In its final home game of the regular season last week, the Lehman College men’s soccer team found itself in some rather unfamiliar territory as it hosted City College.
After plowing through the City University of New York Athletic Conference the past two regular seasons — going a combined 14-0-2 on their way to back-to-back conference championships— the Lightning hit a major speed bump this season. A mediocre 3-3-1 conference record had all but choked off that air of invincibility the Lightning once possessed, and it was replaced by a sense of desperation.
So as the Lightning lined up to take on a two-win CCNY team on Lehman’s South Field, they found themselves needing a victory in order to secure a postseason spot and keep their hopes of a championship three-peat alive.
And what made earning a victory all the more challenging was that Lehman picked the absolute worst time of the season to go into a prolonged scoring drought. Entering the match, Lehman had not scored a single goal in its previous four games, going 0-for-October while earning an 0-3-1 record. And playing a scoreless first half against a seemingly overmatched CCNY team only added to the pressure on Lehman.
But fortunately for the Lightning, they got goals from Marcus Folks in the 53rd minute for Lehman’s first score since Sept. 29, ending a streak of 473 minutes without a goal, before Salh Alzubidi added a key insurance goal in the 78th minute as Lehman answered the bell when it needed to, posting a 2-0 victory.
The win earned the Lightning the third seed in the CUNYAC tournament, hosting Hunter in quarterfinals Oct. 24.
“We needed this one,” Lehman coach Toma Gojcevic said. “It’s been a tough year to say the least. There’s been a lot of peaks and valleys throughout the year. It’s really been a rollercoaster ride. Very nerve wracking.”
Folks did his best to calm those frayed Lehman nerves when he knocked in his first goal of the season for the 1-0 lead. But with CCNY looking to pull off the upset — they peppered Lightning goalkeeper Chris Mulholland with five shots on goal — it wasn’t until Alzubidi netted his seventh goal of the season before Lehman could finally exhale.
It wasn’t exactly an offensive avalanche, but it was enough to boost Lehman back into the postseason with a shot at that three-peat.
“The second half I thought we outworked them, though we didn’t necessarily play better than them,” Gojcevic said. “But we took our chances and we put two goals away. It was good to finally score again. Salh hasn’t scored in about six games, and this was just his seventh goal.
“That’s a far cry from the 18 he scored last year. But hopefully that will give him confidence going forward.”
Alzubidi thought Lehman took CCNY too lightly in the first half despite the game’s importance.
“I think a lot of guys saw their record and didn’t take it serious from the start,” Alzubidi said of the 2-10-1 Beavers. “I think we thought this game was going to be easy, and we just played too laid back until the second half.”
Folks’ goal helped relieve some of the pressure on the offensive end for Lehman, Alzubidi said.
“Yeah, this never happened before,” Alzubidi said of the scoreless streak. “We know we can’t play like that in the playoffs. I hadn’t scored in a while, either, but I think that goal will help me get going again.”
With a bumpy regular season now in its rearview mirror, Lehman will look to the playoffs as a new season where the Lightning hope to make an extended run to a third straight trip to the finals.
“It’s a new season for us, and that’s what I’m going to preach to them,” Gojcevic said. “This was the game that we needed to win to secure a home playoff game. Now I just have to build them up.”
With the victory over CCNY and the scoreless streak now history, Alzubidi believes Lehman could return to its old dominant form now that postseason is here.
“When it comes to the playoffs, no matter how good you did in the season, everyone starts 0-0,” he said. “I think we have a pretty good chance of winning it again. We’ve been playing well against big teams.”
Gojcevic thinks a spirited run in the postseason would help make up for a rather ordinary regular season, at least by Lehman’s standards.
“They know our expectations, and quite honestly we have not lived up to those expectations,” Gojcevic said. “Now we’ll see what they do in the playoffs.”