SPORTS

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October 26, 2007

What's next for soccer?

While last Saturday’s double-overtime match against Wheaton may be the early favorite for game (and call) of the year, the Go Maroons audio team is already looking forward to the final stretch. Perched high atop the Ratner Observation Deck and with voices fully repaired, the crew broke down the state of the men’s and women’s soccer teams in a little game called 50–50–50.

Don’t forget to visit the Maroon Sports Report blog (maroon.uchicago.edu/sportsreport) for live game audio, podcasts, and impressions all weekend long.

What does women’s soccer have to do to make the postseason?

Emerald: Not to oversimplify things, but we should hope for zero defeats and two or more victories in the last three matches. One of them must come November 3 against Wash U. But looking to the immediate future: first up is Case, who should be easily beatable—they sit winless at the bottom of the UAA table right now. The team needs to use Case as a springboard for tougher matches against Rochester and Wash U. The advantage lies in the home field, which they will have for the rest of the season.

Sean: It’s a similar position to the one the Maroons were in last year. Though the double-overtime loss to Wheaton was disappointing because the team was inches away from getting its postseason ticket, it was encouraging because it showed that any of the remaining games are winnable, particularly at home. Chicago convincingly competed against talent, tricky tactics, and an early deficit. And the NCAA selection committee rewarded a 1–1 week by upgrading them from 10th to 9th in the region, staying on the wrong side of the bubble but showing that there’s still room left.

Tim: They proved they were made of stuff just as strong as Wheaton. Head coach Amy Reifert needs to make sure this narrow loss gives them a psychological edge rather than acts as a negative. As Emerald points out, there are three games left, and the Maroons may need to win all three. The first step towards this path though was getting back their confidence, which they seemed to do against Wheaton. After the injuries to Sarah Loh, Christine Farmer, and Kaitlin Meyer, they looked flat and inconsistent, but the new starters are finally starting to settle into their roles and the team is beginning to gel. That can only help down the stretch.

Sean: Make no mistake: This is a team with an earned swagger and killer instinct that it lacked last year. Who wants to step up next? Katie Manuelli, Claire Gill, Claire Denz, and Amanda Sutter—just to name a few recent examples—have all done it in the face of injury.

Emerald: Against Rochester, who are expected to play a bit of long ball, the Maroons will have to use their technical skill to the best of their advantage, in order to control the game on the ground. If Gill and Siggy Nachtergaele—recovering from a sprained ankle suffered two weeks ago—have solid performances in central midfield, then the Maroons can and will dominate this game.

Looking ahead to Wash U, a possession-oriented team from what we saw last season, they likely won’t be intimidated by Chicago’s home-field advantage outside of the move to natural grass. The Maroons will have to produce a performance akin to that against Wheaton—the good thing is, this defense has been very promising with Denz in the middle, even as the team’s usual central defender, Anne Scherer, is shuffled back and forth in the formation. The offense, as depleted as it is, will also need to produce.

Sean: And the midfield will play a big part in that. You have to give a ton of credit to Reifert this year for getting her team to believe in itself even after losing as many as four of the starting lineup’s five best players for extended periods. From the get-go, she implemented a dynamic attack that seamlessly shifted from 4–4–2 to 4–3–3 just as opponents started to tire or become comfortable. The team struggled when it no longer had the personnel to employ those tactics, but she’s made the adjustments this year that may have been a couple weeks too late in 2006.

Emerald: One thing that’ll help the Maroons in all three games is getting on the score sheet early. The one thing they want to do at Stagg Field is make the other team catch up to them. They need to set the pace from the opening whistle.

In what areas do the men have to improve immediately, and in what areas must they improve for next season?

Emerald: The number-one priority, from head coach Scott Wiercinski’s standpoint, is to bring in new forwards for next season—the current reliance on Andrew Hamilton or Edgar Friloux holding up top turned out to be a bit more predictable for opponents than we were hoping for this season.

Tim: Up top, I agree with Emerald that the team does need to go with a quality two-forward system. However, the lone-forward system this season did have one major benefit: the emergence of an offensive presence on the wings from first-year midfielders Ryan Fitzgerald and Alex Clifford. The holding forward freed up space on the wings, allowing these two midfielders to get into the attack, and both have proved up to that task.

Sean: In some ways, that individual brilliance has been the most frustrating part of 2007. The men have outstanding talent, but too many times performances didn’t link up. And it would change dramatically from game to game: Several times we saw the lineup changed for the second half because of matchups. Sure, strengths and weaknesses show differently depending on the opponent, but the hope is that players pick each other up in the system, minimize the weaknesses, and eventually spring those strengths.

It’s also a reminder that with a young team, you can’t assume that a squad is going to pick up where it left off at the end of the previous season. That will always be what’s freshest in your mind—last year’s organic possession play and aggressive width—but it has to be learned again by new players.

Emerald: Improvements in the defense—a very young unit when you remove Jon Cartwright from the equation—will come with time. The midfield is one place where the personnel are already in place, and now it’s just a matter of solidifying the physical presence there and getting an efficient transition game going. The biggest positive of this season is obviously the influx of young talent—players like Fitzgerald, Clifford, and Steinert are getting major minutes this season and looking comfortable for the most part. They will carry the team for the next few years.

Tim: Defensively, Hughes and Steinert will provide a solid foundation for the future. Hughes provides toughness, leadership, and physicality, while Steinert provides positional smarts, savvy foot skills, and height for a team sorely lacking in size. The central defense looks like it will be solid at least for the foreseeable future, especially if these two players can find a playing rapport.

One major thing to build off of is the emergence of central midfielders Joe Farias-Eisner and Jan Michael Guerra. Both have played exceptionally well at times this season, and both should be the real crux of this team in center midfield next season, especially with veteran players like Stu Phelps leaving. This team has a solid core, so it’ll really be up to Coach Wiercinski to ensure that all the pieces come together.