MOON TOWNSHIP, Pa. — For the Robert Morris men’s soccer team, the rainbow it found after weathering literal and figurative storms Saturday was worth the wait.
The Colonials (3-3-0, 3-8-0), despite playing at a distinct territorial disadvantage, upended the University of Illinois-Chicago 3-2 amid both intermittent rain and Homecoming festivities, winning at the North Athletic Complex for the first time this season and winning consecutive games for the first time since Oct. 26-Nov. 2, 2018.
This triumph for head coach Jason O’Keefe’s very young RMU side also marked its first time winning a third conference match since joining the Horizon League. It last accomplished that feat versus Sacred Heart Oct. 25, 2019, its final victory as a member of the Northeast Conference.
“I think he’s changing the culture already. You’re starting to see the guys adapt to all the circumstances they’ve been put under. Even when things go wrong, they adapt, and we showed that today,” said second-year defenseman Kelvin Ramirez. “I’m very proud of everybody.”
“It was just a resilient team effort. Everybody had a role to play, and a job to execute, and they did. We had a great week of training, and you have to to knock a team like UIC out,” O’Keefe said. “From where we are as a program, you’ve got to have one of your best days. This was a complete team effort, with everybody buying into those roles that they had to play.”
The Flames (3-2-0, 5-4-2), true to their identity, held a 60-40 edge in possession, or 61% to 39%, if semantics are desired. They out-shot Robert Morris 20-7, but the Colonials were the more opportunistic bunch, converting their only two shots on target of the second half.
“UIC is possession-based,” O’Keefe said. “They like to knock it, so we knew we would have to be defensive for long periods. We had to embrace that role, and make things as difficult for them as possible. I thought everybody did that.
“You’re not going to out-possess them. They’re very dynamic, and they’ve been doing it for a long time. We just had to figure out how we would be able to get what we needed out of the game.”
A set-piece goal by Ramirez in the 70th minute, less than three minutes after UIC had equalized for a second time, made the difference. Freshman Nathaniel David earned a corner kick from his midfield spot, and the third time for his team proved to be the charm.
David’s line drive from the far flag to the left side of the box came right to Ramirez. The Toronto native opened his NCAA account by deflecting the ball off the front of his head past Andres Vasquez and sliding on his knees across the soggy pitch toward the vociferous RMU bench.
“It was almost second nature,” he said. “We work on set pieces all the time with Coach O’Keefe. We know the routine, and we finally got to execute it. And the result was great.”
It was a byproduct of an increase in workload for Ramirez, who was named team MVP after playing a team-high 736 minutes during his COVID-shortened freshman campaign last semester. He went the full 90 in place of the injured Gustaf Moberg and helped the Colonials keep their poise after spending most of the first half in their own half.
“Kelvin is a leader on our team. He’s been filling the captain role while ‘Goose’ has been out. I have to remind myself he’s still 18,” O’Keefe said. “He’s very mature…and he’s really embraced taking responsibility and holding guys accountable. To see him get a big-time moment like that, I couldn’t be happier.”
Before the halftime whistle, the scrappy Colonials proved they were not merely content with the moral victory of a 0-0 scoreline at the break in spite of yielding the game’s first eight shots.
In the 42nd minute, sophomore Evan Lamarca found some space in the middle of the box and tried connecting with junior midfielder Ethan Romito on his left. The pass was blocked, but the rebound fell right to Romito, who promptly buried it for his second goal of the season.
“When we did get on the ball, I thought we moved it into the right areas. We weren’t trying to connect fifty passes in our back half. We tried to exploit the space that was given to us, and when we did that, we could get up the field, catch our breath and knock it around,” said O’Keefe.
The Flames leveled in the 52nd on a set piece of their own. Jose Perez Flores, who was extremely active in the attacking third throughout the day, lifted a corner kick from the right flag directly to Nkusuwila Zulu, and the Zambian’s header from close range put the visitors on the board.
Robert Morris counter-punched on a clinical passing play. Midfielder Bryan Akongo accelerated up the left wing and crossed perfectly for fellow freshman Owen Jowett, whose one-timer at the far post, his second goal of the year, restored RMU’s lead in the 63rd minute.
“We overcame and we showed the grit we’ve got. We knew they’re one of the best teams in the conference, and they love to knock the ball. We executed our game plan perfectly,” Ramirez said.
A call for a handball in the 67th gave a penalty to UIC. Although Grant Glorioso guessed correctly by diving to his right, dangerous graduate forward Younes Dayekh was able to follow his own rebound into the back of the net.
But the short-lived nature of their lead would not deter the Colonials, nor Glorioso, on this dreary day. The North Allegheny product–sporting a gold-and-black keeper kit, no less–finished with nine saves, including the PK, and certainly saved his best for last.
He denied a one-timer by Perez Flores with a right-legged kick save right on his doorstep to preserve the one-goal advantage for Robert Morris in the 73rd minute, and shortly thereafter, he went vertical to punch away a long drive from the right elbow by Aaron Nguyen.
The senior also enjoyed a small measure of revenge by cutting out another Perez Flores corner, from the same spot, with time running out on the Chicagoans.
“We’ve been saying all along that goalkeeping is the strength of our team,” said O’Keefe. “Whoever we call on, they come and do the job. Grant’s been the guy the last two games, and I couldn’t be happier that he’s getting some rewards for his efforts.”
Robert Morris opened its Horizon League slate by outlasting Northern Kentucky on the road, and it came home for Homecoming on the heels of a win over Wright State, another conference playoff hopeful.
Now, for the first time in O’Keefe’s tenure, the Colonials appear to be riding high as they prepare for a massive test against Horizon front-runner Cleveland State at the NAC Wednesday.
“I hope it does continue to grow confidence,” he said, “and that they understand if we continue to execute what we’ve worked on every week, that we’re going to be in this position.”