Southern Utah University women’s soccer came away with a 1-1 draw after a hard fought contest at Dixie State University Sunday in their first competitive match of the season.
It was the first match of the Kai Edwards era at SUU after he took over as head coach in December of 2019, and it left fans with plenty to chew on as the T-Birds survived a double-overtime onslaught by DSU to get their first point of the season.
Here are a few takeaways from the match:
1. On the Offensive
The T-Birds were much more positive on the ball in the first half of Sunday’s game compared to how they played last season. Edwards started the game in a 4-3-3 formation with Rachel Hunt, Mekaylla White and Kate Schirmer starting up top, and they really brought the game to Dixie in the first half.
In that formation, Edwards’ squad pressed DSU off the ball and looked to get in behind on the wings. Hunt charged down the left sideline while Schirmer cut inside from the right, and the threat they posed forced Dixie’s defensive line back, giving the T-Birds more time to kick the ball around in the midfield.
It was Hunt’s run behind Dixie’s left back that set up SUU’s first goal. She fought hard to keep the ball from going over the end line, picked her head up and found Schirmer setting up shop near the penalty spot.
The pass from Hunt was perfect and Schirmer showed real quality in the finish. She took a perfect first touch and banged a shot past the keeper at the near post with her left foot. Top drawer stuff here:
@SUUSoccer @connorssanders quality first goal of the year. @BigSky_Soccer pic.twitter.com/2FaZ1Zol1e
— Kai Edwards (@KaiEdwards13) February 14, 2021
The attack generated six shots before halftime, and the defensive pressure held Dixie to just two attempts.
Given SUU’s struggles on offense last season, the first half performance comes as a breath of fresh air for SUU fans. The T-Birds showed more versatility in the attack in one half than they did for most of last season.
Schirmer already has her name on the scoresheet, and if the T-Birds continue to play like they did in the first half on Sunday, then it won’t be long before Hunt, White and the other attackers join her.
2. Adaptability and Depth
It might be easy to characterize Sunday’s draw as a tale of two halves, but the game’s biggest change didn’t occur at halftime. It changed when senior center back Kennedy Jex went down with an injury in the 88th minute.
Jex played really well in her first competitive game as a left center back, covering a ton of ground to cut out long passes and distributing from deep to get the T-Birds’ attacks off the ground. She seemed to always be in the right place at the right time in dangerous moments.
The injury happened when Trailblazer Sophie Stewart chased a long ball near SUU’s end line. The ball squirted free after Stewart got around Emma Leong and she had a chance to cut the ball back for a cross, much like Hunt did to set up Schirmer’s goal.
Jex sprinted across the face of goal and threw herself at the loose ball, blocking the cross and clattering into Stewart, who was also lunging for the ball, in the process. Her last ditch lunge likely saved a goal, but the collision looked intense and Jex stayed down for a long time afterward.
She was able to limp off with the help of trainers, but was unable to continue. The game changed the moment she left the pitch. Edwards switched from the 4-3-3 to a much more defensive 5-2-1-2 with Kamryn Farro jumping into Jex’s position and Monica Brown moving further outside as a wingback.
DSU forward Madison Henderson had already equalized before Jex went down, but the Trailblazers really smelled blood after she went off. They started to send numbers forward every time they had the ball — determined to get the win as the game went to overtime.
Dixie outshot SUU 18 to 3 in the second half and two overtime periods, and while they certainly allowed chances, the T-Birds were too tight at the back to allow enough space for DSU to convert those chances into goals.
Trailblazer forward Whitley Griffiths, who Edwards characterized as “one of the top strikers in the state” after finishing as Dixie’s top scorer last season, only managed two shots in the game.
It’s encouraging that Edwards had the tactical savvy to claim the point even after Jex went down, but it’s concerning that the team’s approach had to change so much to stay afloat in her absence.
With only 19 players on the roster, every injury leaves a massive hole for Edwards and his staff to fill, especially if any defenders have to miss significant time.
3. Tidy from Back to Front
Farro is a very clever player. She uses little feints to coax defenders into bowling her over for fouls and sees passes other players haven’t even imagined. It’s obvious that she’s one of the most skillful and tactically-adept players on the team, and those abilities are probably most effective when Farro plays as a winger.
She did well enough in Jex’s place, but Farro’s not a center-half. Standing at just 5-foot-7, she’s prone to get outmuscled by stronger forwards. If she’s asked to play significant minutes at the back, the defense may struggle, especially if goalkeeper Jennifer Kovisto needs more time to get comfortable at the Division I level.
It was actually a mistake by Kovisto that allowed DSU back into the game. She spilled a cross right in front of Henderson, who hacked it home to pull the Trailblazers level. It was by no means an easy play for Kovisto to even get to the cross in the first place, but she’s likely disappointed that she didn’t catch it cleanly.
Kovisto made six saves in the contest and showed good presence in her area, but looked nervy at times with the ball at her feet. She nearly gave the ball away in her own box on two separate occasions, and had a hard time finding teammates from long kicks throughout the second half.
She probably deserves a longer leash given that Kovisto is making the jump from Division II Azusa Pacific University, but the T-Birds will need rock solid goalkeeping to keep them in games against opponents with more attacking prowess. She’ll need to be a bit more tidy to ensure she stays between the sticks for the rest of the season.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics