Southern Utah University’s soccer team is off to a slow start, which means coach Fred Thompson finds himself in a similar position to where he was last season.
Once again, there are many fresh faces and first time starters in his preferred starting lineup. Only five major contributors return from last year’s squad. That means six starters weren’t around the program last season.
The adjustment to the new group has been tough, and it leaves Thompson with the same offensive struggles that plagued the T-Birds last season.
The Thunderbirds finished last in the Big Sky in goals, assists and shots per game in 2018. They only scored more than one goal in four of their 18 games. Dating back to last season, Thompson’s side has failed to score in seven consecutive games.
SUU has lost their first five matches of 2019 by a combined score of 15-0. The T-Birds have only had five shots on goal through five games. They have three more yellow cards than attempts on goal.
It’s another uphill battle for Thompson, but there’s still time to figure things out before conference play begins at the end of the month. Thompson has three weeks to figure out why his team can’t generate chances.
Through five matches a semi-consistent best 11 has emerged. Here’s the lineup in terms of minutes played ( the formation changes based on the opponent):
Step one on the road to offensive potence will be awaking redshirt senior Makenzie Lawrence. The center forward finished tied for third most goals in the conference with seven goals last season.
The offense runs through Lawrence often. She has one of the highest work rates in the conference and gives chase on plenty of long balls. In their lone home contest thus far Lawrence narrowly missed on two difficult chip shots.
She’s taken six shots this season. Only one has been on goal and four came in the home match against Cal Baptist. She hasn’t had a lot of opportunities, but hasn’t yet been able to convert on the ones that have fallen to her.
Lawrence was incredibly efficient last season. She scored seven goals on 14 shots on goal. It’s hard to know how many clear chances she’ll have, but when they come she’ll need to score at the same rate as in 2018.
Only four T-Birds scored a goal last season, and Lawrence is the only player returning to the team. Defenses will key in on shutting her down.
That should open up the field for Jaylynn Barton and Amberly Hastings to go forward. Barton and Hastings are the keys to this team. Both are freshmen, both like to have the ball at their feet and both have a lot of upside.
There needs to be combination play from Lawrence, Barton and Hastings. Lawrence will run between and test the center backs, so Barton and Hastings need to be more aggressive in the space she vacates.
Gabriella Pagani and Allyson Carlisle man the wings and will be charged with finding space in the channels. Both can play as wingers farther up the pitch, but come back to get the ball often.
The defense struggled in 2018 as well. Thompson has asked Sims to play in the center of defense to positive results. Sims has great instincts when marking. She is quick to get across the field and stop shot attempts.
Quincy Pfeffer is also back and equipped to anchor the team’s back line. Pfeffer has all the tools of a defender, but struggles to make an impact in her passing.
That’s the real obstacle for this team. When SUU gets on the ball they struggle to keep it without playing the ball backwards. Many times they just hoof the ball forward and hope Lawrence can get on the end of it.
Sometimes that works because of Lawrence’s strength and relentless work ethic. Other times the ball comes right back at the T-Birds.
That’s where the play of Rachel Wolter will come in. Wolter has played center back but can also slide into the defensive midfield as well. If Thompson wants to play with three center backs, Wolter can play in the middle of the defense. If he wants two, then she can creep forward.
Wolter has to be a ball winner and counterattack deterrent for the team. When their opponents break out and are running toward goal Wolter will have to be there to meet them. If not, SUU will concede a lot of goals.
The defense is solid. Emilia Palsdottir and Katie Lulay have looked good as the fullbacks despite being freshmen. The problem is SUU gets pinned in their own half and are forced to defend for impossibly long stretches.
Goalkeeper Brianna Aldridge led the conference in saves last season, but finished last in shutouts. Aldridge is rock solid, but she can’t keep the constant onslaught of shots out forever.
The one knock on Aldridge is her distribution. The ball heads straight out of bounds a bit too often, but Cedar City’s winds don’t make that any easier. Aldridge is likely already the best shot stopper in the conference. If she can find her teammates more consistently she’ll be the best all around keeper.
Isabella Whitmore is pushing Aldridge and practice and has also seen a lot of minutes. Whitmore started the T-Birds’ last match against Rio Grande Valley and made saves. She’s an athletic option off the bench.
Thompson’s group needs to limit the time they spend defending. That means possessing the ball via passing more, throwing more numbers forward in attack and staying patient when offensive chances pop up.
That is incredibly difficult when starting three freshmen midfielders and two freshmen outside backs. This team needs more reps under their belt, but that doesn’t make the bumps on the way any easier.
This team still has plenty of upside, though. Pagani, Barton and Hastings looked dangerous at times against Cal Baptist. If they can up their level of play then they’ll change the entire complexion of this team.
SUU has a lot of talented pieces to build around, but they’re missing the key element of experience that lends itself to composed play. If SUU can be more lethal in the final third and keep the ball more then they’re sure to improve in 2019.
Thompson can’t get caught up just trying to win now. He has to invest himself into developing his young players into future stars. For now they need to focus on generating chances and keeping the ball to relieve the pressure on their defense.
SUU soccer continues their season on Friday, Sept. 13 at 4 p.m. against Wyoming.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics Strategic Communication