Women’s soccer prepares to face Chicago as postseason approaches
The Washington University women’s soccer team took care of business last weekend when it clinched the University Athletic Association Title. But the Bears’ regular season still has one game left on the schedule: a battle at the University of Chicago on Saturday. Little hinges on the game: both the No.3 Bears, at 15-1-1, and no. 16 Maroons, at 12-2-2, will be playing in the NCAA tournament this month. Minor seeding differences aside, a win or loss will not change the fortune of either team. However, with the postseason on the horizon, the game provides the Bears with a chance to fine-tune their approach.
“Chicago’s a fantastic team,” head coach Jim Conlon said. “So, I think we’re going to prepare as hard as we can to get that result to be ready for the NCAA tournament. We’re not looking to change a million things. We’re not looking to do something out of the ordinary. We’re just going to try and play our style and hopefully that gets us the result.”
Chicago will likely be a potent test to the Bears’ defense. Wash. U. has allowed only .41 goals per game. The team, anchored by the backline of juniors Katy Mockett and Ellie Moreland and sophomore Gabbie Cesarone, has allowed only 47 shots on goal. When Wash. U. does allow shots, junior goalkeeper Emma Greenfield has been phenomenal at keeping those shots out of the net. Despite having the fewest saves of any goalkeeper in the conference who has played over 1000 minutes this season, she has the second highest save percentage in the conference at .860.
“I think all 11 are committed to playing defense all over the field,” Conlon said. “When we’ve got this good collective balance of protecting our house, it leads to less goal scoring opportunities.”
But the Maroons are scoring 2.5 goals per game. Three Chicago players—seniors Adrianna Vera and Hanna Watkins and junior Katie Jasminski—have scored seven or more goals this year. Dealing with the multi-pronged attack of the Maroons will be a challenge.
“We’re going to have to play our spacing well against them,” Conlon said, adding that the Bears need to “not get too stretched out, make sure they’re compact, make sure we’re squeezing passing angles and denying the ball. If we can do that, hopefully it’ll slow them down, but Chicago has some very good goal scorers.”
To deal with those scorers, the Bears will study the patterns that Chicago uses to attack and aim to counter them.
“Just understanding the spaces they like to go into and where they’ll run,” Conlon said. “If we do know where they want to move the ball and where their ending points are, we can get our players there in strategic moments.”
The Bears’ attack will likely also challenge the Maroons’ defense. Four Wash. U. players (senior Taylor Cohen, junior Ellie DeConinck and sophomores Erin Flynn and Ariana Miles) have scored five or more goals this season, and five Bears have at least three assists. Cohen, the team’s leading scorer, will likely draw the defense’s attention.
“With Taylor being a returning all-American and our leading scorer, she’s pretty much getting spied on [when she’s on the field], whether someone is tracking her everywhere or they make sure they know where she is,” Conlon said. “The really nice part about Taylor is that she has transcended her game to making better runs, letting her defense turn into offense, and she’s become a passer and a scorer. When she can start putting multiple facets to her game, it makes the players around her better as well.”
On Sunday, against Case Western Reserve University, Cohen’s gravity had a clear effect. She had two assists. On both occasions, the defense collapsed to respond to a run by Cohen towards the goal, leaving Miles and Flynn open for good shot opportunities.
“When I start taking it to goal, players probably step to me given that I’ve had a good track record with goals, but so have our other teammates,” Cohen said on Sunday. “you can’t leave them open and that’s what [Case] did and they put them away.”
In addition to being a tough matchup that will test the Bears, Chicago also provides a chance for the freshmen on the team to sharpen themselves before the NCAA tournament. Returners from last season’s NCAA semi-final team have experience operating under postseason pressure. Saturday is the last chance before the postseason that the freshmen to adjust to high-level play.
“What you try and do is have the rookies become sophomores during the regular season,” Conlon said. “If I schedule the right types of games, we play some high-level teams—St. Thomas, Wheaton—on top of our conference play, [then] all of a sudden, they’re prepared for what we’re going to see in the postseason. So it’s not like we have to take this monumental jump up. They just need to learn those lessons through the regular season. And we’re confident that they’ll be prepared if we call their number during the postseason.”
While coaching and scheduling can prepare the freshmen for the increase in competition level, only actually playing in the postseason can prepare them for the increase in intensity as the stakes rise.
“Once you hit postseason, it’s a clean slate every game,” Cesarone said. “Every game can make or break your season. So it’s different in that the result matters for your season. I think we’ve done a really good job this whole season of preparing ourselves with the teams we’ve played and how we’ve practiced. In that regard, we’re ready. It’s just the actual experience of doing it, which will come with the actual games as we progress.”
Sydney Essler has already made that leap. She has been a mainstay in the middle of the field in the latter half of the season, getting off 15 shots since Sept. 25. Riley Alvarez has been solid down the stretch for the bears. She brings energy to the Bears’ attack, Conlon said. Lea Tucker and Jolie Carl are also coming into their own as the season is heating up.
“They’ve got very good crafty feet,” Conlon said of Carl and Tucker. “Now they’re starting to see the passing pockets with their craftiness at the pace of the defense coming at them.”
Regardless of the stakes of the game, beating Chicago is important to the players. According to Cesarone, every team in the UAA is a rival for Wash. U. and that rivalry with Chicago is intensified by the fact that the teams are in the same region. Many of the players on the women’s soccer team (including Cesarone and Flynn) are from the Chicago metropolitan area, so winning takes on a personal meaning to them.
“It’s exciting,” Flynn said. “Especially at the end of the season, getting home, getting to see our families, and getting to play against a school that we grew up near.”
The game will be exciting and competitive despite—or perhaps because of—the fact that it will serve merely as an exhibition between two talented teams whose seasons are not ending. That the game will not alter the direction of the season does not lessen the Bears’ drive to win it.
“The nice part is if for some reason we don’t get that result, we’re already in the show,” Conlon said. “We’ve taken care of our business. But we’re going to play to the best of our ability for sure.”
The Bears and Maroons will kick off Saturday at 11 a.m. The game will be livestreamed on the University of Chicago’s athletics website.