October 27, 2006

Weekend of must-wins looms for women's soccer

It’s crunch time for women’s soccer. With the minutes ticking down to the NCAA selections, the squad has just three games remaining on the regular season schedule that could either solidify or loosen its hold on an at-large bid to the playoffs.

Closing out their regular season home slate at Stagg this weekend, Chicago (10–4–1, 1–2–1 UAA) is in prime position to make the final push to the postseason and iron out any kinks before squaring off against national competition. The Maroons, unbeaten in their last 30 home games, kick off the homestand against NYU (6–7–1, 0–4–0) Saturday before battling Brandeis (8–3–3, 1–0–3) Sunday.

A crucial aspect to cutting down the Violets and overcoming the Judges in this weekend’s back-to-back test falls on Chicago’s strikers. The past few games have seen the Maroons move the ball up well and press into the final third but have trouble getting by the last defender for a clear shot on goal. With third-year Christine Farmer (12 goals, 4 assists) back on the pitch and returning to form, the Maroons may have the final piece they need to perfect their finishing touch.

After colliding with the goalkeeper in the squad’s 4–1 loss to ninth-ranked Wheaton September 26, the South Siders’ leading scorer was relegated to the sidelines with an isolated grade II MCL sprain. The run in with third-year Kristen Eggert occurred on a crossed ball from the left endline that Farmer chased into the box. When Eggert came out, she ran into Farmer’s planted left leg, and the knee twisted around. Besides icing and wearing a brace 24/7, doctors told the New York native that there wasn’t much she could do for a speedy recovery.

It was a tough blow to Chicago as it looked at a four-week stint without its biggest offensive producer. To that point, Farmer had tallied 10 of the team’s total 19 goals.

Far from allowing the team to go on a losing slide, the absence of Farmer opened opportunities for other Maroons to step up as the key playmakers. The squad went 2–1 without Farmer but scored only three goals total in those contests. Fourth-years forward Jordan Pouliot and midfielder Maya Pratt and second-year Siggy Nachtergaele all chipped in with goals during Farmer’s absence.

The trio helped keep Chicago in contention for two weeks while Farmer rested her knee. It turned out that the striker is a faster healer than doctors expected, though, and she was given the green light for practice and then for the pivotal road trip to Rochester (11–1–3) and Case (5–9–1).

“To be honest, I wasn’t completely sure how much I could contribute, but the doctor cleared me…and I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to play in two big conference games,” Farmer said. “Playing with the brace is a hindrance just because it is bulky.… I think it also leads you to play more tentatively because the brace is a constant reminder that you are not 100 percent. I’ve gotten more used to it, though, and it is less of a hindrance on my range of motion than it used to be.”

Although the squad dropped a 2–1 decision to the 16th-ranked Yellowjackets, Farmer’s return coincided with a new midfield formation to give the playmaking Nachtergaele, Pratt, and second-year winger Olivia Ndyabagye more touches on the ball. Since breaking out the new arrangement, the Maroons have gone 2–1. If Chicago can continue to keep the ball forward with this latest strategy, combined with outing from Farmer like the two-goal affair that pushed the squad past Concordia (11–4–2, 8–0–2 MIAC) last Saturday, then it should post the much-needed wins from this weekend.

While victory is by no means in the bag, NYU’s and Brandeis’ offenses have yet to produce at the same level as the Maroons this year.

After tearing through the start of their season with a 5–0–1 mark, the Violets have fallen flat lately with a seven-game losing skid. They’ve posted 18 goals on the year while surrendering 19 to the opposition. The team struggles in the final stanza, taking fewer shots (71 in the second to 96 in the first) while having to make more saves (42 to 31) in the closing frame. Last year at New York, the Maroons won the contest 2–0 and have high hopes for a repeat at Stagg.

Matching last season’s 5–0 blowout of the Judges will be a bit tougher. Brandeis has deadly accuracy on goal with the team averaging a .546 shooting percentage that will keep netminders third-year Amanda Sutter and second-year Polly Cline on their toes the entire game.

“I think that last year we just came out quick and shut their team down early,” Farmer said. “We were very efficient in capitalizing on our goal-scoring opportunities, and we just played off each other very well in that game.”

Proving that they can put up a fight against top-notch competition, the Judges battled Rochester into double overtime for a scoreless draw October 7. Sunday’s showdown with Brandeis will be good preparation for the regular season finale November 4 at 13th-ranked Wash U (13–2–0).

“This season, they seem to have had much better results versus high-caliber opponents,” Farmer said. “I don’t think that our score from last year really did justice to their skill level.… Also, this year they will be out to avenge their loss to us last year, and revenge can be an extremely effective motivational tool. We will definitely have to be aware of that, and be ready to come out hard from the get-go.”