NORTH ANDOVER, Mass. – The 16th-ranked Merrimack men's soccer battled valiantly after being forced to play shorthanded for about a half hour, but a controversial penalty kick goal proved to be the difference, as 10th-ranked Southern New Hampshire edged the Warriors, 1-0, in the NCAA Tournament Second Round on Sunday afternoon at Larkin Field.
The Warriors see their historic 42nd season in program history come to a sudden end with their record standing at a final 15-4-2, while the Penmen (18-3) advance to the East Region Championship next Sunday against either LIU-Post or UMass-Lowell.
Despite being outshot by a 16-11 margin, the Warriors and sophomore goalkeeper Jose Silva (Northborough, Mass.) did not blink in the face of a few precarious scoring chances for the home side. The NE-10 Goalkeeper of the Year finished the game with an impressive seven saves, while his counterpart Dom DiMaggio notched two stops and benefitted from a monumental team save late in the first half with the Warriors bidding to take the lead.
But after a scoreless first half, Southern New Hampshire finally took the lead for good by means of a penalty kick chance, and that would be enough to derail one of the greatest seasons for the Warriors in school history.
Merrimack had already made history this season, establishing new program records in goals allowed in a season (12); goals-against average for a season (0.54); longest unbeaten streak (13 games); and, most importantly, earning its first-ever NCAA Tournament berth in school history.
Still, after losing twice already to the Penmen in the regular season and the NE-10 Finals, the loss was bittersweet for a nine-member senior class that exceeded every preseason prognostication, as the Warriors were picked to finish sixth in the NE-10 Preseason Coaches' Poll but wound up claiming the team's fourth NE-10 regular season title.
With just under 30 minutes left in regulation, Merrimack was forced to play shorthanded after a red card was dealt to senior forward Franklin Lemus Pena (Revere, Mass.). The infraction occurred in the 63rd minute, leaving Merrimack with just nine field players for the remainder of the match.
Over the ensuing 15 minutes, both teams battled back and forth and the physicality of the game increased exponentially. Finally, in the 75th minute, a controversial whistle inside the Merrimack box awarded a penalty kick chance for the hosts, and Chris Tsonis capitalized, beating Silva to his left to give the Penmen the decisive tally.
Merrimack had one last great scoring chance to potentially tie the game, as senior back Olof Lindhe (Stockholm, Sweden) threw a header on net that appeared to be destined for the net, but SNHU goalkeeper DiMaggio came up with his biggest stop of the match, as the Penmen hung on from there on out to clinch the victory.
In total, the both teams combined for 28 fouls (15-13 SNHU) and totaled five yellow cards.
The hosts saw their best scoring chance of the first half come in a span of back-to-back shot attempts. Silva came up with an initial stop on a hard shot to his right, and got a piece of the rebound as well before the follow-up shot sailed high.
But Merrimack nearly tacked on a go-ahead goal of its own late in the frame. Freshman midfielder Augusto Silva (Hudson, Mass.) came up with the loose ball at the top of the box but barely missed getting a clean shot off. Minutes later, as the Warriors continued to apply pressure with time ticking away in the frame, a header attempt by rookie Ronald Ried (Schwendi, Germany) appeared to be heading for an open net, but a SNHU defender kicked it away at the last moment to keep it scoreless.
In total, the Penmen held an 8-6 edge in shot attempts in the first half, as well as a 3-1 lead in corners. Silva, meanwhile, recorded three saves in the first 45 minutes compared to one from DiMaggio.
Merrimack's season comes to a close just shy of the single-season record of 16 wins in a season. The Warriors will be hard-pressed to replace the graduation of nine seniors, including the team's leading scorer and NE-10 Player of the Year in Lemus Pena, as well as co-captains Alejandro Fuchs (Caracas, Venezuela) and Nelson Santos Da Graca (Gothenburg, Sweden), but do return a solid young core highlighted by two of the team's top five scorers and Silva between the pipes.
For continuing coverage of Merrimack throughout the offseason, check back online at www.merrimackathletics.com.