Massachusetts Daily Collegian

UMass women’s soccer hitting midseason stride thanks to improved defensive play

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Judith Gibson-Okunieff

Judith Gibson-Okunieff

The Massachusetts women’s soccer team has come a long way since its 6-0 loss against Syracuse in its season opener back on Aug. 21.

Through its next few games, the team started to look better, but it still couldn’t register a win. Injuries were starting to get the best of the Minutewomen (3-3-2), as significant figures on the squad were going down left and right to season-ending ailments.

UMass just couldn’t find a groove.

As time ticked on, however, the Minutewomen recorded their first win in a 3-0 shutout over Bryant on Sept. 10. Despite a rotation of different players to unfamiliar roles, UMass looked as comfortable as it’s ever been. The Minutewomen managed to build some momentum on their five-game home stand and are now winners of three straight, while holding opponents scoreless in each contest.

Although it’s easy to give most of the credit to the defense for the team’s latest winning surge, UMass coach Ed Matz believes it’s been the equal play of both units that has given opponents such a tough time.

“It’s all a matter of the team’s approach,” Matz said. “It all starts from our forwards pressuring the other teams’ defenses, our midfielders pressuring their midfielders, and then our backs doing their job with one-on-one settings.

“There’s not as much pressure on our defense anymore, and Cassidy (Babin) is doing a good job in goal.”

UMass as a whole is leaving no room for other teams to find chances to score. Ever since getting blown out by the Orange, the Minutewomen haven’t surrendered more than one goal in a contest through their next seven games. In those matchups, UMass hasn’t only recorded four shutouts, but has done so both at home and on the road. This is the first time the team has recorded as many shutouts in the first half of a season since 2012.

Rebekka Sverrisdottir, Georgia Gibson and Madison Smith lead the defensive group, with Smith having moved up to play forward on occasion. While Matz won’t say if this is the best defense he’s ever coached, he did point out that the Minutewomen’s combination of veteran defenders is definitely something to watch out for.

“You have to look at the fact that at times, we have three seniors back there,” Matz said. “I think all of them are experienced defenders and are all doing very well. Early on we had to move Georgia to center-back, which isn’t her natural position, and she’s getting more comfortable playing next to Rebekka.

“I think that they are all very focused,” he added. “They are all tremendous leaders, they are probably our three best kids and probably three of our hardest working kids. They’re seniors, they want to make this the best year possible.”

While the defense has been playing at a stellar level for almost the entire year, it was only recently that UMass began to find the win column. Before the current five-game home stand, the Minutewomen’s offense only scored one time through five games, which is the largest factor behind the winless streak.

“The offense is just very comfortable,” Matz said. “They know that if they can get a goal or two, than we have a good chance of winning. The (offense and defense) just feed off of each other, it’s a very close team. If you were to ask the forwards, they would give the defenders credit, and if you were to ask the defenders they would give the forwards credit.”

The Minutewomen look to extend their winning streak to four games on Thursday at 4 p.m. at Rudd Field.

Tom Mulherin can be reached at [email protected]

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