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The women’s soccer team’s preseason made it clear that Harvard coach Ray Leone had some kinks to work out.
Working with a roster featuring nine incoming freshmen and six returning sophomores, Leone has tried various lineups and position changes in order to find the perfect balance of experience and youth.
Though the squad entered league play with a 3-4 record and riding a three-game losing streak, none of that mattered when the Crimson took on defending Ivy champion Penn on Friday at Soldiers Field Soccer/Lacrosse Stadium, where Leone’s maneuvering paid off.
It looks as if the squad’s recent string of losses had, in fact, revealed many weaknesses that were able to be addressed during the week leading up to the much-anticipated league opener.
DEFENSE WINS CHAMPIONSHIPS
In Harvard’s first four contests—three of which were one-goal wins—the Crimson offense out-scored its opponents, 7-5.
But in the subsequent three games, Harvard’s offense slowed down and could not rely on its defense to pull through.
BU, Hofstra, and Rhode Island out-scored the Crimson by a cumulative score of 11-6.
What became clear, especially after Hofstra’s 5-4 win over Harvard, was that the back line needed to do a better job of closing spaces and tackling aggressively.
Against the Quakers, the Crimson did just that. When the visiting team controlled possession in the middle of the field, Harvard found ways of stripping the ball and going for the quick counterattack.
The Crimson’s defenders were precise in their tackling and successfully held the Penn offense at bay. In the air, the Quakers had no luck; Harvard’s back line was not afraid to head the ball forward or direct exact passes to its players on the wings. Co-captain Melanie Baskind praised her defense and called Friday night’s effort “the [defensive] performance of the season by far.”
Penn could only muster four shots on goal and nine shots in total, giving Crimson rookie goalkeepers Bethany Kanten and Cheta Emba a relatively easy night. Despite playing the first league game in their young careers, the freshmen rose to the occasion and commanded the defense throughout the match.
Quaker fans may point to the absence of injured sophomore Kerry Scalora as a major reason for Penn’s listless attack. Given the home team’s strong defensive showing, it would have been doubtful that the Quaker playmaker could have changed the outcome of the game. On the season, Scalora has only one goal from 28 shots, a low rate of efficiency that would not have fared well against the strong back line the Crimson exhibited on Friday.
OFFENSE WINS GAMES
With the defense doing its part, the home offense knew that the team’s fate would lie on its feet.
The Crimson attack bombarded Penn with 16 shots, forcing Quaker goalkeeper Sarah Banks to deal with eight shots on goal—two of which eluded her.
The successful pair came from Baskind, who was precise in her finishing Friday night. The co-captain leads the team with four goals, four assists, and 12 points on the season.
“The team was flying tonight, and [Baskind] just ended up on the end of these [opportunities],” Leone said. “She’s world-class.”
While Penn got off to a sluggish start, from the beginning there was a palpable confidence when Harvard possessed the ball. Despite the wet conditions, the Crimson found ways to send dangerous passes to its forwards, and the midfield forced the Quakers to scramble all over the field in search of the ball.
“The preparation throughout the week was good, but the play was even better tonight,” Leone said. “I thought we were playing slowly until tonight. We weren’t moving the ball like we need to move it, and today we really moved the ball.”
The fast-paced and technical style Harvard has developed this season may be due to the Crimson finally finding cohesion in its lineup.
Thanks to Leon’s preseason shuffling, each and every player is familiar with her teammate.
Not only did Leone play all of his players, but he also tested their capabilities by placing them in unfamiliar roles. A defender one game would play offense the next.
After the testing of so many variables, one might suggest that the 17 players who played on Friday were the ones who had found their niche on the field. But Leone warned that the shuffling is not over yet.
“People are always trying to move into that starting lineup or rotation, and there’s a lot of season left,” Leone said. “Things happen, and you should never be that comfortable thinking, ‘That’s it, I’m in.’ But this was a team performance, and I was excited about how we prepared.”
—Staff writer Brian A. Campos can be reached at email@example.com.
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