PITTSBURGH — Falling behind in the first half by allowing its first goal in more than five games didn’t create any panic for Dan Stratford and the University of Charleston men’s soccer team.
The Golden Eagles (21-2-1) charged back with two late first-half goals, then shut down Lynn University the rest of the way to hold on for a hard-earned 3-1 victory, and another appearance in the NCAA Division II National Championship. It will be UC’s fourth appearance in the final in the past six years.
“It’s really, really special to be able to do this,” Stratford said.”We weren’t at our best, especially in the beginning, but to be able to pull through and come away with a win against a very good team, I am proud of our guys.”
Gabriel Rodriguez and Christos Charalambous scored three minutes apart to give Charleston the lead, then UC held on with solid defending and goalkeeper Alvaro Unaura Dean made seven saves. The Golden Eagles picked up an insurance goal late on a terrific Ettore Ballestracci strike.
With the win, Charleston will now be looking for its second national title in three seasons after beating Lynn in the final in 2017. The Golden Eagles will take on top-seeded and unbeaten Cal State LA (19-0-3) — which was victorious earlier in the evening, beating UIndy, 3-0 — at 3 p.m. Saturday.
Despite Charleston starting off on the front foot early, controlling possession, it was Lynn who created the first few chances of the match in the first 10 minutes. The first came from a slow grounder from Lynn’s junior midfielder Alexandre Horvano on a counter, which was easily handled by Dean. Dean was tested shortly after that, as the Knights quickly moved the ball around the box, leaving Kymani King with room to send a low-lining shot that forced the Golden Eagles’ keeper to sprawl to his right for the save.
Again, in the 15th minute, after a long Charleston possession, Lynn quickly moved forward — and this time made the most of its chance.
At the end of another terrific build-up was Lynn’s Lukas Ostermann, who was left unmarked from 16 yards to blast a shot that Dean had little chance to stop, giving the Knights a 1-0 lead.
The first half continued to play out to the same recurring theme. Charleston held large chunks possession, and finally set up a pair of corner kicks in the 26th minute, that were cleared by Lynn. Dean came up big again,as Lynn countered deep into the box, leaving Levin Sandmann inside the right edge of the box to force Dean into another save.
“We could have easily scored a number of goals, but all the credit to their [Charleston’s] goalkeeper [Dean],” Lynn coach John Rootes said. “He really was outstanding.”
Stratford turned to his bench, bringing on a few substitutes that would help fuel its attack.
“As we’ve built our program, we’ve realized how important it is to have depth, and to be able to use it,” Stratford said. “We saw how important that was in the Sweet 16 and the Elite 8, and the guys recognize this, and really embrace their roles.”
Two of those subs paired up for a quick strike that leveled the match in the 30th minute. Senior forward Ettore Ballestracci worked his way deep into the box on the right side, drawing a defender and Lynn’s keeper Konstantin Fuhry, then sent the ball to center of box for junior forward Gabriel Rodriguez to beat his defender to tap it in.
Wasting no time, UC charged into the lead just three minutes later. The Golden Eagles freshman midfielder Ploutarchos Alonefti kept his composure at the top of the box as he ran into a few Lynn defenders, and played the ball his left where he found Christos Charalambous. After receiving a well placed ball, Charaloambous found room to bend shot and tuck his shot into the right side of goal.
In the dying seconds of the first half, Charleston needed not one, but two header saves off the line by Charleston’s Williams D’Nah after a dangerous free kick into the box that came off the foot of Horveno. That incredible effort by the UC defender and third-team All-American to preserved UC’s 2-1 lead at the end of 1st half.
“That was very important, no doubt,” N’Dah said. “But it was important to come out strong, and play well in the second half, and we had to withstand a lot of early pressure.”
Lynn began the second half pressing for the equalizer, as the match narrative turned yet again, with Charleston spending most of the second half defending and doing everything to disrupt Lynn’s attack. UC weathered a few corner kicks and a dangerous free kick off the foot of Joao Delgado in the 63rd minute, but in keeping a tight defensive shape, mostly limited Lynn’s chances.
Charleston’s huge possession edge in the first half and just enough in the second half — began to slow down Lynn’s attack in the late moments of the second half.
The Golden Eagles created a few chances including a Christopher Allen shot from 20 yards that barely went over the bar in the 70th minute, then a nice build-up resulted in a ball played to the far post for Alonefti, who barely missed connecting on the cross.
Lynn continued to push late, including finding a low, hard grounder from Ostermann that Dean stopped by going down to his left. Charleston put the match away in the 85th minute, when Ballestracci found himself with room to shoot — and delivered a brilliant strike — bending a ball in from 21 yards that gave the Golden Eagles a commanding 3-1 lead.