AZUSA, Calif. -- Despite losing starting goalkeeper Joe Geletko to a 14th-minute red card, the NAIA’s No. 16-ranked Azusa Pacific still generated plenty of offense and notched a 4-0 win over Hope International despite playing a man down for over 76 minutes in the first round of the GSAC Men’s Soccer Postseason Tournament.
“Today really spoke to the quality of this year’s team, that we still have the ability to score goals and the ability to be dangerous even when we’re a man down,” Cougar head coach Dave Blomquist said. “It also showed how this group had the mental fortitude to stick with the game plan and persevere with the way we wanted to play regardless of the circumstances.”
Geletko was sent off after he committed a foul as the last defender on a breakaway for Hope International’s Manny Plascencia, who had barely avoided being caught offside on a long pass from the Royal midfield. Plascencia got to the ball at the top of the box well ahead of the recovering defenders, so Geletko charged out to try to challenge for possession. Plascencia tried to touch it around the sophomore goalkeeper for an open look at an empty net, so Geletko had little choice but to try to tackle the ball away with his feet.
The slide tackle ended up taking Plascencia down at the edge of the box, so Geletko’s foul as the last defender on an opponent’s clear path to the goal was accompanied by the referee’s red card, leaving Azusa Pacific a man down and missing its primary goalkeeper for the final 76:15. With Geletko out of the picture, the Cougars sent freshman Chip Cox just 11 days after he made his collegiate debut by spelling Geletko for the second half of their win over San Diego Christian Oct. 23. Geletko had played all but 56 minutes of the season in goal for Azusa Pacific before his ejection.
“I didn’t feel like the goalkeeper change was all that different than any other situation where we change out one player for another,” Blomquist said. “I have always felt that we have many quality players through the side, and the guys who step on the field know how to play our style. If we can do that with any player on the field, a substitution doesn’t really change anything for us.”
Matt Howard drilled the ensuing free kick from the edge of the box into the wall of Cougar defenders, and Franky Atonya’s follow-up shot was controlled by Cox for his first of 2 saves. Although Hope International had the edge in terms of manpower, Azusa Pacific continued to control the majority of ball possession. Junior forward Vinicius Dantas fired a 28-yard free kick inside the left post, giving the Cougars a 1-0 lead less than 8 minutes after Geletko was sent off.
Azusa Pacific also took advantage of its deep bench with 7 first-half substitutions. The fresh legs off the bench resulted in another goal with less than 3 minutes left in the first half. Junior forward Nathan Nienhuis blocked a Hope International defender’s attempted clearance back towards the right side of the Royals goal, and he beat Royals goalkeeper Tyler Golden to the ball in the box. He fired it past Golden to the near post for a crucial insurance goal that served not only to double the lead to 2-0 but also deflated Hope International heading into the halftime break.
“This is the first time we’ve been down a man this year, so there is always that question of how we would respond,” Blomquist said. “I wasn’t quite sure how the rest of the game would play out once we were down to 10 men, but the guys responded really well by stepping up their effort while sticking to our style of play.”
In the 62nd minute, senior midfielder Brett Taylor scored his sixth goal of the season to push the lead to 3-0, and it took less than 5 minutes for the Cougars to make it a 4-0 margin when Nienhuis was pulled down in the box by a Royals defender for a Davis Delamarter penalty-kick goal. Taylor’s goal, a 15-yard strike from the right side of the box, was set up by senior midfielder Ashkon Banihashemi’s pass forward out of the midfield.
“That composure we saw today comes from experience, and obviously our seniors factor into that a great deal,” Blomquist said. “Our senior group has a lot of experience over 4 years, and as a team, the ups and the downs of the year set us up to respond really well to an adverse situation. That starts with the seniors – they didn’t lose focus, they didn’t panic, and they still went about playing our style.”
Hope International took all 10 of its shots in the game after the red card, which was 9 fewer than the Cougars, who fired 17 of their 19 shots while playing short-handed. Cox finished with 2 saves, both in his first 3 minutes of action, to preserve Azusa Pacific’s ninth team shutout of the year.
“The 2 central defenders need to do a really good job of organizing the back 4 and the team, and they also need to tighten things up a little bit so that we’re not giving away chances against a keeper who has to come into a tough situation. I thought Chip did a great job, he made a couple of saves, and he came out and caught some in the air really well, so he did well, but Robert and Lucas in that situation needed to step up their communication and their intensity, and I felt they responded well.”
With the win, Azusa Pacific improves to 15-3-1 and advances to Saturday’s GSAC Tournament semifinals, where the Cougars will visit No. 11-ranked California Baptist in a 2 p.m. matchup in Riverside. Hope International drops to 9-9-1 overall, a record that now includes a pair of losses to Azusa Pacific this season by a combined 7-0 margin.