It wasn’t exactly how the Aggies drew it up, but the end result was just fine.
For the first time this season the Utah State soccer team trailed. While they have been working on all sorts of scenarios and with various lineups under first-year head coach Manny Martins in preparation for Mountain West Conference play, rallying from behind was not on the list to check off.
However, the Aggies can do just that.
Utah State scored two goals in the second half Friday afternoon at Chuck & Gloria Bell Field to complete a comeback against UC Riverside. The Aggies remain unbeaten to start the 2021 season at 6-0-1.
“Preseason is all about getting us ready for conference,” Martins said. “This was a new situation that we hadn’t dealt with in being behind. This was a really good soccer team (UC Riverside) and we also came out a little bit flat. But we found our identity in the second half and were able to come back.”
In fact, USU set a new school record with the win Friday. Dating back to last season, the Aggies have not been beaten in 12 straight games, surpassing the old mark of 11 set in 2012. They have also won eight straight at home.
“We just need to recover from this game and focus on the next one,” Martins said. “The next game is the most important right now. ... Success sometimes makes you flirt with complacency. My job is to make sure we kick complacency out to the curb.”
USU is off to its best start since 2011, when it won the first nine matches.
The start Friday wasn’t exactly how the Aggies planned on beginning. The Highlanders (2-3-0) were the aggressors and controlled the ball more. UC Riverside got a quick goal, which may have fired them up at the beginning.
“It was a super fun game,” USU forward Nicole Hadlock said. “There were some times when we didn’t have enough energy and weren’t playing the way we train. But we pushed through and showed the grit we needed to. ... One thing I love about this team is that we always try to lift each other up.”
In the first six contests this season, USU had scored first and usually early in the game. It was the Highlanders that struck less than two-and-a-half minutes into the game. Lindsey Turner booted in a rebound goal off a shot by teammate Leigh Polson to give the visitors a 1-0 lead.
UC Riverside had several other dangerous chances to extend its lead, but got nothing out of three corner kicks in the first half.
USU started to turn up the heat before halftime. Ashley Cardozo got off a couple of laser shots that were just off the mark. It was a sign of things to come in the second half as the Highlanders took a 1-0 lead into the break.
“We talked about our mindset, our intensity when we press, our decision making,” Martins said. “We made some adjustments in terms of the positioning of our midfielders. ... One thing this team has shown is it responds well to challenges.”
The Aggies came out the aggressors for the second 45 minutes. Cardozo, despite being double teamed, seemed even more determined, and it paid off.
“We for sure decided at halftime that we needed to step up, that we needed to have more energy and try harder,” Hadlock said. “It was a mental shift to have more energy and go harder.”
In the 54th minute, Cardozo beat a couple of Highlanders down the line and ripped a shot that UC Riverside keeper Cassie Souza got a hand on. Hadlock was in the box to clean up the rebound for her first goal as an Aggie.
“Oh my gosh, that was so exciting for me,” Hadlock said. “You work hard and really want to score, not just for me, but for my team. That goal was super exciting and rewarding. ... I was just in the right place at the right time.”
In the 65th minute, it was Cardozo doing what Cardozo does. The senior blasted a shot that pinged around in the box. The Highlanders couldn’t get it cleared, and USU’s Sammie Murdock got off a shot that ricocheted off the far, left post and in. It was the third goal of the season for Murdock and proved to be the game winner. It was the second game winner for Murdock in as many games.
“She has been massive for us,” Martins said of Murdock. “It’s not just the goals. She has scored some important goals, but her defending has been key as well. She has been great.”
Cardozo, who had four shots in the game, was credited with assists on both goals. She has six assists on the season.
“She is a special player,” Martins said of Cardozo. “She’s probably been involved in 80 percent of our goals this season. She will be missed one day, but for now we get to enjoy.”
USU’s backline was anchored by a trio of players that went the distance for the Aggies as Kylie Olsen, Kelsey Steed-Kaufusi and Addy Symonds played the entire 90 minutes of the match.
USU is back in action next Thursday, hosting Utah at 5 p.m., wrapping up a four-game homestand for the Aggies.
“We are excited to play (Utah) because we know a lot of the girls on that team,” Hadlock said. “It should be a lot of fun.”