With their season on the line, Marist men’s soccer fell to Rider 3-1 in the first round of the MAAC conference tournament.
Rider utilized the same formula to dispatch the Red Foxes as they did in their win over Marist just eight days ago, with senior forward Babacar Diene and sophomore midfielder Momo Diop once again notching first-half goals en route to a win. This time, the loss ended Marist’s season, sending them toward an offseason filled with uncertainty for their young squad.
With Marist losing their final two matchups of the regular season to Rider and Siena, the Red Foxes slid into the MAAC tournament as the sixth and final seed, setting them up for today’s first-round matchup with three-seeded Rider. Marist previously faced the Broncos at home last week, jumping out to a 1-0 lead before losing 2-1 in a feisty matchup on senior night, setting the stage for a compelling rematch with everything on the line.
For Rider, they came in as winners of four straight, giving the Red Foxes the tall task of having to halt the Broncos’ momentum to continue their season. The two programs are no strangers to facing each other in big spots, most notably squaring off in the 2020 MAAC Championship game, with Marist winning the conference title after prevailing in penalty kicks.
Rider initiated an intriguing scoring chance in the 12th minute when freshman midfielder Saad Chaouki sent in an arcing free kick toward goal from the left side. Graduate student back Sebastian Rojek charged in to try and knock the ball into goal, but he couldn’t connect, leading to a corner kick. The ensuing corner kick set piece was unsuccessful, and a number of Rider players signaled their belief that a Marist player had committed a handball. Still, officials allowed play to continue on with no call.
Rider received another golden opportunity moments later, and this time they came through. Diene, who scored against Marist last week, had another goal up his sleeve today. He glided up the left side, outclassing Marist graduate student defender Torge Witteborg at the top of the box and earning enough space to fire off a picture-perfect shot; Diene inserted the ball into the top right corner of the net in, giving Marist graduate student goalkeeper Luca Bulfon no chance of getting to it.
“I’m just happy for [Diene] every time he finds the back of the net because he works so hard every day in training, he does everything I ask of him,” said Rider head coach Chad Duernberger during the ESPN halftime report. “And so when you do good things and you do the right thing, sometimes it pays off for you, and he’s finding a great stride right now.”
Now trailing 1-0, Marist freshman midfielder Adam Rustami did his best to net the equalizer in the 18th minute. With senior Rider back David Ogbonna applying intense pressure on Rustami throughout the possession, Rustami gave him his money’s worth, rumbling up the left side and maintaining possession despite Ogbonna’s airtight defense. Rustami capped off the gritty possession with a well-intended shot toward the left post, but Rider sophomore goalkeeper Adam Salama’s positioning forced a difficult angle, and he ultimately knocked the shot away for the save.
Rider came inches away from doubling the lead with 12 minutes remaining in the first half; Graduate student forward Zaki Alibou fired a miraculous shot while located in the midst of numerous Red Fox defenders; his shot careened toward the left post, ultimately clanking off of it. Had the shot been ever-so-slightly to the right, it would have extended the Bronco lead.
Despite the near-miss, Rider continued the attack and were rewarded for their efforts with another goal in the 38th minute. Chaouki possessed the ball at close range on the right side and he fed it to Diop in the middle. Diop took advantage of Bulfon being located out of position, tapping it into the goal to give Rider a 2-0 advantage.
Diene almost got another one to go; his shot bent just to the right of the post with four minutes remaining in the first half. Trailing by two at the half, the Red Foxes were clearly reeling as a team.
“We started alright and then we wobbled after the first goal, and then I think we were starting to press a little bit,” said Marist head coach Matt Viggiano at the half. “We’re showing a little nerves, and I think we’ve just got to connect and continue to play our game and we should be fine.”
After regrouping in the locker room, chances started to percolate in the second half for the Red Foxes. In the 53rd minute, officials called a foul on Rider graduate student midfielder Ethan Shaw after he tripped up Rustami on a 50/50 ball, leading to a direct kick opportunity for Marist senior forward Jared Juleau; his kick was deflected out of bounds, setting him up for a corner kick.
Juleau’s high-bending corner from the right side sailed past everyone; he received another chance to send in a corner moments later, this time opting to send a grounder to freshman midfielder Kyle Evans. Evans received the ball with a chance to launch a shot on an open look, but he chipped the ball, leading to another empty Red Fox possession.
With 32 minutes remaining in the Red Foxes’ season, Bulfon sprung out of the net to make a crucial save on a scalding shot from Alibou, who took it from the left side. The ensuing play was a Rider corner, with Diene getting a chance to hit paydirt but missing a header shot.
As the clock continued to tick on Marist’s season, Viggiano resorted to tactical adjustments, as he moved junior defender Albion Bacaj up onto the attack.
Marist appeared to have a chance to get back up into the game in the 62nd minute when junior rider back Martin Chladek tripped up Juleau just beyond the 18, receiving a yellow card and setting Marist up with a free kick. Juleau launched a well-placed shot on the kick toward the top left corner of the goal, but Salama was ready, leaping upward to make the save.
The missed opportunities ultimately doomed Marist, and the bottom fell out on their season with under 28 minutes remaining in the match. Sophomore Rider midfielder Luke Kirilenko shifted across the middle and snuck a grounder shot through everyone on the Marist backline, including Bulfon, who dove out to his right but couldn’t reach the ball in time.
With Marist now trailing 3-0, the goal effectively served as the final nail in the coffin of the Red Foxes’ season. Marist did receive one more opportunity with under seven minutes remaining when Juleau was tripped up inside the box; his penalty kick was successful, but the goal was far too little too late for Marist.
As the final whistle rang out, the Marist season ended on a sour note with Juleau landing a red card for getting into an extended confrontation with Rider players; Juleau had to be restrained by his teammates as the proceedings unfolded.
Looking back, this season marked a slight improvement over last year due to the team qualifying for the postseason, yet the Red Foxes were ultimately undermined by a glaring lack of consistency, which is a byproduct of their overall youth and inexperience.
While Juleau cemented himself as a can’t-miss player in the MAAC and junior forward Richard Morel successfully returned from his serious knee injury to make a strong impact (both players led the way with 11 points in 2023), each of them were neutralized by the Rider defense when it mattered most.
Marist now faces some questions heading into the offseason, with the pressing matter of finding a successor to Bulfon in goal at the forefront since the steady graduate student has now exhausted his eligibility.
The future outlook does hold some optimism, with sophomore midfielder Skyler Cunha stepping in as captain and adding seven points this season, and freshmen midfielders Evans and Rustami showing flashes offensively. Additionally, freshman defender Nicholas Sanchez demonstrated superior capabilities on defense while finishing second on the team in minutes played.
For Rider, their quest for a MAAC title continues in the semifinal round; they will travel to Loudonville, NY to face the two-seed in Siena on Thursday at 1 p.m.
Edited by Marley Pope
Photo Credit: Jaylen Rizzo