In a season that has seen five goalless draws so far, Fairfield’s Saturday afternoon outing against Niagara was a sight for sore eyes at Lessing Field. At last, the Stags got their offense humming, comfortably downing the Purple Eagles 2-0 with two second-half goals in a vital conference matchup. On the heels of a six-game unbeaten streak (three wins, three draws in as many matches), Fairfield entered this match tied for third in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference.
Head Coach Carl Rees’ side had their way with possession, but opening stages were stagnant for both sides. Both offenses came out with high tempo runs and aggressive balls down the flanks and over the tops of either midfield, but the defenses saw off any threats. Fairfield would create enough chances to register four shots in the first half, but none that forced a save from Niagara goalkeeper Kevin Garcia or threatened his goal.
Both teams would go into the locker rooms without much to show, though the Stags held Niagara without a single shot for the first 45 minutes.
Freshman Steven Valente found the back of the net first for the Stags just over a minute into the second half. Receiving a long ball to the far right side, Valente paced by the Purple Eagles defense and unleashed a shot into the roof of the net that Garcia could only watch go past him.
“When you have guys like Valente who just run around and smash it at the goal, good things can happen,” said Rees. “There’s no fear in that kid.”
The dagger for the Purple Eagles would come with just over eight minutes to play in the second half, as the referee awarded a penalty to Fairfield for a shove to Ryan Perkins ‘15. Niagara’s Kyle Moraldo was quickly booked, along with head coach Eric Barnes, after exchanging some choice words with the officials. Sophomore Ben Whitcomb stepped up to take the penalty kick, confidently drilling it left and past goalkeeper Garcia to push the lead to 2-0.
Forward Sam Klippel ‘18, nearly found the net himself only minutes after coming on for Jordan Emsley ‘18. The New Zealand native cleverly played a ball through the Niagara defense and let a strong chip shot go that just skimmed the top of the crossbar. Fairfield comfortably saw out the dying minutes to seal the victory.
Although the offense was uncharacteristically center stage, defense was obviously still a major factor in the victory.
“That’s our foundation,” Rees said. “Any offense comes from our defense.”
Junior Matt Turner now has 11 clean sheets to his name and the Stags have edged past Michigan State into first place in the National Collegiate Athletic Association in shutout percentage, owning a 0.73 mark.
“We scored three against Manhattan, two today, so the attacking is obviously there,” said Rees. “It’s coming with time, they’re all very focused. It’s just the nature of this group.”
Fairfield is now in a four-way tie for first place in the conference and improves to 7-3-5 (4-1-3 in the MAAC) while Niagara falls to 5-9-2 (2-4-1 in the MAAC). The Stags continue their three-game home stand this week against Iona on Oct. 29 before hosting Quinnipiac in their regular season finale on Nov. 5. It will be the first meeting of the season with the Bobcats, who currently sit atop of the MAAC with all tiebreakers considered. Both kickoffs are scheduled for 7 p.m.