By Jerry Holsworth - firstname.lastname@example.org
STRASBURG -- Playing the defending Group A state champions can be intimidating, but Strasburg -- despite losing 4-0 -- was anything but a patsy for George Mason's boys soccer team on Tuesday.
"I really didn't think we were beaten tonight by a significantly better soccer team," Rams coach Joel Ross said. "So I can't say that I'm displeased with the way we played. They beat us by four goals, and two of them were penalty kicks. In the past, they've scored a few goals in the first half, then creamed us in the second half. That didn't happen tonight."
Strasburg's improved play wasn't lost on the Mustangs, either.
"We were very concerned coming into this game," George Mason coach Art Iwanicki said. "They've had some good results over the last two weeks. But I thought that we possessed the ball and controlled play through most of the game. Overall, I thought we had a better time of it than they did."
Although the Mustangs controlled play from almost the beginning of the game, they were not able to penetrate the Rams' defense with any success, and George Mason only outshot Strasburg 3-2 over the first 15 minutes of play.
But with 32:30 left in the first half, Mustangs forward Andrew Arias was tripped in the penalty area, and that resulted in a penalty kick. Arias rifled the ball past Rams goalkeeper Daniel Wilson for the first goal of the game, and that seemed to take the air out of Strasburg's game.
"I really thought that the penalty kick changed the momentum of the game," Iwanicki said.
For the next 30 minutes, George Mason attacked Strasburg's goal relentlessly. Outshooting the Rams 13-0, it was only a matter of time before the Mustangs would turn one of those shots into a goal.
Four minutes after the penalty kick, the Mustangs struck again. Nick Smirniotopoulos lofted a ball over the head of Wilson from about 12 yards out, but it hit the far post. Unfortunately for Strasburg, Arias was there to put the ricochet into the net.
Late in the first half, Smirniotopoulos struck again. Taking a though pass from Josh Mason, the Mustangs senior raced past the Strasburg defense for the final goal of the half.
Smirniotopoulos is our go-to guy," Iwanicki said. "He's going to take us as far as we go this season. Arias is playing up front for the first time this year. He played midfield for us the last two years. Those two are really working well together up front for us."
With Mason up 3-0 heading into the second half, it looked as though the Rams were in for a very long night. But Strasburg turned the game around after halftime and played tough against the state champs for the final 40 minutes of play.
"I told our guys at halftime that they weren't playing nearly as badly as they thought they were," Ross said. "We got a little down in the first half, but we came back strong in the second half."
The Rams cut George Mason's shots from 17 to 10 in the second half, and increased their shots from three in the first half to six in the second. Mason's only goal was another penalty kick scored by Smirniotopoulos with 15 minutes left in the game.
Wilson was one of the main reasons Strasburg was able to keep the Mustangs' forwards from getting any more goals. The Rams senior registered seven saves in the game, including one that he blocked with his face from point-blank range.
"It was a tough game," Wilson said. "I was pleased with the way our defense played though. Usually, they slaughter us. Tonight they didn't intimidate us at all. I really think that we can beat them when we play them again."