NEW BEDFORD, Mass. – The contrasting reactions of the teams at the final whistle told its own story.
One set of players left the field with arms raised, smiles on their faces, while the other players were left shaking their heads and thinking about missed opportunities.
The scoreboard may have read 2-2, but anything less than victory, especially against a rival, feels like a defeat for New Bedford. That’s how fine the line is when you are the top-ranked soccer team in the state.
The No. 1 Whalers jumped out to a 2-0 lead within the first four minutes of Thursday evening’s game with Dartmouth, but the Indians battled back with a goal either side of halftime to earn a draw and a crucial point in their push for tournament qualification.
“I told my guys before the game that this is the big stage; this is why we play soccer,” said Dartmouth head coach Josh Silva, who pumped his fist to celebrate as the game came to a close. “Just a heck of a game, two heavyweights going at it, and I’m pleased with the result after going down 2-0.”
For the Whalers (10-0-2), who sit atop the ESPNBoston.com statewide rankings and were this week ranked No. 8 in the country by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America (NSCAA), it was only the second dropped point of the season.
But head coach John Macaraco still saw plenty of room for improvement ahead of the state tournament.
“This is what I hopefully can anticipate going forth - what we saw in the first 10 minutes,” he remarked. “We have the talent and, once we start playing more as a team, we’re going to be tough to beat. We’re very talented with the ball at our feet, but we’re having an issue with some physicality.”
Junior forward Edmilson Andrade got New Bedford off to a perfect start on a blustery night in front of a typically partisan crowd. Just 30 seconds into the game, he received a pass in the middle of the attacking half and drove beyond the last Dartmouth defender. Andrade had the presence of mind to slip his shot under the onrushing keeper to make it 1-0.
Just three minutes later, he had his second. This was the type of free-flowing soccer that New Bedford is known for, as the Whalers cruised through the midfield with one-touch passing. Senior Klisman Sousa sent in a cross to the back post that was headed down by Felipe Ponte into the path of Andrade, who smashed into the net.
Dartmouth (6-4-3) was reeling, but after a timeout and reorganization seemed to settle down and, as the half wore on, started creating chances for senior forward Noah Martins and midfielder Ben Silvia. The Indians surrounded Sousa in the midfield and used their strength to frustrate the Whalers.
Macaraco admitted that it took New Bedford out of its game plan.
He said, “I think the word is out - this is how teams have been playing us lately. Dartmouth is a quality team and we couldn’t adjust as fast as we should have.”
On the fifth corner of the first half, Dartmouth finally had its reward. The ball bounced around the box and the Whalers were unable to clear it before Silvia stepped up to poke it home and make it 2-1 with 14 minutes left before halftime. His coach spoke after the game about the importance of getting on the board before the break.
“It was huge. That goal definitely gave us momentum going into the second half and brought us some confidence,” said Silva.
The second half began with more space for both teams. Sousa drew a yellow card on defender Pat Thornton for a foul on the edge of the 18-yard-box, but on the free kick his shot sailed high. Almost immediately after, Martins had a chance on the other end but that too sailed over. The Indians also forced a great save out of Austin Eugenio on a fierce shot by Josh Sousa and on the ensuing corner Nick Paine rattled the crossbar of the football uprights just a foot over the goal.
At the midway point of the second half, Dartmouth equalized. A cross from the near side could not be handled by Eugenio, who spilled it at the feet of Martins. The Indians striker made no mistake with his finish and set off celebrations on the visitor’s bench.
Silva praised his senior’s work rate after the game.
He noted, “Noah is just that type of kid that any coach would want. He brings it every day…he leads with his play. He definitely gave our guys the edge today. His leadership brought us to the next level today.”
Macaraco was left wondering what happened to his team’s defense, which had been strong all season long.
“I think we gave up two soft goals today, which is something that we’ve been good at this year. I mean, this is the first time we’ve given up two goals in a game the whole season.”
New Bedford had a pair of chances to find the winner. First, Sousa found space in the box with a terrific change of pace and dip of the shoulder, but his cross was just behind fellow forward Deivys D’Almeida. In the final minute, Andrade had a chance for his hat trick, but his sharp strike from the left was well-saved and held by sophomore Nathan Morgado with Sousa lurking to pounce on any rebound.
“They’ve got some guys that can kill you in a lot of ways, but we prepared for them and I thought we had a good game plan going in,” said Silva, who called the Whalers’ midfield one of the best in the state.
He added, “Any time that you can go into a hostile environment and get a point, especially at New Bedford High, it’s good.”