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September 18, 2012

Soccer: Five of six over Clemson

Make it five of six.

Despite trailing in the overall series to Clemson, the USC men's soccer team is fast catching up to the Tigers and got one match closer thanks to Tuesday's thrilling 1-0 victory over its archrival in front of 1,764 fans at the Graveyard at Stone Stadium.

The game's deciding goal came in the 65th minute when the Gamecocks, who had been probing the Clemson defense deeper and deeper on the preceding possessions, earned a corner kick off pressure from a shot from freshman midfielder Jeffrey Torda. That led to a picture-perfect corner from freshman midfielder Ryan Arambula that dropped neatly in the six-yard box, where junior midfielder Eric Martinez headed it brilliantly to the back of the far post from about four yards out.

"We had some pressure on them and we were getting a couple shots off but nothing was really getting close," Martinez said. "Ryan put in a great corner, and I couldn't do anything but score. That close, it's hard to miss from there.

"We went into the locker room at halftime and everyone was really confident. We were all pretty sure we were going to win this game. We fixed some things at halftime and put a little more pressure on them and everything came together. It was a real team effort."

With the win, USC improves to 3-3-1, while the Tigers fall to 1-5-2. For coach Mark Berson, the win was a satisfying way to head into conference play.

"I thought we were exceptionally tight defensively tonight," Berson said. "I thought we were really well organized. Obviously, it was a rivalry game so there's going to be some mistakes, and you want to try to play through those. but I thought our guys were tough, they did a great job end to end tonight."

"We also kept our composure when we missed some good chances. We had three or four that we didn't capitalize on, and sometimes those come back to haunt you, but Eric Martinez made sure that didn't happen tonight with that header. That was a solid, exclamation-point goal."

Clemson threatened first in the eighth minute when freshman midfielder Preston Gayton struck a powerful free kick from 25 yards out that was destined for the back left corner of the net, but was deflected by a beautiful diving one-handed save by the right arm of Alex Long.

Snoopy Davidson provided the best chance for the Gamecocks early with a clean solo breakaway in the box that looked promising but quickly was foiled by a charging Cody Mizell. Davidson couldn't collect the ball to shoot before Mizell was on him, and the shot attempt was deflected harmlessly in the 23rd minute. In a first half characterized by trading possessions, with much of the action played around midfield, neither side could establish control or maintain possession, much less develop patterned scoring chances and the score remained 0-0, although USC did out-shoot the Tigers 6-3, with Mizell collecting four saves to Long's one.

After the half, the Gamecocks awoke the crowd in the 51st minute when sophomore midfielder Stephen Anderson got free on a nice long ball that he expertly controlled up the right side, then crossed perfectly to sprinting striker Bradlee Baladez down the middle, who was unable to get a solid touch on the ball from six yards out and missed the opportunity far to the left.

The Tigers answered shortly after with another shot by Gayton, who caught a pass, stopped the ball, turned his body and fired a quick blast that Long was able to fall on to preserve the tie in the 61st minute before Martinez' goal four minutes later put the Gamecocks up 1-0.

The Gamecocks blew a golden chance to extend the lead in the 73rd minute when Arambula found himself all alone with the ball standing just inside the six-yard box with no one in front of him, thanks to a gorgeous chest pass from Baladez, but his shot sailed cleanly over the crossbar to the crowd's dismay.

"He's young guy, he'll learn," Berson said. "That's a bright future there."

As for man of the match Martinez, a Fort Mill/Providence Day School product, did it matter that his first goal of the season came against not just any opponent but against Clemson?

"Yes," Martinez said. "Always."

Next up: The Gamecocks open Conference-USA play by hitting the road to face Tulsa on Friday and SMU on Monday before returning home to play FIU on Sept. 29.

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