This Friday night, the St. John’s men’s soccer team welcomes No. 9 Indiana to Belson Stadium in a rematch of the dramatic 2008 NCAA tournament quarterfinal.
In that game, St. John’s came back from 2-0 down with under 10 minutes to play to win 3-2 in overtime and punch their ticket to the College Cup.
This year’s match-up has few of the same players and none of the tournament pressure. But it’s still vital, especially for St. John’s.
After this game, we’ll know.
We’ll know which of their early-season games was more of a fluke—their 3-0 opening-day loss at No. 4 Maryland, or their 3-0 upset of No. 8 William & Mary.
We’ll know if we should start the Big East Midfielder of the Year campaign for wing wizard Jack Bennett, who ran roughshod over Ivy League competition last week.
We’ll know if senior forward Walter Hines is finally ready to become the player his talent dictates he should be.
And most importantly, we’ll know if this young St. John’s team is truly ready to compete for a Big East championship.
It might sound like I’m making too much out of one game. Win or lose, St. John’s will still be 0-0 in the Big East, and will still have a top-10 win on their NCAA tournament resume.
But lose this game, and the doubts start to creep up. Remember last year, when the Red Storm made scoring goals look as easy as shooting free throws in 5-0 wins over Long Island Univ. and Fairleigh Dickinson?
That team stumbled out of the gates in the Big East, losing their first three games and missing out on the NCAA tournament for only the second time since the turn of the millennium.
Lose this game, and this team will go into the Big East season wondering if it can beat good teams. Dating back to last season, St. John’s is 2-5-1 in its last eight games against top-25 teams.
Lose this game, and the loss to Maryland looms larger, while the win over William & Mary–who has lost three out of its last four games–seems to be a fluke upset against an overrated opponent.
On the other hand, a win against Indiana, a bonafide men’s soccer powerhouse, would send a message to the Big East—this team is for real.
A win would show that their confident displays against Harvard and Yale were the signs of a team that is ready to make the next step into the upper echelon of the Big East, not just a team that gets by weak non-conference foes on superior talent.
A win would show that this season’s captain and No. 10, Pablo Battuto Punyed, is every bit the leader and playmaker that last season’s captain and No. 10, Tadeu Terra was.
A win would show, once and for all, that diminutive defender Connor Lade doesn’t need the imposing figure of Kyle Hoffer to be an All-Big East center-back.
And this is a winnable game. Yes, Indiana is undefeated this season. And yes, the Hoosiers have scored 14 goals in their last four games.
But chances are, Indiana hasn’t faced off against anyone quite as dynamic offensively as Bennett or quite as stout defensively as Lade.
Bennett has been a revelation for the Johnnies this season, scoring three times from the left wing, and was the focal point of a dynamic attack that peppered Yale keeper Bobby Thalman with 11 shots on net.
Since its loss to Maryland, St. John’s hasn’t allowed a goal. In fact, they went almost three games without allowing a shot on goal.
As a result, Lade has been on the Big East weekly Honor Roll two weeks running, and won Big East Defensive Player of the Week two weeks ago.
Indiana will be his and the rest of the backline’s toughest test since Maryland.
When Indiana played then No.-12 Notre Dame in their season opener, they were stifled en route to a 0-0 draw.
Notre Dame will be in the mix for a Big East championship this season.
If St. John’s wins on Friday, they’ll show that they will be too.