By Joseph Frescott, Sports Editor
The LIU men’s soccer team made history on Sunday, Nov. 12 winning the program’s sixth Northeast Conference (NEC) postseason championship when they defeated Sacred Heart University 1-0.
The lone goal was scored by two-time NEC Player of the Year Emil Jaaskelainen, who received a corner from junior midfielder Alan Martinez and headed it into the back of the net in the 39th minute.
Head coach Michael Mordocco details the championship-winning play.
“We had a feeling today that it was gonna be hard to score a goal running a play so it would take a set-piece goal. [Emil] is one of the best players in the box. We put a couple of good deliveries he gets a piece of a few of them and finally connects on a real one and scores a fantastic goal,” the two-time NEC championship-winning coach said. “The delivery from Alan was very special and everyone committed to complete their runs so that it could come together.”
Jaasklainen gives credit to the NEC Tournament MVP for the set-up.
“Alan’s [Martinez] crossing ability is unbelievable for the college level. Whenever he gets the ball I know that if I make a good run I am going to have a chance,” the senior forward said. “When Alan is there I try to make the best runs and score like today.”
Martinez returns the favor.
“You know [Emil] is looking for a goal he is always trying to get one in and we kind of have a connection where he knows where the ball is gonna go and he is always at the end of it,” he said. “It is easy when you have a guy like him in the box always hungry to score a goal.”
That goal was enough for LIU to take home the NEC trophy for the second time in three years, but it took victories in five consecutive contests to achieve this feat.
After suffering their only conference loss against Saint Francis University on Thursday, Oct. 19, the Sharks would win their last three games, decimating Stonehill and Le Moyne 4-0 and 6-3 respectively. With crucial playoff seeding on the line, LIU traveled to Teaneck, New Jersey, and upset Fairleigh Dickinson University (FDU) 1-0 in the regular season finale, handing the Knights their first conference loss in two seasons.
The win elevated the Sharks to the second seed, securing a bye in the first round of the NEC tournament. NEC Rookie of the Year Joshua Saavedra scored the winning goal in the 24th minute, his sixth of the season.
Coach Mordocco saw the abilities of Saavedra from the very beginning.
“When we recruited Josh we thought that he would make an impact as a freshman, but certainly not the impact that he has so far,” he said “It is gonna be tough for him to maintain that these next four years, but he had an exceptional rookie campaign and hopefully he is not done yet.”
Jaasklainen also admires the true freshman’s prowess.
“Josh has been unbelievable since coming here. He is energetic, and his movement in the boxes is really good that is why he has a lot of goals. He has a few assists as well and for a freshman to do that is really good. You see it every day in the training and the way he trains. It is not a surprise to me and he deserves it fully,” the four-time first-team All-NEC selection said.
The Sharks would get some help in their playoff return, as junior defender and team captain Robert Winkler returned from the foot injury that held him out of 12 games this season.
Coach Mordocco understands the value of Winkler’s return.
“[Winkler] is very important to what we have built here these last few years. He has a pretty serious injury and he just started coming back. We felt his leadership would be very valuable to us this postseason. When he got injured we planned to have him back for the postseason so it was fitting,” Mordocco said. “We have an important senior group, even our junior group are all leaders and they have done a great job.”
LIU would face the third-seeded FDU Knights in the semifinals on Thursday, Nov. 9, exactly a week after their previous meeting. This time, the Sharks were well-rested and at home, an advantage that Jaasklainen values.
“It was very important to get the bye so that we had a few more days to train and prepare. We are also at home now which is a big advantage,” the NEC all-tournament teamer said. “We take pride playing here and we haven’t lost here this season,”
Saavedra acknowledges the benefits of playing at LIU Soccer Park.
“It is really important to play at home. I am happy to play at home because I score all my goals here. We know how to play on this field and where to put the balls on this field so I am happy to play here.”
The Sharks would get on the board first in the semifinal, with Martinez scoring in the 10th minute. LIU would lead 1-0 for the majority of the contest, but FDU would get the equalizer in the 80th minute thanks to freshman midfielder Andreas Blaaholm, forcing overtime.
After 10 hard-fought minutes, Jaasklainen had a chance at the net, but his shot was too high, deflecting off the crossbar. Thankfully for LIU, Saavedra was trailing and scored off of the rebound in the 101st minute. The Sharks would hold on to the lead following the goal, winning 2-1 to clinch their third NEC championship appearance in four years.
Heading into the NEC championship, Sacred Heart was not the program LIU had anticipated facing, as the four-seeded Pioneers upset the one-seeded Saint Francis University Red Flash in the semifinals, advancing on penalty kicks 5-3 after a 1-1 tie in regulation and extended time. This allowed the Sharks to host the championship, which played a crucial role in the team’s success in the eyes of Martinez.
“You come home and you play a game here in front of all of your fans. This is what you grow up playing for. Nothing beats this feeling,” Martinez said. “You have your family and friends and everyone that goes to school with you comes out to support you and have your back when you are going through tough times on the field. Having them cheering you on is an exciting feeling and keeps you pushing forward.”
Sunday’s victory against the Pioneers gave the Sharks an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament, where they are slated to face the University of Denver in the first round. Competing in the Summit League, the Pioneers bolstered an impressive 11-2-5 overall record, with a perfect 7-0-1 conference record in the regular season. Denver did fall short in their conference tournament, however, losing in the semi-finals to the Kansas City Roos.
Coach Mordocco details the plan before Thursday’s contest.
“I think you need to enjoy it, the whole process of it. There are hundreds of thousands of student-athletes who never get to experience it,” he said. “Fortunately, some of these guys will get a second go around so we will prepare a little differently than two years ago. We are going to enjoy the process, dial it down, make sure that we are completely focused, and see if we can do something more special than last time.”
Despite the step up in competition, Martinez is confident heading into the NCAA tournament.
“We have done it in the past where we went away and got the result. We are gonna have confidence in ourselves to get the result. Just believing at the end of the day you gotta believe and you gotta want it. If you do those things, maybe you get a result and that is what we are looking to do,” Martinez said.
The result Martinez alluded to came in the Sharks 2021 NCAA Tournament appearance when they upset Maryland University 1-0 after a goal by forward Ben Assane Fall in the waning minutes of the contest.
The LIU Sharks will look for a repeat performance when they take on the University of Denver Pioneers on Thursday, Nov. 16. Kickoff is scheduled for 3 p.m.
The quoted material contained in this article was presented courtesy of broadcasting alumni and WCWP’s Joseph Lonegro, with assistance from Assistant Sports Editor Brady Campbell and Staff Writer Brendan Kaufman.