UPPER MERION >> At the start of the season, Upper Merion boys soccer coach Thomas Dodds wasn’t sure what his team would shape up to be.
Thanks to his senior class, Dodds has been pleasantly surprised with the way the Vikings season has gone. Thursday night, with those seniors being honored under the lights, Upper Merion had a chance to lock up a spot in the PAC Final Four, something that not many people may have pegged them for back in August.
Standing in their way was the top seed in the PAC, Phoenixville. The Phantoms did prove to be too much on the field, topping UM 3-1, but the Vikings still qualified for the conference tournament via Methacton’s loss to Perkiomen Valley.
“It’s a character team,” Dodds said. “They have plenty of character, they work hard. They don’t get down, they keep fighting and you saw it tonight. They fight to the end.”
Beating Phoenixville is very difficult, given that only one team has done it so far this fall and the Phantoms knew they were coming into a tough environment on Thursday. The Phantoms wanted to try and get something early to make Upper Merion have to chase the game.
After throwing tons of pressure up early, the Phantoms got what they wanted in the 11th minute when senior midfielder Kyle Tucker played a gorgeous through ball to forward Jared Carboy. Carboy converted a shot from a tough angle inside the near post for the tally.
“Right from the beginning it seemed like they were concerned about our attack and they were really focused on having a lot of guys behind the ball,” Phoenixville coach Mike Cesarski said. “Thankfully scoring early forces them to have to change their plans and the game opened up a little bit more. They were really dangerous from their set pieces and throw-ins, their physicality in the box really caused us a lot of problems.”
Tucker, who assisted two of the three Phoenixville goals, scored what would become the game-winner on a penalty kick with 17:51 left in the first half. A Vikings defender went to ground to try and clear a ball but the official ruled that it hit his hand after his foot while still in the box, awarding the spot kick.
Upper Merion again showed its resolve by getting itself right back into the match. The Vikings, who had seven corners kicks in the game, got a goal back with 16 minutes to play in the first half. A runner dummied a shot off a corner, allowing senior Lorenzo Mancino to strike the rolling ball, sending it through a crowd into the back of the net.
“I did my Master’s thesis on set pieces so I know how important they are,” Dodds said. “Close to 35 percent of goals come from them, but it’s the same with defending. We gave up one at the end and we’ve struggled with that. Attacking-wise, we can make things happen and they did a nice job executing one of them.”
JT Stevens headed in a Tucker corner kick with 2:45 to go that sealed up the win for Phoenixville. The Phantoms are also a pretty resilient group, and they’ve embraced the success the season has brought them.
It’s not just Tucker either, the entire group works hard for 80 minutes and has the type of grinders that complement the offensive threats the Phantoms can run out on a given night.
“This is not a group where their heads are going to drop when they give up a goal,” Cersaski said. “I think part of it is when you’re confident in the skill you have attacking-wise, giving up one goal against a good team, you’re still confident you can do something. That’s the mentality for our team, they’re confident, they know they can score, our goal differential is very good and they have a good confidence in the success we’ve had.”
Dodds said his entire team has been great and very coachable this season, which extends down from the seniors. UM has had some close losses to top-level competition, which showed Dodds his group had something special this season.
A postseason berth, with the Vikings in good standing to qualify for the District 1-3A bracket, would be a deserved reward in their coach’s eyes.
“We’re right there and it’s frustrating, but it’s also a credit to these guys,” Dodds said. “We never would have thought we’d been hanging with these teams. I was pleased with the effort tonight too, we made a couple mistakes but overall, we did well out there.”
Phoenixville 3, Upper Merion 1
Phoenixville 2 1 — 3
Upper Merion 1 0 — 1
Goals: P – Jared Carboy (Kyle Tucker), Tucker (PK), JT Stevens (Tucker); UM – Lorenzo Mancino. Shots: P – 10, UM – 3. Saves: P – Gavin Perillo 2; UM – Dylan Castillo 7. Corners: P – 6, UM – 7.