It seems as if Americans cannot get past images of Brandi Chastain's memorable celebration methods whenever women's soccer comes up. Impressed though one might be at the accomplishments of the US national team, the enthusiasm seems to die out relatively quickly. Here today, gone tomorrow go our heroes from just a few years ago. With the collapse of the WUSA and the lukewarm response to this year's Women's World Cup, the future of women's soccer on a national level seems a little murkier than it did when Mia Hamm and others won it. On the South Side of Chicago, though, the future of women's soccer has seldom looked better. The Maroon women's soccer team is off to an astonishing 7-0-0 start, and it looks primed for success heading into the high-stakes realm of conference play.
The season started early for the Maroons this season, with a pre-season trip to Italy that included three games against Italian club teams. As head coach Amy Reifert pointed out, it was a "great prep for the season." The team went 1-1-1 in Italy before returning home for the regular season kickoff September 4. The Maroons opened with an 8-0 win against Lawrence College, setting the tone for the next six games.
With the Maroons' success has come impressive national recognition. As of this week, the National Soccer Coaches Association of America has ranked Chicago fourth in the nation. The Maroons are currently one of just seven Division III teams to sport an unbeaten and untied record. The team, however, has remained unfazed by its recent success.
National level recognition is nothing new for Chicago women's soccer. The team has made the NCAA tournament five of the last seven seasons, and it lost to the eventual national champions in 1997 and 1998. Has the team adjusted well to its newfound status as a powerhouse? Indeed, according to head coach Amy Reifert.
"We expect to be in the mix of things," said Reifert. She quickly added, however, that the team's current ranking is a "nightmare" because of the obvious "target on our backs."
Despite the fact that teams are gunning for the U of C, the team has beaten some impressive, ranked competition. In particular, Reifert singled out the DePauw and College of St. Benedict's wins as key for the season, and added that they have "greatlty contributed to [the team] getting this ranking." Interestingly, Reifert was just as proud of a 2-0 close win against Cornell College on September 17 as she was of any of the team's wins against ranked opponents. Cornell, which has a reputation for bringing all of its players back on defense, made scoring an issue and flummoxed Chicago's offense for a good portion of the game. But despite the problems Cornell posed, Chicago still pulled off the narrow victory.
It is very easy to find the cause of this year's success. The team is led by a group of seniors including Christine Carqueville, Courtney Hardie, Erin Capener, and Ali Geiger. After four years of hard work, the team seems ready to rally around its senior leadership and do well by them. While the team currently starts seven second years, according to Reifert, the seniors still play an integral role in the team's success. As Reifert noted, however, the "other kids play for their seniors," creating a healthy locker room dynamic that has served the team well throughout the year.
Looking down the road, it also bodes well for the future, and Reifert was quick to point out that the team should be strong for the next few seasons. With so many talented seniors on the roster, however, the sense of urgency to win now is great and is in many respects the driving force behind this year's stellar campaign. It is a campaign, however, that has largely gone unnoticed by the greater student body.
The problem with most Chicago sports teams is that they tend to toil in obscurity, however well the given team performs. Even though Reifert remains optimistic that students will come out for the big conference games that loom on the schedule, she acknowledges that not everyone at the U of C will be interested in seeing women's soccer games.
"Kids at this school have a lot of interests. They're busy," Reifert said. Still, she described the fans that the team already has as "passionate" and admitted that "we enjoy the crowd we play in front of." Based on the Maroons' early success and Reifert's aggressive coaching style, many more people would likely enjoy watching the games if they gave the team a chance.
Coach Reifert firmly believes that the game is won and lost in transition. It is a very "go-go-go, take chances" kind of team. Scoring can happen at any time, and based on this season's statistics, it happens often. For the season, Chicago has out-shot opponents 155 to 35, and outscored them 30 to 3. The team plays exciting, consistent soccer that will keep fans interested and opponents on their toes. As the season progresses, the team is counting on its style of play to work against some tough conference opponents.
The next few games will decide Chicago's postseason fate. Thanks to tough NCAA standards, a team must win its conference to be assured a spot in the postseason tournament. If a team fails to take its conference, it is still possible to make the postseason, but with only 3 at-large bids up for grabs, gaining an at-large bid is not a sure bet for any team, even a highly ranked one. Coach Reifert has highlighted the upcoming games against Emory University on October 4 and NYU on October 19 as critical games against conference opponents. As the coach puts it, the team "is starting all over again" now that conference play has begun.
Chicago women's soccer is off to an impressive start. With a grounded coach, a solid attitude, and a well constructed team, the Maroons look primed for a deep playoff run. The players have just a few more hurdles to jump over before the postseason comes to Hyde Park.