Marquette men’s soccer had a question to answer when Wednesday night’s regular season finale kicked off: Can the Golden Eagles beat DePaul and clinch the #4 seed in the Big East tournament, and in turn, a quarterfinal match at home on Saturday?
They wasted no time in answering the question with an emphatic “YES.”
Grant Owens made the most of his senior night start by slotting home a pass from fellow senior Diego Nunez in the 20th minute to put Marquette up 1-0, and MU got an insurance goal from Lukas Sunesson off helpers from Josh Coan and Patrick Seagrist in the 31st minute. Nine saves from freshman Cedrik Stern, including eight in the second half, paved the rest of the way to the 2-0 victory for Marquette.
As mentioned, that locked up fourth place in the Big East for the Golden Eagles, and they will host #5 seed Xavier on Saturday night for MU’s first Big East tournament appearance since 2014. Technically, if you want to be that way about it, Marquette had clinched the #4 seed around halftime when the Providence/St. John’s match came to a conclusion with the Red Storm losing and confirming that no one could pass the Golden Eagles.
It felt like Marquette was knocking on the door early, and the Golden Eagles nearly scored right before Owens’ opener. There was a scramble out in front of the DePaul net, and with keeper Drew Nuelle out of position, only a heads up play by a DePaul defender to chest the ball back to the ground kept the ball from bounding into the net. Shortly thereafter, some great agility work from Nunez tipped a pass out of the air, and after he shifted it wide, Owens just had to wait for Nuelle to commit to a decision in order to send it into the net.
After appearing for 33 minutes on Sunday against Butler for his first action since September 18th, it was somewhat obvious that Owens wasn’t at the proper fitness levels to go the full 90 minutes here, and his goal gave head coach Louis Bennett the opportunity to give him some rest. That sent Sunesson into the match in his place in the 22nd minute, and the freshman from Sweden wasted little time making an impact. He had his first shot of the game in the 29th minute, and after a shot/corner kick/shot exchange for the Blue Demons, Sunesson made a heads up run at the net to cash in some adept passing and footwork by Patrick Seagrist and Josh Coan.
From the looks of it, Nuelle had no idea that Sunesson was coming, as the tip touch at the last second by the Swede was enough to put the keeper off balance and unable to even touch the ball as it went past him.
It was a fun first half of soccer, and not just because of the two Marquette goals. Free flowing, lots of up and down action, and in a drastic change from past DePaul teams, very little fouling. That changed in the second half as things got fiesty. After just eight total fouls between the two sides in the first half, DePaul committed eight themselves after the break with the Golden Eagles adding six of their own.
None of the Marquette fouls were more notable than the one in the 54th minute that came inside the box and resulted in a penalty kick. It came just shortly after MU’s Connor Alba was flat out pushed off the ball and to the ground on the other end, but as it was quite honestly more of a very strong jostling than anything else, the referee let it go. I can’t fault his decision at the time, because it certainly didn’t look like enough of a foul to warrant a penalty kick, which it would have if he had blown the whistle. Alba appeared on the verge of finding the space to shoot and the contact ended that opportunity.
Meanwhile, on the other end, whatever the foul was that the referee called, it was less noticeable than Alba going to the ground. Captain Luka Prpa made all of these points very clearly to the referee as there was a long exchange with the referee and Prpa before Zach El-Shafei attempted the penalty kick.
I say “attempted” here, because if you’ve been reading closely, then you know that DePaul didn’t score in this match. Here’s the thing: They should have scored here. Stern guessed wrong on El-Shafei’s kick, and went diving to the left. El-Shafei went right, of course, and with a yawning wide open net, it seemed unlikely that he would miss. Except he did. Badly. He missed very far to the right, so far to the right that it kicked off the outside of the post and rolled over the end line for a goal kick.
DePaul ended up outshooting Marquette, 10-7, in the second half, and had a free kick just outside the box in the 83rd minute after a tactical foul by Josh Hancock earned the freshman a yellow card. It was a well struck kick by Harry Hilling, but it floated over everyone and went straight at Stern.
Speaking of Stern, we can’t say enough good things about him in this match. He was pressed into service in a high tension moment because Luis Barraza was serving a suspension from a red card on Sunday. He made eight saves on those 10 DePaul second half shots in order to keep the Blue Demons off the board and do his part to push Marquette into Saturday’s home game. The freshman had a rough start to his collegiate career with two ugly outings, but since then, he’s allowed just one goal in the run of play in over 220 minutes of action.
Here’s a full match highlight package, courtesy of the Big East Digital Network and GoMarquette.com:
Up Next: Thanks to Xavier’s 5-3 victory over Butler on Wednesday night, the Musketeers are the #5 seed and will travel to Milwaukee for a Saturday night Big East tournament quarterfinal match. Marquette beat Xavier 2-1 at Valley Fields back on October 20th in a come from behind effort.