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Fifteen minutes into Monday night’s game, Niagara pressed in on the Syracuse defense. The Purple Eagles managed to navigate the ball inside the box, capitalizing on rare breakdowns from SU’s defenders. On Niagara’s first attempt to score — a rocket from the right side — Olu Oyegunle turned around and bicycle-kicked the threat out of the box. The Niagara center backs tried to keep the pressure on, but Oyegunle’s defense halted any chance at an early goal.
It took four more Syracuse possessions before the Purple Eagles threatened inside SU’s box again.
Then, Niagara’s Ali Alomari received a pass near the top line of the box. He tried to work around his defender, sliding inside toward the right side. But in the time it took him to navigate inside, two other Syracuse defenders found their way to the ball. Alomari’s shot attempt was stuffed by three orange jerseys. Oyegunle again collected the loose ball outside, neutralizing another potential threat from the Purple Eagles.
In his first start of the season, Oyegunle aided in Syracuse’s (2-2) second shutout win of the season. Facing a Niagara (1-3) team that head coach Ian McIntyre called “physical,” the Orange allowed just four shots, including just one in the second half, and picked up a 2-0 win.
“No matter who plays in the back three, they can come out and perform just like they did today,” striker Deandre Kerr said.
Syracuse entered Monday night without Buster Sjoberg, who was issued a red card after a reckless studs-up challenge against Georgetown on Friday. In his place, McIntyre started Oyegunle. The freshman played in seven games this spring for Syracuse, starting in five of them. He was a part of two shutouts toward the end of the season.
But with more experienced center backs on the roster, Oyegunle’s only time seeing the field was in a Penn State game that was already out of reach for Syracuse. But McIntyre looked to Oyegunle as a replacement Monday night. He told him to hydrate and get plenty of sleep before making his first start of the fall.
“One of your center backs is down, you lose a goalkeeper in warm up,” McIntyre said. “(It) didn’t affect our guys at all.”
A few minutes into the second half, Niagara charged toward the Syracuse net. The Purple Eagles looked to set up their first score on goalie Lucas Daunhauer, who was starting in place of Russell Shealy after Shealy rolled his ankle in pregame warmups. Amferny Sinclair and Christian Curti stood their ground, however, stopping any passing attempts from the Purple Eagle forwards on the far side of the field. Niagara was unable to generate any sort of possession in space.
“They were solid today,” Kerr said of the defense. “Clean sheet — our keeper barely had to work.”
Syracuse finished with its most shots taken since October 2019 and had three close-range shots but couldn’t connect. McIntyre said that with 23 shots, the Orange should have scored more. But his defense turned in a “clean sheet,” he said. It was a game that they would’ve tied 1-1 last year, McIntyre said, so he was happy with the defensive effort despite little success on shots on goal.
With just over 12 minutes remaining in the game, Oyegunle stood behind his defender, eyes locked on Niagara’s goalkeeper. Syracuse had just whiffed on another corner kick attempt, and the Purple Eagles hoped to tie the game at one apiece. Oyegunle tracked the ball as it flew directly in front of the Niagara player he stood behind. He successfully moved the Purple Eagle out of his way before punting the ball high into the air. When it landed, Oyegunle was there again to help boot the ball away from Niagara’s center backs.
“We’re a unit back there. Even those that didn’t play today, even in training,” Oyegunle said. “Sometimes I save them, but other times they save me.”
With the clock winding down and Syracuse up 1-0, Niagara again looked to threaten inside. The Purple Eagles drove down the right side of the field, and their center backs followed along with the striker. When the ball was fired into the top of the box, Oyegunle charted its path. Realizing it would fall just before his feet, he shifted his defender behind him and leaned forward. The ball caromed off his forehead and bounced out of harm’s way.
“Coach Mac (McIntyre) always talks about passing the ball to defend,” Oyegunle said. “Last season, we conceded a lot of goals — Coach Mac kept talking to us about defense.”
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