OLATHE, Kan. -- Senior forward Sven Simon celebrated his return to the Azusa Pacific lineup with a pair of goals, leading the top-seeded Cougars to a 3-1 victory over 17th-seeded tournament host MidAmerica Nazarene (Kan.) on a chilly Thursday night at the 49th annual NAIA Men’s Soccer National Championship in Olathe, Kan. Simon had not played in a game since a 1-1 draw with Point Loma Nazarene on Oct. 20.
Senior midfielder Brandon Stirm added a second-half goal that turned out to be the game-winner when MidAmerica Nazarene scored on a free kick with just over 10 minutes left in the game.
In the 23rd minute, Simon found the far right corner of the net after cutting back in front of the net to take a pass from Stirm along the end line, giving the Cougars a lead to show for several quality scoring chances early on. The scoring opportunity started with senior forward Steven Lenhart leading Stirm deep into the left side of the box with a well-placed ball from the right.
“Steve played a great ball to Stirm, but he had a bad angle and was all the way to the line,” said Simon. “I just cut back, Stirm passed it inside and I was able to put it in the corner.”
Less than 5 minutes into the game, Simon advanced quickly through the midfield up the right side, finding Stirm open out wide on the left side. Stirm’s shot was saved by Pioneers goalkeeper James Mace and eventually cleared from danger. After a pair of Azusa Pacific corner kicks in the 17th minute, Lenhart went up to challenge for a header deep in the box but was called for a foul on Mace, allowing the Pioneers to clear the ball for the time being.
The teams combined for just 5 total shots in the opening half, combining to put 4 of them on goal, and the Cougars carried the 1-0 lead into halftime.
“I’m not satisfied with the way we came out,” said Cougar head coach Phil Wolf, whose squad had not played since suffering a 2-1 loss to Westmont exactly 2 weeks ago in the first round of the NAIA Region II playoffs.
“Maybe we chalk it up to not playing a game in the past 2 weeks, but that wasn’t good enough. Sure, (the weather) was a factor, but everyone else is going to have to play in it. If that’s what’s holding us back, then we’ve got bigger problems. It’s going to be cold, the grass is going to be long, and we’ve just got to figure out a way to get through that.”
In the 48th minute, Lenhart helped set up another Cougar goal, again drawing defenders along the right side before sending it on the ground to Simon at the near post. With a pair of Pioneers collapsing on him, Simon allowed the ball to play through to a wide-open Stirm, who buried it with an 8-yard tap off his right foot.
The hard work of Lenhart paid off again in the first 10 minutes of the second half, when Lenhart chased down a long pass headed for the end line. He beat Mace to the ball by a step just before being taken down by the goalkeeper, earning a penalty kick opportunity for Simon, who nailed the shot to give the Cougars a 3-0 lead.
“It doesn’t matter how we won,” said Simon, who has now scored 5 goals in 8 career national tournament contests. “A win is a win, and we’ll take that. I feel like every year we’ve been here, our first game was kind of a struggle.”
Sandwiched between the Cougar goals was a spectacular diving save from Azusa Pacific junior goalkeeper James Crawford that preserved the 2-goal lead in the 53rd minute. Dave Richards fired a low shot to the left, and Crawford was able to knock it about a foot wide of the post for a Pioneer corner kick that was cleared easily from danger.
The Cougars easily could have added multiple goals in the second half, generating numerous quality scoring chances. An Alex Earl header in the 64th minute sailed just over the goal, and a blistering line drive off the right foot of senior midfielder Kolt Callaway drilled the under side of the crossbar in the 72nd minute, bouncing just in front of the goal line and back away from the goal. In the 86th minute, sophomore forward Mike Wilson and Earl had consecutive chances turned away each time by Pioneer goalkeeper Bret Olendorff in the 86th minute. Just 30 seconds later, Olendorff came up with another stop at the top of the penalty box when freshman midfielder Ashkon Banihashemi tried to lift a shot over him.
“We still could have scored a couple more goals, and that’s the positive side,” said Wolf. “We just have to do a better job of organizing, working and encouraging. I told the guys, ‘Hey, this is a win at the national tournament, and we’ll take it, but if we perform like that on Saturday night, we’ll be in big trouble.’ ”
The Pioneers cut the lead to 3-1 with just over 10 minutes remaining when a foul just outside the Cougar penalty area set up a free kick from 19 yards out at a favorable angle directly in front of goal. The Lucas Rodriguez kick cleared the right side of Azusa Pacific’s wall and curled back in to hit the inside of the right post. The shot deflected off Crawford’s left shoulder back into the goal, spoiling what would have been an Azusa Pacific single-season record 13th shutout of the season.
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 17-1-1 on the season, while MidAmerica Nazarene is eliminated from its first-ever national tournament appearance with a final record of 11-7. The Cougars have the day off as they await the conclusion of the second round with 4 Friday matches, including a matchup between eighth-seeded Fresno Pacific and ninth-seeded Rio Grande (Ohio), whose winner will face Azusa Pacific Saturday night in quarterfinal action.