After dominating the City University of New York Athletic Conference’s men’s soccer scene the past two seasons when they won back-to-back conference tournament championships, the Lehman Lightning had their sights set on a rare three-peat as the CUNYAC postseason opened.
And though the Lightning struggled through the regular season, posting a rather ordinary — by their standards — 4-3-1 mark in league play after going unbeaten over the previous two regular seasons, the Lightning were looking for one last big-stage moment before the vaunted senior class of Salh Alzubidi and Omar Moro took their final bows.
Prospects for that third ring looked promising in the quarterfinals when Lehman rallied from a two-goal deficit to knock off Hunter in overtime to advance the third-seeded Lightning into a semifinal matchup with No. 2 Baruch. The two teams had played to a 0-0 tie late in the regular season, so confidence was high that another trip the title game was theirs for the taking.
But after playing scoreless through the game’s first 70 minutes, Baruch got a goal on a penalty kick from Alexey Arefev, then added an insurance goal by Shaiem Allah Morad in the 79th minute, snuffing out the Lightning’s dream of a third straight CUNYAC crown.
“That was a tough one,” Alzubidi said afterward. “They’re a good team. We couldn’t expect to just go in there and win the game. We had to work, and we did, but they were just a hard team to get goals against.”
The Lightning and Bearcats were pretty evenly matched in the first half with Lehman actually seeing more scoring opportunities in the first 45 minutes. But they couldn’t capitalize on any of them, and the two teams went into intermission locked in a 0-0 stalemate.
It remained that way for the first 25 minutes of the second half until Lehman was called for a penalty in the box, which awarded Baruch a penalty shot. Seconds later, Arefev booted the first goal past Lehman keeper Chris Mulholland for a 1-0 Baruch lead.
“It was 0-0 in the 70th minute, and they came into the box and took a shot and it hit my defender in the hand and they called the penalty,” Lehman head coach Toma Gojcevic said. “That was tough because my kid’s hands weren’t above his head. But you know, when you get into a defensive posture and your hands are on the side of your body and the guy shoots and hit his hand, they call that a penalty. But that was really tough to swallow.”
It was then Gojcevic made a tactical change in strategy in order to turn the heat up on the Bearcats.
“As soon as we got down, I switched to a 3-4-3, which is an attacking formation,” the coach said. “I usually use a 4-5-1, which is very defensive oriented. After the switch, we had a couple of chances and had a couple of free kicks that didn’t work out. And then they scored that second goal, and that pretty much sealed our fate.”
Alzubidi remembered how Lehman rallied in the previous game against Hunter and felt another comeback could be in the cards. But all hope vanished after Baruch went up 2-0 with 11 minutes to play.
“I just wanted to win one more,” Alzubid said. “We really wanted to get that third ring. It just didn’t happen. Then I was depressed because this was the last game of my college career.”
And what a career it was for Alzubidi. In his two seasons with the Lightning, he scored a combined 24 goals and was named the CUNYAC player of the year last season. He and Moro will be hard to replace at Lehman.
“Omar has been with us for three years and he was an attacking force,” Gojcevic said. “He brought a calmness to the team, and he scored some big goals, particularly against Hunter in that quarterfinal game. Salh was a goal scorer but Salh also possessed speed and technical ability that put the defenders on their heels all the time.”
Losing those two gems means Gojcevic will hit the recruiting trail very soon.
“I really have to do a great job with my staff and go out and try to replace those two guys,” Gojcevic said. “It’s time to get the boots on and get going.”