MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — The perennial end-of-summer heat wave over Allegheny County left the Robert Morris men’s soccer team looking for ways to thaw out its offense and turn its turf into a home-field advantage.
After being burned by a late second-half goal versus Xavier, the Colonials (1-5-0, 1-1-0) saw an early second-half header sink them in a 2-1 loss to Milwaukee in Horizon League action at the North Athletic Complex Saturday.
The Panthers (3-3-0, 2-0-0), last year’s Horizon flag bearer in the NCAA Tournament, were bolstered by a brace from junior midfielder Paolo Gratton. First, he struck in the 20th minute, then provided the game-winner off a textbook deflection in the 47th minute.
A scrappy set-piece tally from junior forward Tom Akinola in the 87th wasn’t enough for Robert Morris to prevent a third defeat in as many home matches. The RMU men have managed only four goals in six outings altogether.
“Of course, you want to be more dangerous in the attacking third any time. We wanted to be more dangerous and get some traffic at their goal, and we didn’t really do a good job of it until the last 20 minutes,” said head coach Jason O’Keefe. “We want to be that dynamic, attacking team, but at the end of the day, you’ve still got to execute that, so we’ll just keep working on it.”
“I think it’s just a matter of confidence,” freshman midfielder Bryan Akongo said. “The last 20 minutes, when we knew we had to get a goal, we just played like we had nothing to lose. When we went all out, we realized we can actually play, get up the pitch, combine a bit more.
“It’s a new team, with a lot of freshmen, and I do think the more confidence we can get, the more chemistry we can get, we can play like that last 20 minutes for a whole 45.”
The Colonials did step on the gas early but had trouble generating quality chances against the Panthers’ 5-3-2 starting formation. When Milwaukee was finally able to matriculate the ball to the other end of the field, it used some of that crisp passing to put the home side on its heels.
Abdu Regassa connected with Gabe Anguil up front, who patiently entered the 18-yard box from the right side and threaded a perfect ball to fellow Wisconsin native Gratton at the top of the area. Gratton one-timed it past Mike Zolnierczyk to give Milwaukee the lead.
Zolnierczyk, the third-year Springdale product, finished the afternoon with four saves, and his leaping fingertip effort seven minutes later to push a Logan Farrington attempt over the bar kept his team within reach.
Shots favored the seasoned Panthers, 9-5, at halftime, and they held Bobby Mo without one for over 25 minutes into the second half, needing only one of their own to double their advantage.
Anguil, gathering speed down the right side, drove a ball right into the middle of the box for Gratton, in stride, whose clinical–cranial–redirection found the bottom left corner of the net, stunning the RMU back line just 1:03 into the period.
“Obviously, not conceding early in a half would help, but I think we need to just trust in the process of what we’re doing every day,” O’Keefe said. “We need to attack.”
“They’re fairly experienced, and they combine well, from the front to back,” said Akongo, regarding the Panthers. “They’re a good team, but I don’t think we’re too far away from them, honestly.”
Akongo, who went hard at Farrington all day, made a number of good runs throughout the match and tried to spark the Colonials off set pieces. The London-born rookie just missed to the left of goal with his header in the 66th minute, set up by fellow newcomer Owen Jowett’s deflection of a free kick taken just beyond midfield by Charlie Lawrence.
He even drew a yellow card on first-year defenseman Raul Medina that eventually forced the Panthers to thwart back-to-back corner kicks at either flag by Robert Morris. Finally, with 3:37 left in regulation, it was the visitors who were caught flat-footed.
The Colonials won a pair of 50-50 balls off another indirect free kick from the right side deep into the box. Akongo went upstairs and nodded the ball to Akinola, who, through a crowd, booted it into an open net.
“As the ball was going across the opposite side, I saw Noe [Bijou] head it back into play, and Tom got a flick over the keeper,” Akongo recalled. “We put a lot of pressure on in the last five minutes, but when we’re more confident, and we can put more pressure on the ball, I don’t think anyone can cover us. Unfortunately, we were just a bit too late.”
Akongo later denied credit for the assist, but his work ethic played a nonetheless integral part in giving young Robert Morris some sort of a silver lining, and helping Akinola join him as the fourth different Colonial to score his first collegiate goal in 2021.
“He’s shown a lot of maturation,” O’Keefe said of Akongo, who came across the Atlantic from Farnborough F.C. “He got here in January, and the spring was a learning curve, just like half of our team is going through right now. He stuck around, played in the summer and really started to evolve into a leader.
“We want to keep pushing him, because we want him to push the group.”
Nine of O’Keefe’s starting XI versus Milwaukee were either freshmen or sophomores. RMU has 19 of those in all on its current 30-man roster.
Better days for those underclassmen lie ahead if O’Keefe can make the same first impression upon them that he has on his burgeoning Brit.
“Coach O’Keefe, and the whole staff, has really helped me on making runs into the box, and on becoming more of a box-to-box player,” said Akongo. “I feel like there’s a lot more I can improve upon, but I feel like I’m heading in the right direction for sure.”
He’ll try to help steer the rest of the Colonials in the right direction when they visit longtime rival Saint Francis University Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. EDT.
The Robert Morris men will also resume conference play on the road, next Saturday at 2:00, when they take on Purdue Fort-Wayne.