Championship aspirations come with big expectations, and nobody understands that more right now than 13th-ranked women's soccer. A number of injuries and some bad-luck bounces have sent the season on a slight detour the past four games, with a 1-1-2 record over that span. But heading into two key conference battles this weekend, the Maroons have only one focus in mind: Playing with the drive necessary to keep opponents out of the game, beginning to end.
"Our team is so deep and talented that there's no doubt in my mind we can play great soccer with any lineup that we have on the field," said third-year defender Diana Connett, who returned from her ankle injury in last Saturday's scoreless tie against Carnegie Mellon. "My only wish for the team is that we find that fire, that tacklin' fuel,' which gives us an edge over every team we face."
Though the game against Carnegie (6-1-3, 0-1-1) was far from a poor performance, the Maroons (7-1-2, 0-0-2) have taken that game as an example of how not to be a playoff-worthyor even further a championship-worthyteam. Chicago outplayed the Tartans, but struggled to take control and take advantage of scoring opportunities.
"Saturday was a difficult game, especially since the junior class has yet to beat Carnegie. We seemed to dominate the entire game yet still couldn't come out with a win," third-year forward Renee Neuner said. "I think offensively we've been a bit more passive lately in terms of not playing as directly as we sometimes should."
This Friday's home game against 21st-ranked Brandeis could very well serve as the turning point that gets the Maroons back on track. The Judges (10-1-0, 1-1-0) bring their physical style to Stagg Field, prompting Chicago head coach Amy Reifert to turn her team's focus to matching Brandeis' pressure on all ends. Winning those battles will be the key to allowing the women's squad to gain offensive advantages.
"Brandeis is going to be a physical game. The team that works the hardest to win 50-50 balls and maintain possession will dominate," third-year defender Elise Aiken said. "Defensively we want to pressure the ball hard, not allow them to survive, and of course win every ball out of the air."
"This weekend will be one of the first times this year that our defense will encounter some very talented, very physical strikers," Connett added. "We've been working on covering for each other quicker, as well as tough, aggressive one-on-one defense."
Though the loss of third-year defender Ellen Fitzgerald to a season-ending torn ACL and various injuries to Aiken and Connett have necessitated some shuffling with the back four this season, the bench has stepped up with young players like first-year Amanda Catalano learning as they go. The midfield saw similar changes with third-years Monica Michelottireplaced by third-year Randi Lepplaout since September 11 and Jacqui DeLeon returning only last weekend wearing a cast on her broken arm.
The return of Connett and DeLeonthough neither was playing at 100 percenthas added veteran talent back to the squad for the stretch run.
"Having Jacqui and Diana playing again helped us out tremendously. They both have really strong on-field presence and are willing to do anything to help the team win," first-year forward Christine Farmer said. "Not only do they have great technical skills, but they are great teammates who encourage everyone else and always give their full effort on the field."
The team realizes that the previous weeks' lineup changes have deepened the bench, forced players to learn new positions, and created new leaders. The short-term winning percentage may have suffered, but the team's bench should be better in the long run.
That growth, and the offense's renewed focus, could help Chicago get over its recent scoring droughtonly five goals in as many games. Led by Neuner (nine goals, three assists) and Farmer (five, one), the offense hopes to build off the defense's tough, scrappy game plan, making plays happen as they did early in the year.
Despite whatever individual slumps or aches and pains have led to their recent struggles, the Maroons have focused on using Friday to set the tone for Sunday's home game against NYU and the seven matches after that. The plan to charge Brandeis head-on could rekindle the winning fire.
"I think overall it's our intensity that will allow us to win this weekend. It wasn't there in the game against Carnegie Mellon, but it's something that we recognize," Neuner said. "Winning 50-50 balls and playing with a sense of urgency have always been part of our priorities, but this weekend we understand how crucial those aspects will be in terms of our success."