The Blues look ready for a deep playoff run. PHOTO BY MARTIN BAZYL/THE VARSITY BLUES

The Varsity Blues men’s soccer team scored four goals against a resilient Nipissing Lakers, but continue to give the impression that they have yet to fully hit their stride.

The Blues entered the Saturday evening game against the fifth-placed Lakers with very little at stake, having sealed third place in the Ontario University Athletics East conference the week prior. In the 14 preceding games this season, they have comfortably etched out their position as a buffer between the heavyweight table-topping duo of the Carleton Ravens and the Ryerson Rams and the rest of the division.

This performance always threatened to produce the free-flowing, counterattacking barrage that the team is capable of, but, symptomatic of its dead rubber nature, the 4–2 result showcased the Blues’ profligacy in front of goal, and surprisingly poor set-piece defending.

Just 13 seconds after kickoff, Blues fourth-year goalkeeper Stefan Dusciuc was forced to divert a shot behind for a corner after Nipissing exposed gaps in the Toronto defense with cross-field passing.

The following minute would best be described as a panicked affair for Toronto, who could not leverage control of the ball or assert defensive authority.

The Lakers would swing in a cross to an overloaded penalty box, forcing Dusciuc to palm the resulting shot directly back into the danger zone. Nipissing’s Cody Vaillancourt was quickest to react, slamming the ball into the Toronto net just one minute and 14 seconds into the game.

Following the restart, the Blues organized with three at the back and Blues captain Nikola Stakic — usually playing at the heart of the defence — as the team’s midfield anchor. Despite his smart movement and tracking back, a lack of support in the centre of the pitch allowed Nipissing to dominate control in the early periods. Nipissing’s high press further pushed Stakic into defensive duties, and the rest of the attack-minded midfield lacked the tools to offset the opposition’s attacks.

Still, the Blues were clearly cognizant of their strength on the wings, and almost found an equalizer in the seventh minute. On the right flank, Blues winger Koosha Nazemi played the ball to Nick Chiappetta, who returned it to Nazemi in the opposition penalty box with a well-worked backheel pass. One-on-one with the Nipissing goalie, Nazemi shanked a tame effort woefully wide of the net.

The Blues were left to wait until the 24th minute for their equalizer, as a terrible Nipissing pass unleashed midfielder Yousef Helmy toward goal. Helmy showed good ball control in dribbling past the opposition defense, slotting a comfortable goal into the bottom left corner of the goal. With the newfound confidence of a well-taken goal, Helmy grew into the game as it progressed, picking out smart passes in the final third to stamp the Blues’ attacking intent on the game.

Playing his first home game, Blues first-year defender Jacob Maurutto-Robinson put on an excellent display, particularly with his impressive passing vision. In the 30th minute, he delivered a peach of a ball that beat the defensive line to Helmy. Helmy’s half volley was even sweeter than Maurutto-Robinson’s delivery, as the ball thundered past a hapless Nipissing goalie to make the score 2–1. Helmy’s silky dribbling and Maurutto-Robinson’s pinpoint passing would continue for the rest of the first half, giving the Blues more control over the game.

Excellent in the Blues’ previous set of home games, midfielder Anthony Sousa experienced a difficult start to the second half. In the 47th minute, he had a shot from point-blank range saved by the goalie, and two minutes later, he blasted a shot high and wide, again from within the penalty box.

Maurutto-Robinson would again contribute, this time to the Blues’ third goal in the 53rd minute, after a targeted lob from 30 yards found Sousa, who lay the ball off to striker Jack Wadden to dispatch and make the score 3–1.

Despite the Blues’ momentum, their defense on set-pieces continually left a lot to be desired, and in the 61st minute, they paid for their carelessness. A Nipissing corner somehow found Darius Tignanelli in acres of space, and he was all too happy to place the ball into the net. Stakic and Dusciuc will have been disappointed by their failure to organize their backline for the second time of the evening, but perhaps this will serve as an impetus for head coach Anthony Capotosto to work more on man-marking in training.

The Blues started to slip from the game following Nipissing’s second goal, and too many times, they were forced back to their goalie by the Nipissing press. Dusciuc himself was forced into a couple of rushed clearances and poor balls and, on another day, the Blues could easily have been punished for a lack of structure and composure in the defensive third.

Curiously, following a raft of substitutions in the 68th minute that included midfielder Michael Matic entering the play, the Blues were able to assert more control over the game, and Matic scored the team’s fourth in the 72nd minute from inside the box.

Even with the dead rubber victory in the bag, the Blues kept foraging forward, and in the 90th minute, Nazemi delivered a perfect pass to striker Jae Jin Lee in the box. One-on-one with the goalkeeper, Lee hit the post from inside 10 yards. While he will have been disappointed not to add to his seven-goal tally of the season — and he certainly won’t get many easier chances — luckily, the miss wasn’t of importance this time.

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