One last go before the big show

Soccer prepares for final game of the regular season with much in question

soccer

One month ago, it seemed Buffalo soccer was destined to be a Mid-American Conference powerhouse this season. The Bulls looked like a winning team with a new freshman goalkeeper, a 7-1 record in September and an attacking unit that played as well as the consistent defense.

Then players started going down.

Over the course of six weeks, The Bulls (11-6, 5-5 MAC) would lose four players to injury including star senior forward Carissima Cutrona. Since losing Cutrona on Sept. 30, the Bulls have gone 2-4, most recently losing 5-0 to the Bowling Green Falcons (11-4-2, 9-1-0 MAC) at home. With the MAC playoffs approaching, the Bulls will look for some needed momentum in their final season game against the Akron Zips (7-9-2, 4-5-1 MAC) Thursday.

“This will definitely set the tone for the end of our season,” said head coach Shawn Burke. “Coming off the Bowling Green game, we need this win to set ourselves straight and prove we can still compete.”

The Bulls have not scored more than one goal per game since their 5-2 loss to the Kent State Golden Flashes (9-7-2, 5-4-1 MAC) on Oct. 4. Despite the defense's trouble in March, Buffalo had 8 shutouts this season and averages 1.33 goals allowed a game. But with the recent Bowling Green performance, Burke said the Bulls need this win for confidence and momentum.

Currently, the Bulls sit sixth in the MAC, with a playoff game against the Ohio Bobcats (8-6-3, 6-2-2) or the Ball State Cardinals (11-3-2, 7-2-1 MAC) seeming likely. If the Bulls lose, they could at worst, be dropped down to the eighth seed and play a first-round rematch with Bowling Green.

“This season started so bright but things changed thanks to injuries,” Burke said. “It’s really a matter of player condition, its on us to make sure everyone is healthy and can feel OK going 100 percent. It was just one injury after the other and we can’t afford another player to go out.”

In the interview following Cutrona’s injury, Burke said that sophomore forward Marcy Barberic would need to step up if the Bulls were going to continue the season’s success. Barberic has been solid with 5 goals and 7 assists this season while also playing well with Cutrona earlier this season. 

Barberic hasn’t been the spark Buffalo needed on offense, however, with no goals and assists in her last four performances.

“It’s been hard transitioning and working around the injuries,” Barberic said. “I know I need to be a leader offensively and be more vocal with my team. With [Cutrona] out, we all need to do more to make the most of this season.”

Barberic has been praised for her ability as a play maker and has had big plays scoring this season. Burke said she has the talent to be a top scorer, but the current conditions are not ideal.

“It feels like one thing happens after another this month,” Barberic said. “Now we have Akron on Thursday with playoffs right around the corner. We are going to fight for it, seeding is huge to us and we want another chance at Ohio hopefully.”

Burke said without Cutrona, the Bulls can’t expect the multi-goal scoring performances from earlier this season. Instead, much of the work will rely on Buffalo’s defense. With the Bulls going cold scoring in their last five games, Burke said they will have to keep their opponents contained while creating as many opportunities they can.

“It comes down to the defense,” Burke said. “When they are on, they can control and contain any team we play. If we can clean up the mistakes this week and pick up this win, I feel we have a real shot in playoffs.”

Buffalo has had a strong defense since Burke took the program over and this season is no different. Burke said if the defense and junior defender Gurjeena Jandu play to the best of their abilities, Buffalo could make a run in the playoffs.

Burke said the pressure in the current situation will make or break certain players and he does see the possibility of someone having a breakout performance in the off-season. But before the Bulls get to the playoffs, they look to end their season on a winning note.

“Akron is a tough team and we can’t sleep on them,” Burke said. “We’ve let up too many games that could have been wins recently and we now have a shot to correct that.”

Akron comes in off a three-game win-streak. A win over Buffalo would give it a better seeding in the MAC playoffs. The Bulls will have to be ready for an Akron team that knows this could be its last game, unlike the Bulls who have secured their spot.

The Akron game on Thursday starts at 3 p.m. at UB Stadium.

Thomas Zafonte is the senior sports editor and can be reached at thomas.zafonte@ubspectrum.com and on Twitter @Thomas_Spectrum