Cunniff’s Corner: Johnnies Will Bounce Back After Brown Draw

Good teams find a way to win.


Until last night, that’s just what the St. John’s men’s soccer team was doing.


Head coach Dave Masur bases his team around defense and his defense didn’t allow a goal for almost 11 hours of game time from Sept. 1-24.


When their defense failed them, senior captain Pablo Battuto Punyed bailed them out with 4.2 seconds left in their 3-2 win over Princeton on Sept. 28.


Against then-No. 11 Notre Dame, it was redshirt freshman Daniel Herrera who supplied the heroics, scoring from 20 yards out with 49 seconds left to give the Red Storm a 2-1 win.


With all due respect to Indiana, who was in the Top 10 when they played St. John’s, Notre Dame was the best team that has come to Belson Stadium so far this year.


Truth be told, the Fighting Irish were the better team for much of the game. The Johnnies were overrun at times, especially down Notre Dame’s right side, where Irish midfielder Adam Mena and fullback Michael Knapp gave junior midfielder Jack Bennett and senior fullback Chris Lebo all they could handle.


But the Johnnies persevered, thanks in large part to the performances of bit-players like Pascal Trappe and Andres Vargas as well as Herrera. Their active play allowed Masur to move Hines and redshirt sophomore Jimmy Mulligan to the wide midfield positions, which made the team more potent offensively and forced Notre Dame’s defenders to stay in their own half.


Despite being occupied by Mena and Knapp, Lebo found enough space going forward to assist the Red Storm’s first goal to Vargas and started the build up to the second goal.


In overtime, Bennett moved to central midfield, forcing Battuto Punyed to the bench. It was a risky move, and if it weren’t for the play of sophomore keeper Rafael Diaz, it would have backfired. After conceding Notre Dame’s goal in the 80th minute, Diaz turned two certain goals into saves in the next 25 minutes, which set the stage for Herrera’s heroics.


That’s what good teams do. Good teams have players like Vargas and Herrera who can rise to the occasion when called upon. Good teams have players like Mulligan and Hines who are willing to cede the spotlight. Good teams have players like Lebo, who can go toe-to-toe with the other team’s best players. And good teams have players like Battuto Punyed and Diaz, who can bail them out when all else fails.


But even the good teams go through adversity.


The Johnnies squared off against Brown three days after their win over Notre Dame. While Notre Dame played an entertaining, attacking style of soccer, Brown sat deep and played rough, hoping to disrupt St. John’s attack.


As a result, St. John’s defenders almost had a night off. Alex Naples, making his first career start in goal for the injured sophomore keeper Rafael Diaz, made four saves, none of them particularly difficult. When Brown crossed the halfway line, the Bears usually were greatly outnumbered and had a tough time holding the ball.


But on the other end, St. John’s attackers ran out of ideas in the final third of the pitch. Brown’s tight defensive shape mean that there was no space for the Red Storm’s creative players to maneuver. By the end of the game, they resorted to moving 6-foot-3 freshman Tim Parker from right-back to forward and trying to get crosses into him.


Despite having the lion’s share of the possession, especially as the game went on, the Red Storm ended up with just two more shots than the Bears and the same number of shots on goal. St. John’s failed to turn possession into scoring chances, and as a result, the game ended scoreless.


While this takes some of the luster off the Notre Dame win, and exposes the Johnnies lack of an aerial option up top, it doesn’t undo their entire last week of inspired play. It means they had a bad night. It means they have weaknesses. And yes, it means that at No. 9/8 in the latest polls, they may be slightly overrated.


But they’re still young, with only four seniors in the starting lineup. They’re still unbeaten at home, and they still have three wins against ranked teams. When the NCAA tournament rolls around, St. John’s will almost certainly be involved.


Last night showed that St. John’s wasn’t a perfect team. But it didn’t show that they weren’t a good team.