of our team has been the goalkeeping and our backline,” DeRose said. “Ethan [Beauman-Ansah], Charlie [Dickerson] and Jackson Fyda have done a fantastic job and they box defended for us well.”
The team heads into conference play as one of two undefeated teams left in the Valley, and time will tell if they can overcome their head-scratching home/road splits. For Saraiva, the key to success is clear.
“We just need to pass the ball more, be more in the last third and score the goals in the beginning of the game, not leaving everything to the last second,” Saraiva said.
The Braves travel to Ohio to take on their first conference opponent in Bowling Green on Saturday at 6 p.m.