GREENSBORO, N.C. - UNCG men's soccer guarantees itself a share of the 2019 Southern Conference Regular Season title after defeating the Mercer Bears 2-0 at home on Tuesday. The Spartans have clinched a 'bye' in the first round of this year's SoCon tournament, advancing directly to the bracket semifinals with a No. 2 seed or better.
"It's great," said Head Coach Chris Rich after the match. "Throughout the course of the season, the non-conference schedule really battled us and there were a lot of struggles in there, a lot of learning moments, but we just kept after it. We kept learning and growing as a group, and obviously come October we really started playing well entering conference play... Through six games, to go 5-1, I'm very happy."
The opening stages of Tuesday night's contest belonged solely to the home team, as both the shot differential and the score would attest to after the first 45 minutes. Looking to build off the game-winner he delivered on Saturday against ETSU, Faisal Almubaslat nearly netted the go ahead in the first five minutes of the match after a deflected cross from Matthew Cutler gave the senior an off-angle opportunity. The forward's attempt was too tight in on goal to have much scoring space however, and his attempt was deflected out of bounds by the Mercer keeper.
Striker Micah Albert opened his team's scoring account on the evening during the 23rd, capitalizing on a through ball from teammate Albert Pedra. After receiving a pass from Nelson Oceano at the edge of the attacking third, Pedra made the quick turn toward goal before hitting the sprinting Albert with a pass in between the Mercer defense, with the latter delivering a calm finish underneath the diving Bears goaltender.
Getting held to just a single shot on goal in the opening frame, Mercer upped their offensive intensity in the second half, outshooting the Spartans 5-1 in the first 15 minutes out of the break. Pedra came within a hair of adding his sixth goal of the year on the counter attack, taking a superb first touch off a long ball from Micah Albert, before ringing his attempt off the inside of the right post.
Substitute Cameron Fowler ultimately found the insurance marker during the 70th, this time on a set piece play. Oceano delivered another key pass by sending the Spartans' free kick to the left side of the 18, which was met by a header from senior defender Casey Penland. Getting double-teamed by the Mercer defense, Penland made the experienced decision to aim his ball back toward the top of the six-yard box, rather than go for goal, where an awaiting Fowler put away the second goal of the night on the volley.
Finishing with four saves on the night, freshman keeper Brendan Pulley once again came up with a key stop in the late minutes, after a scramble in front of net forced the first-year to make a diving save on the door step. The Spartan keeper came up with his fourth clean sheet of the season against Mercer, as UNCG kept their opponents off the board for a fifth time this season.
"That's one thing that really effected us early in the year, we were conceding a lot of goals. We were finding ways to concede goals, and now, through the last six games we've only conceded two goals, and both of them happened on set pieces," said Coach Rich. "We've been very good through the run of play, starting with Casey Penland, he's been fantastic all year to me, and is probably the best defender in the league. Our goalkeeper has been very good, and I think from the top to the bottom, in terms of our forward players and our midfielders, everybody's just coming together. It's just been a different mentality, and that mentality has definitely given us a lot of success."
Three Things To Know
-- The Spartans already own a share of the SoCon regular season title, their first since 2015. They will have a shot at being outright champions if Belmont can draw or defeat Furman in Greenville this Saturday
-- Micah Albert now leads the Spartans with six goals on the year, moving him into a tie for fifth in the Southern Conference
-- Nelson Oceano's two helpers put him at a team-high of six on the year, he's now tied for third in the SoCon in that category
COMING UP NEXT
The Spartans look to close out the regular season with a non-conference home match against Old Dominion, before prepping for the postseason. UNCG leads its series against the Monarchs 3-2, defeating ODU 2-1 in their most recent meeting in 2008.
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