The Continentals (5-6-3 in 2011) hosted the Williams College Ephs in a midweek NESCAC class. Williams finished 2011 with a 9-4-3 record, 5-2-3 against conference opponents. Hamilton went into the Wednesday afternoon game 1-1-0 having beaten SUNY Oswego and losing to conference opponents Trinity College 2-1 at the weekend. Williams was riding the high of defeating Westfield State University and NESCAC’s Bates College.
I missed the whole first half of the match due to those pesky academic obligations. The score was already 1-1 when I showed up to the game and the teams were trading chances. Around the hour mark I realized that Williams was seeing more of the ball. The Ephs were content to sit on possession inside Hamilton’s half. Williams’ defenders were just past half field passing the ball among themselves. This wasn’t necessarily bad news for Hamilton because the defense was solid and the team looked very dangerous on the counter attack.
Number 9 for Hamilton, sophomore Griffin Abbott, is a quick and nifty player on and off the ball. He lines up centrally but can easily make runs out wide to receive the ball. Hamilton played with two advanced wide players, senior Anthony Balbo (13) and senior Hennie Bosman (7). Balbo started on the left side with Bosman on the right but the two wingers often swapped flanks. Fluidity characterized what I saw as a 4-3-3 with a defensive midfield triangle.
Hamilton was quick off the mark as Hennie Bosman headed home off a chance created by an Abbott cross just 2:18 into the game. Unfortunately for the Continentals, Williams’ attackers caught them napping when speedy forward User Kushaina played a low cross through Mohammed Rashid’s legs to midfielder Matt Muralles 14:36 into the first half. Even though the second half didn’t see any goals, there was back and forth action for much of the time.
Hamilton pushed hard several times in the second half through dynamic play from the front four players. Bosman was never shy about running at defenders. Abbott showed glimpses of his ability with close control and skillful turns around his defenders. Attacking midfielder Ralph Jerome (23), who played in the second half and extra time periods, made himself an available option by rushing forward with the play. Balbo showcased his veteran experience by consistently picking his head up and looking for the not so obvious pass. Instead of playing the ball on to a run down the left flank, where there were three Williams’ players, Balbo instead switched the point of attack to a wide open teammate on the far side.
The link up play between Balbo, Bosman, and Abbott was a sight to behold when it came off correctly. With 20:15 left in the second half Balbo had the ball on the left side. He played a simple pass in to Abbott who dropped back from an advanced position to receive the ball. This opened up space for a darting run by Bosman from the far side. Without having to look up, Abbott instinctively played a perfectly weighted chip over the top for Bosman to take in stride. Sadly for the Continentals, the shot did not match the build up but this drive showed the tremendous potential of Hamilton’s attack this season.
But not every aspect of the game had such a rosy complexion for Hamilton. In the second half and during the extra time periods, Hamilton largely played just four players six feet tall or taller. Two were defenders and the other two were defensive midfield players. This means that the attacking four players for Hamilton had a height disadvantage against their Williams’ defenders. In fact during the sixty or so minutes of the game I watched, I don’t remember Hamilton winning a single header in the offensive half of the field.
When Hamilton’s defense played long balls forward, Abbott would have to drop deep to receive the ball with his foot out of the air. This ineffectiveness in the aerial challenges also severely affected the team’s free kick tactics. Instead of serving tempting balls into the box, Hamilton curled their free kicks to the edge of the area where the ball might fall to a forward’s or a midfielder’s foot. On several occasions Hamilton won free kicks in promising positions but wasted their chances on the ball by playing the opportunity too indirectly.
Even free kicks taken in Hamilton’s defensive end were a crap-shoot. Abbott, Balbo, and Bosman failed to make significant runs to or from the ball so there were no real targets at which to aim. What good is a free kick if you can’t guarantee at the very least a 50% chance of retaining possession? The lack of substantive runs on long balls and defensive free kicks prevented Hamilton from mounting a sustained pressure against Williams.
Goalkeeper Eric Boole came up with several important saves in the game. With 2:54 left in the first extra time period Williams served a promising ball into the box. But before the Ephs’ attackers could think about bringing the service down, Boole rushed out to punch the ball away. Boole ended the game with 6 saves.
But Boole couldn’t save the one shot that mattered. Williams had a corner kick with four and a half minutes left in the second extra time period. The corner was partially cleared by Hamilton’s defense out to Williams’ defender Chris Condor. Hamilton was late out to pressure Condor as fatigue may have set in, which allowed Condor to swing in a sweeping cross to a wide open Patrick Eboisse on the right side of the box. Eboisse ran towards goal at a diagonal and Hamilton’s defense was sixes and sevens so Boole came off his line to cut down the angle. Williams’ number 26 picked his head up and saw his teammate streaking through the box and played a measured ball in front of goal. With Boole out of position and Hamilton’s defense scattered, Williams’ User Kushaina (12) buried home the tap-in from close range into an empty net.
Shots were 18-16 in favor of Williams, along with shots on goal 8-7. Both teams had 5 corner kicks but Williams committed 25 fouls to Hamilton’s 12. The game was mostly even throughout and Williams’ physicality was a theme of the contest from start to finish. A physical style isn’t a bad idea against a team like Hamilton that can’t punish from free kick opportunities. Despite the loss there were positives to take from the match for Hamilton. The Continentals’ attack was only ever one run or one pass away from coming together. At the other end, Hamilton’s back four made several important interventions led by senior Daniel Tempest (22). As always Eric Boole was solid between the pipes. This loss will hurt Hamilton, but they need to brush it off and prepare for a trip to Connecticut College on Saturday.