For the past two seasons, the Loyola men’s soccer team has gone up against Missouri State University in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) championship final. With Loyola winning the title in 2019, and Missouri State taking it the following season — taking place in the spring of 2021 because of COVID-19 limitations — tension runs high in the fall of 2021, as both teams might once again meet in the championship’s final match.
Since 2013, the Ramblers hold a losing record of 5-9-3 against Missouri State. However, competition between both has been fierce in recent history, as nine of their last 11 games have been decided by a single goal, resulted in a tie, or been decided by a penalty shootout.
This season, the Ramblers (9-5- 1, 6-3-1) and the Bears (15-1, 10-0) have faced off twice. Missouri State is currently ranked at No. 15 in the nation, according to the NCAA Men’s Soccer Rating Percentage Index (RPI). The eight-time MVC champions have scored 19 goals while only conceding four, resulting in a more than 15 goal differential this season.
Loyola isn’t far off from the Bears’ numbers. Even though it ranks No. 82 in the nation out of 208 teams. The four-time MVC champions have a more than 13 goal differential, scoring 21 goals while conceding eight throughout the season. According to graduate midfielder and 2020-2021 First Team All-MVC selection Tyler Biggs, the MVC Tournament title is always a struggle, but the Ramblers’ are not to be counted out.
“I feel like especially since I got here, it’s kind of been us two at the top battling for that first place spot,” Biggs said. “Unfortunately they’ve got it the past couple of years but yeah, we were lucky enough to beat them in the final in 2019. I think it’s just a clash of the two better teams in the conference and it’s always a good game to play them.”
The fact remains that Missouri State has been one of the best teams in the country for the past three years — finishing the MVC tournament at No. 8 in 2019, No. 9 in spring 2021, and No. 15 in fall 2021. According to Jones, the team has great coaching and players, making them difficult opponents to defeat.
“They just find ways to win games and it’s not always the same way,” Jones said. “It’s not like they have a guy that has 14 goals and if you just take that guy away then it’s more difficult, but they find unique and different goal scorers.”
The Ramblers have the best player in the MVC — Billy Hency — as he leads the conference in goals with nine and is tied in assists with eight, while the Bears’ top goal-scorer is Jon Koka with five. However, 14 of Missouri State’s players have scored at least one goal in the season compared to Loyola’s ten, making Missouri State a harder team to defend against considering their depth.
Unfortunately for Loyola, two of their three conference losses were dealt to them by Missouri State — both by a score of 2-1. Their first contest was decided in double overtime, with the game-winning goal scored by Missouri State’s Jesus Barea in the 106th minute.
Loyola’s second loss came at the regular season finale. The game started with high pressure from Missouri State, and though the Ramblers were able to contain their offense for the entire first half, a cross from Nicolo Mulatero in the 48th minute was met and struck by Jesus Barea for the first goal of the game. Just eight minutes later, Barea assisted Dolling for the second goal of the game in the 56th minute. In the 65th minute of the game, Loyola was fouled for a penalty kick and was able to cut its deficit to one, as Billy Hency — seven for seven in penalties throughout his career — scored Loyola’s first and final goal of the match.
With the Ramblers’ second loss against the Bears, the MVC regular season came to a close and Missouri State crowned themselves regular season champions for the third year in a row. Loyola finished second, with a wide margin of three wins between them.
The Ramblers’ season finale, held in Loyola Soccer Park, was also senior night — an event commemorating its senior athletes. Heading into the MVC tournament with high praise for his seniors, Head coach Neil Jones said they’re ready for another championship.
“They’ve been incredible for our program,” Jones said. “They were all a part of that 2019 team that won the MVC championship on our home field versus Missouri State [and] went to the NCAA tournament, so they all have that championship DNA.”
Though Loyola has scored more goals, it has also conceded twice as many as Missouri State has. The Bears’ defense also seems to outperform Loyola’s strong offense and capitalize on opportunities against their weaker defense, outscoring Loyola by a total of 4-2 in their two contests this season.
Regardless of its flaws, senior midfielder Ethan Stoneman — who scored the game-winning penalty kick in the 2019 MVC championship final against Missouri State — believes he’s part of a special team.
“I think this team, this year specifically, has been probably one of the top teams I have been a part of [in] my four seasons here,” Stoneman said. “The talent I think is very high [and] the work rate is also very high, I don’t think [lack of] talent will hold us back.”
For its first game of the upcoming MVC tournament, Loyola is set to face the winner of third-seeded Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and sixth-seeded Bradley University in its semifinal match Nov. 12. Loyola’s record against Drake this year is 2-0, but the Ramblers hold a 1-1 record against the SIUE Cougars, losing their last game 1-0 at Edwardsville, Illinois.
With Missouri State University set to host the MVC Tournament as the winner of the regular season, Loyola will be traveling to Springfield, Missouri for the semifinal and a potential championship match. Kick-off is set for Nov. 12 at 3 p.m. and is set to be broadcast on ESPN+.