Owls focusing on one game at a time as playoffs near

The team is in sixth place with two games left in The American.

Senior midfielder Jorge Gomez Sanchez races toward the ball in the Owls’ 2-1 win against the University of Delaware on Oct. 18. JULIANA WACKLAWSKI FOR THE TEMPLE NEWS

As the Owls head into the final games of their regular season, coach David MacWilliams believes the best approach is to play through the last matches game-by-game.

Temple (9-5-2, 1-2-2 American Athletic Conference) is sixth in the conference standings. In order to advance to the conference tournament, the Owls must be in the top four teams in The American. MacWilliams said he wants his team to focus on the challenges at hand rather than looking too far forward.

“You’ve got to look at the first one, then we’ll look at the second one,” MacWilliams said. “But the first one, if you don’t win the first one, then the others don’t matter.”

Conference play has been a challenge for the Owls since joining The American after the 2012 season. Temple earned the No. 4 seed in the conference tournament in 2013, but lost to South Florida in the quarterfinal round. In Temple’s two-win season in 2014, the team only won one of its eight conference games before losing to Connecticut in the playoffs. Last season, after going 7-0-1 in their first eight games, the Owls ended with a 10-7-2 record. Six of the team’s losses were in The American.

In three seasons in The American, Temple is 0-3 in the postseason tournament and has been outscored 10-0 in games against South Florida, Connecticut and Central Florida.

Throughout conference play this season, Temple’s scoring has decreased. After averaging 2.29 goals per game in their first seven games, largely due to senior midfielder Jorge Gomez Sanchez and junior forward and midfielder Joonas Jokinen’s productivity, the Owls have only scored two goals in five conference games.

“When you have a guy like Joonas that’s been out for some of those games, it makes it very difficult because he’s been a big part of our offense,” MacWilliams said. “We haven’t found as much goal-scoring from other areas that we definitely need.”

Jokinen missed four games with a lower-body injury before returning to the lineup on Saturday in the Owls’ 1-1 draw against Tulsa at the Temple Sports Complex.

Temple ranks last in goals and points in American Athletic Conference games.

Gomez Sanchez scored nine goals in the first seven non-conference games, averaging 1.29 goals per game. He has scored only once in the five conference games thus far.

“When he’s a big part of our offense, then they’re going to focus on him,” MacWilliams said. “If I am playing against Temple, I’m going to focus on Jorge, too, so we need to find other ways to score. We’ve talked about set pieces being another way that we can score goals, and we haven’t been a great team on offensive set pieces and that really needs to change.”

With opponents zeroing in on Temple’s leading scorer, MacWilliams is relying on other players to step up. Senior defender Matt Mahoney scored his first goal of the season on Oct. 18 in Temple’s win against the University of Delaware, in which each point was scored by a different player.

From the start of the season, the team’s goal has been to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Temple can qualify either by winning the conference tournament or by earning one of the 24 at-large bids, which will depend largely on the team’s Ratings Percentage Index ranking at the end of the season.

The Owls’ first test is to make it to the conference championship, which isn’t an easy task to accomplish, as The American boasts several strong teams, two of which are ranked in the Top 40 of teams in the RPI. Despite this, the team is still confident in its ability.

“I think it’s in our own destiny still,” Mahoney said. “If we get in the conference tournament, it’s only two games to win and with our conference, anything can happen, so I think our chances are still good.”

In order to have a chance to compete for The American title, Temple must find success in its final games.

“They’re must-wins for us since we have lost some of them,” freshman midfielder Zach Brown said. “But I think we’ll be alright in them because we’re a pretty good team right now and if we keep playing well, we’ll win.”

Having lost two conference games going into its final two matches puts Temple at a disadvantage. Three of the Owls’ first four conference games were on the road, making winning more difficult for a team that hasn’t lost at home.

“We’re kind of chasing things because we didn’t have two home, two away, we had one home and three away, which is a disadvantage,” MacWilliams said.

Despite the lack of home field advantage while starting conference play, Mahoney says Temple’s 1-0 road victory against Southern Methodist on Oct. 8 shows the team can win away from the comfort of the Temple Sports Complex.

“We know the last three years we’ve been in the [The American] we haven’t won an away game,” Mahoney said. “It’s definitely been in the back of our minds. Getting the win this year though, I think, for the years to come, shows that we can win away.”

Maura Razanauskas can be reached at maura.razanauskas@temple.edu or @CaptainAMAURAca.

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