Northern Illinois sophomore midfielder Jayson LeSeth (Des Plaines, Ill./Maine West) scored his first goal of the season, and the lone goal of the game, in the 33rd minute off a free kick to lift the Huskies over West Virginia, 1-0, on Friday afternoon in the Mid-American Conference Tournament semifinals.
The win placed the Huskies into the MAC Championship game for a second-straight season.
“It’s very cliché but survive and advance, survive and advance,” said NIU head coach Eric Luzzi after his team advanced to a second-consecutive MAC Championship. “In the first half I thought we were very, very good and I thought West Virginia had us on our heels for the first 10 minutes or so, after that we got control of things and went into the half ahead 1-0.
“Lots of credit to West Virginia in the second half … as is our way, we kind of battled through tough circumstances, were able to keep the clean sheet in the back and did what we had to do to play on Sunday.”
The win was NIU’s (7-9-3) second win of the season over WVU (9-6-2), the first was also a 1-0 triumph on Oct. 27 in DeKalb, Ill. Senior goalkeeper Jordan Godsey (Ocean Springs, Miss./Ocean Springs) earned his ninth shutout of the season and the 35th of his career.
Junior midfielder Gael Rivera (Oslo, Norway/WANG Elite Sports Academy) created the Huskies first real chance of the match, tackling a Mountaineer defender and jarring the ball away towards net. The shifty Norwegian collected the loose ball and dribbled into the box, where he curled a shot toward the far post, but it sailed wide resulting in a Mountaineer goal kick.
In the 33rd minute, Northern Illinois won a free kick at the edge of the 18-yard box on the far side of the field, roughly 13 yards from the end line.
With the West Virgina defense expecting a cross, LeSeth stepped back and fired a waist-high, curling shot towards net that skimmed past the defense and West Virginia goalkeeper Pat Eavenson to give NIU a 1-0 lead that carried into the half.
“I think that was our first set piece goal of the season and it couldn’t have come at a better time,” said Luzzi. “When you get runners in the box and you get dangerous service, good things come of that. I’m very happy for Jay and it was a good set piece goal.”
NIU defended well in the first period, clearing both of West Virginia’s corner kicks in the match and not allowing quality chances. Godsey’s only significant action of the first 45 minutes was a punch of a cross early on.
In the opening minutes of the second half, West Virginia was on the attack from the same area that LeSeth scored his goal. Under pressure from the NIU defense, Ryan Cain crossed to Andy Bevin wide open in front of net, but Huskie senior defender Pat Sloan (Lisle, Ill./Benet Academy) stepped in at the last second to clear the threat out of the box.
West Virginia continued to bear down on the Northern Illinois defense, putting shots just wide of the net and into the side netting. Craig Stephens rattled the crossbar in the 54th minute of play and, seven minutes later, Andy Bevin headed a floating ball towards net that gave Godsey some trouble, but the Huskies stalwart goalkeeper punched it over the crossbar.
Freshman forward Parker Thornton (Buda, Texas/Hays) nearly added to the scoresheet late in the match, receiving a low and hard cross from freshman forward Matt Pritchard (Omaha, Neb./Creighton Prep) inside the box. Thornton positioned his feet to deflect the cross onto net but it sailed inches left of the post.
The Huskies added what appeared to be a second goal with less than 10 minutes remaining in the match but the linesman raised the flag for offside against the Huskies.
Northern Illinois will defend its Mid-American Conference Championship at 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 11, versus Akron at Akron’s First Energy Stadium-Cub Cadet Field.