This one hurt.
The Denver Pioneers men’s soccer season came to a crashing halt in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, as the host #15 seeded Pioneers were upset by unseeded Air Force, 2-1 (#25 RPI) at the University of Denver Soccer Stadium on Nov. 18.
The Summit League Champion Pioneers (15-3-2) came out of the gate uncharacteristically jittery and unsure of themselves on this sunny, cool afternoon. The mood led to two rare DU defensive miscues in the first 29 minutes that led directly to a pair of Air Force goals that would be all the Falcons would need for the upset victory.
“We [gave up] one ball in our goal, and they had a penalty kick on another,” said DU Head Coach Jamie Franks, describing the defensive unravelling. “It was an awful 25 minutes for us. It was the worst 25 minutes we have played all year.”
The first DU miscue came in the 13th minute, when a DU defender headed a ball back to DU goalie Will Palmquist for what should have been an easy, safe defensive play, but the ball bounced past Palmquist. Air Force’s Klint Parker was there to boot the Denver gift into the open DU net for his eighth goal of the season to give Air Force a 1-0 lead, delighting the large Air Force fan turnout and putting DU on its heels.
Just minutes later, two DU defenders ran into each other chasing a ball and both fell down about 18 yards from the DU goal in a moment reminiscent of a Keystone Cops movie. The fall allowed Air Force’s Aaron Uribe in alone on a breakaway, when he was then tripped in the box by DU’s Scott Devoss, who had run over to stop the breakaway. The Falcons were rightly awarded a penalty kick and Air Force’s Austin Dewing made no mistake, pushing the kick past Palmquist for a 2-0 lead in the 29th minute, his 13th goal of season.
The Pioneers, suddenly down 2-0 and visibly shaken on their home field, would settle down and claw back just after halftime. Moshe Perez hit an artful, 23- yard curling free kick over AFA keeper Andrea Seazzu to the far post for his third goal of his injury-shortened season for DU’s only goal of the game in the 47th minute. Perez, a fifth-year senior playing his final college soccer game, celebrated with zeal, charged up the DU fans and the Pioneers pushed for the equalizer that never came. Perez took a team high eight shots on the day, three of them on-goal, including the last one in the final second of the game that almost found its way under the crossbar, but was tipped away by Seazzu as time expired.
The Pioneers fell to the turf when the final whistle blew.
Their season was over.
Meanwhile, the Falcons celebrated with the large traveling fan base that may have outnumbered the DU fans, including a large number of Cadet athletes from other AFA sports here to support their fellow classmates.
Franks was obviously disappointed with the loss, but quickly praised his senior class. “I’m so thankful for all the older [DU] players,” said Franks. “They’ve made this place better. There’s not many seniors in the country that have won as many trophies as they have over the past four years, won as many games, [had the] top GPAs in the country, community service…It’s been amazing. Those seniors have changed the program forever. I’m gutted for them, but this loss won’t define them.”
DU will graduate a number of key seniors, including the 2018 Summit League Player of the Year, Andre Shinyahshiki, who is the nation’s leading scorer with 28 goals (and a likely finalist for the Hermann Trophy as college soccer’s top player). Shinyashiki had just two shots on the day, although he also made several incisive runs that resulted in shots for others.
DU also loses all-conference center back Scott Devoss, all Summit League Second Teamer Moshe Perez, and 6th-year senior Eric Kronenberg, who had a second-half header that almost scored. Other DU seniors include defender Tosh Samkange, goalie Nick Gardner and starting winger Kenny Akamatsu. Red-shirt juniors (but academic seniors) Dan Mooney and Shae Smalley will also graduate from DU in June.
With the win over DU, Air Force (16-4-0) has advanced to a third round NCAA match with top-ranked Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. next weekend.
Our thanks to Jason Evans, who collected the quotes from Coach Franks after the game.