After more than two months of big wins, tight losses, and road trips all over the Midwest and up and down the East Coast, it’s finally here: Women’s soccer starts its postseason tomorrow at Wash U.
Well, not quite. Eighth-ranked Wash U (14–2–1, 6–0 UAA) and Chicago (11–5–1, 4–2) aren’t actually in the NCAA tournament yet, but the Maroons might as well be. Just like in the NCAAs, if they lose this next game, odds are they’ll be hanging up their cleats and calling it a season.
The Bears won’t be playing under the same pressure. They locked up the UAA championship with a 90th minute goal that gave them a 2–1 win at Case (8–10, 0–6), and as conference champions, Wash U is assured of a berth in the postseason.
Things aren’t nearly that simple for Chicago. At this point, the Maroons have to hope for an at-large berth, and a win this weekend would go a long way toward securing one.
But even with a win, nothing is guaranteed. The at-large berths are given out according to regional rankings, with the top 19 teams from all of the different regions getting one. After this weekend, all D-III teams will have finished regular season play, the regional rankings will be finalized, and the selection committee will divvy up the bids among the regions.
In the most recent rankings, which were released this past Monday, the Maroons are ranked eighth in the Central Region, one notch better than in the previous week’s rankings. Two weeks ago, Chicago wasn’t in the top 10 in the Central Region, but the five-game winning streak they’re riding right now has moved them up the rankings.
A win against the Bears, who are ranked eighth nationally but first in the Central Region, would likely move the Maroons up another notch or two, and a tie might not hurt them. It also helps that Wash U has already gotten an automatic bid: That’s one fewer team ahead of Chicago in the line for an at-large bid.
Not all conferences give their automatic berth to the regular season champion, as the UAA does, a fact that could throw a wrench in Chicago’s hunt for the postseason. Many conferences have tournaments to decide their champions, and several of the teams ahead of the Maroons in the regional rankings will be the odds-on favorites to win their conference tournaments. If they do, Chicago will have less competition for one of the at-large bids.
But if some of those higher-ranked teams get upset in their conference tournaments, they will be back in line for at-large bids. And if they remain higher in the regional rankings than the Maroons, they will receive NCAA bids before Chicago is even considered.
Moral of the story: The Maroons ought to handle their business in St. Louis and then cross their fingers, toss some salt over their shoulders, do a rain dance, and spend some time watching the scoreboards and the rankings.
The key part of the formula, though, is getting the win or failing that, at least a tie. If Chicago can manage a win against Wash U, it will be the first squad to do so since D-II Missouri University of Science and Technology dropped the Bears 3–1 on October 1. Since then, Wash U has run off eight straight wins, and the Bears are still unbeaten and untied at home this season.
Wash U doesn’t win its game by being the flashiest or most overpowering team. The Bears’ average goals and shots per game are good but not the best in the UAA. The same goes for their corners-taken and goals-allowed numbers: solid, but not outstanding. Unlike Rochester, which Chicago played last weekend, Wash U doesn’t have a couple of forwards who have tons of points and are major scoring threats.
Rather than relying on a few standout players, the Bears spread their talent around and are strong all over the field. They have a fourth-year keeper, Amanda Boe, an experienced defensive corps, and a number of capable attackers up top. The Bears have had some tough games against weaker opponents, but they reliably wind up the winners.
Wash U won’t be the first highly-ranked team Chicago has played this year. The Maroons played Calvin, currently ranked fourth nationally, to a 1–1 tie earlier this year. Wheaton, ranked 22nd in the country, beat them 3–1 earlier this season, and the South Siders topped 21st-ranked Rochester last Sunday.
If nothing else, Chicago figures to have an edge in motivation. With a tournament bid already in hand, Wash U may take this one easy, and since Saturday is the Bears’ Senior Day, they may not play their strongest lineup. For the Maroons, though, there is no reason to hold back: They have to play well tomorrow, or they’ll have plenty of time to rest up at home.