HUNTINGTON — In a season where Marshall’s men’s soccer team has reached several new heights, Sunday may have provided one of the highest points in the program’s history.
No. 20 Marshall (12-2-3, 4-1-1 C-USA) used a second-half tally from Jonas Westmeyer and goalkeeper Paulo Pita made it stand as the Thundering Herd topped No. 15 Kentucky in front of a record crowd of 2,032 fans at Hoops Family Field.
“It was well-fought. They are an excellent team,” Marshall head coach Chris Grassie said. “I thought our guys executed perfectly tactically.”
The crowd of 2,032 fans shattered the previous record of 1,433, which was set when the complex first opened on Aug. 23, 2013.
Marshall University President Jerry Gilbert joined Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick for smiles prior to the contest as each marveled at the crowd on-hand to see Sunday’s contest between the two nationally-ranked Conference USA foes.
“I’ve never seen this many people in this place,” Hamrick said. “This is incredible.”
Grassie said prior to Sunday’s match that it would be a battle of jabs instead of knockout punches. That statement rang true as action played out on Sunday afternoon.
The teams fought to a scoreless battle until the 64th minute when Marshall’s Milo Yosef made a brilliant run down the left side and feathered a through ball on the ground into the box.
Westmeyer ran through the play and was able to flick the ball past Kentucky goalkeeper Enrique Facusse, setting off a celebration on the field and in the stands.
Kentucky (10-3-3, 3-2-1 C-USA) countered with heavy pressure over the next 20 minutes in search of an equalizer, but was unable to penetrate a stout Marshall defense that bowed its back in the box on several occasions to eliminate runs by the Wildcats.
Marshall goalkeeper Paulo Pita quarterbacked that defense, communicating constantly to keep the Herd’s back line in position to make plays while also proving himself to be Marshall’s top playmaker on the day.
Despite the match going into the intermission in a scoreless deadlock, the Herd felt as if it had momentum after Pita came up with a pair of brilliant saves in the final five minutes before the half to keep the clean sheet.
“Sometimes, you need those big players to come up big for you in big moments, and that’s what he gives us,” Grassie said. “He’s a big-game goalkeeper and makes the big saves. That’s what we need. A good goalkeeper can win you three or six points in a season, and that’s what he’s helped us do today.”
Pita, who finished with five saves, said the saves came from months of preparation into his craft.
“I practice really hard every single day, just to be ready for those moments,” Pita said. “I think my mind is ready for any situation because that’s how I practice every single day.”
Big moments are nothing new for Pita, who led the University of Charleston to a Division II Championship in 2017 by making a pair of saves in penalty kicks in the title match.
Prior to Sunday’s contest, which was the first-ever matchup of ranked teams at Hoops Family Field, Pita said he talked to his teammates.
“I tell the boys before the games, ‘We’re here to have fun,’” Pita said. “We’re blessed to do what we love every single day and we’re even more blessed to play a game in front of a huge crowd, so just have fun and enjoy it. Good things are going to come naturally.”
Marshall’s win sets up an interesting scenario this Friday night within the Conference USA men’s soccer ranks.
The Herd’s win on Sunday gave it three points and vaulted the team into a second-place tie with FIU at 13 points — two behind current leader Charlotte, who has finished its C-USA allotment of games.
Marshall and FIU battle in Miami, Florida, at 6 p.m. Friday with everything on the line.
In the scoring system, a victory is worth three points while a tie is worth one point.
That means if either team wins Friday’s match out-right, it also wins the Conference USA regular-season title and go into the tournament as the No. 1 seed.
If the teams play to a draw, they will finish one point short of Charlotte, who would win the league’s regular-season crown.
While Sunday was Marshall’s biggest win in program history to date, Friday could exceed that feeling of Sunday with a win in Miami.
“We’ve done everything we can,” Grassie said. “If we win on Friday, we’re the Conference USA regular-season champs, and we’d know we’re in the NCAA tournament at that point, so it’s everything to play for. We want one foot in the tournament and one hand on the trophy.”