BYU men’s soccer beat its opponents by an average of four goals at the regional tournament Oct. 27 and 28 at Utah Valley University to advance to its first collegiate club nationals appearance since 2002.
The tournament included teams from the northwestern United States that play in the National Intramural and Recreational Sports Association, the league the Cougars currently play in.
The team came into the tournament riding a seven-game winning streak, which featured the first home shutout of the season against Southern Utah the previous weekend.
They played multiple games in one day for the first time all season in the tournament and five games total over the two days.
Coaches and players all agreed how important a deep roster is for the team, especially in tournament play.
“We’re getting used to playing more games in a short amount of time, which is kind of difficult at points,” said goalkeeper Austin Bagley. “It’s good because we can get everyone rotated in, and have everyone on the field and working together.”
“If you can’t use your whole roster often enough then players are going to be tired,” coach Brandon Gilliam said. “And when you get tired you make mistakes.”
Every player on the team got playing time in the tournament, something that benefited the Cougars compared to other, smaller teams.
“We had a lot of different combinations of players, which isn’t really normal,” added midfielder Taylor Fankhauser. “But I feel like we played well together.”
The games were played at UVU’s Geneva Intramural Fields, allowing fans to come out to support the Cougars.
Each team from the region had to play three games, with the winner from each group advancing to the semifinals on Saturday.
The Cougars started the tournament Friday with a 5-0 victory over the Gonzaga Bulldogs in the first meeting between the teams this year before a quick turnaround against Oregon State later that night.
Oregon State kept things tight in the first half, tying the game at 1-1 before the break.
Midway through the second half, however, BYU stepped on the gas pedal and never let off.
The Cougars won the game 9-1 with four goals from star forward Tanner Whitworth.
Whitworth described his third goal of the night as his all-time favorite, settling a cross off his chest and scissor-kicking it into the back of the net.
The Cougars went on to win their third final group game against UVU 4-2 on Saturday morning and advanced to the semifinals, where they took on a University of Utah team they defeated twice this season.
The Utes took the early lead just ten minutes into the game, but the Cougars responded well.
BYU played a free kick quickly into Seth Fankhauser on the right side of the penalty area, who finished the pass to tie the game at 1-1.
Tensions and physical play began to rise with the teams tied for a good portion of the first half.
At one point, a discussion broke out between the two teams’ coaches, with both expressing disbelief and frustration over several officiating calls.
At halftime, with the game still tied 1-1, Gilliam gave a stirring speech to the squad to calm the tension and get them motivated.
“Every time the other team sees you do something, they say ‘that’s BYU,’” Gilliam said. “When you’re out there, you’re not representing yourself, you’re representing all 30,000 students at BYU.”
The speech seemed to light a fire under the players, as the Cougars went on to score three goals in the second half, defeating Utah 4-1.
BYU faced Utah State in the final, the only team that managed to tie the Cougars during the regular season.
The Aggies played much more aggressive defense than any other team the Cougars faced to that point in the tournament, keeping their backline around the box nearly the entire game, congesting the offensive flow for the Cougars.
“It takes a lot more patience,” Gilliam said of the defensive strategy. “The spacing just isn’t quite as open.”
Despite having countless shots, and not allowing the Aggies to possess the ball for most of the game, the Cougars were only able to score two goals; one in each half.
It was only the second time all season the Cougars were kept to two goals or less; the first time also came against Utah State.
Once they took the lead, the Cougars played a lot of possession-heavy soccer, passing the ball around to tire the other team and not allow easy turnovers.
“They touched the ball maybe two or three times,” said coach Steve Magleby. “And we were even able to create some opportunities out of it.”
The BYU defense stood strong in the final minutes, not allowing a single goal en route to a 2-0 win and its first trip to the national tournament since 2002, the last time the group played as a collegiate club team.
It’s been BYU’s goal to win a national title in its first year back in the college ranks, and now they are one step closer.
The team is awaiting word on the national title matchups that will take place in Arizona Nov. 16-18.