After losing six starters from last year’s Ivy League championship squad to graduation, the Harvard women’s soccer team was bound to experience some growing pains in its season opener on Friday night. To make matters more difficult, the Crimson’s opponent, Providence, had already played two games to begin the season.
In the first half, those growing pains took the form of a stagnant offense as the visiting Friars outshot the hosts, 6-1. Harvard junior goalkeeper Danielle Etzel was up to the challenge, however, saving three shots on goal to preserve a scoreless tie heading into the intermission.
A half of soccer turned out to be enough to get the engine humming for the Crimson, as the team came out with more confidence and aggression after the break. Led by freshman forward Lauren Raimondo, Harvard launched five shots in a six-minute span at the start of the second half.
“In the first half, we were definitely unsteady,” captain Marie Becker said. “But I’m proud of how the team was able to catch itself, and restructure and reset so quickly.”
The pressure finally paid off in the 68th minute, after the Crimson had won a corner from the left side. Junior midfielder Leah Mohammadi swung the ball in. The ball sailed past a crowd of Harvard and Providence players and snuck beneath the crossbar, past the outstretched arm of Friars goalkeeper Shelby Hogan.
The impressive curl on the corner was all the Crimson (1-0-0) would need, as it closed out the game with its defense to notch its first win of the season, 1-0, over the Friars (0-3-0). The home victory marked the third win in the past four seasons for Harvard in the head-to-head series.
Unlike in the three previous years, however, the Crimson entered this year’s matchup without graduated star Midge Purce '17. A long-time talisman for the team, Purce scored or assisted on four goals against Providence over that three-year span.
On Friday, Harvard found itself relying on three underclassmen to spearhead its offense, including two who were playing in their collegiate debuts. Freshman forward Murphy Agnew was making her first career start, while Raimondo came off the bench for her debut.
“Right now, we’re still working out our attacking play,” Harvard coach Chris Hamblin said. “Whether it’s returning players or new players, it’s going to take some time to gel, but our progress from the first half to the second was a good indicator we’ll be hitting our stride soon.”
Even with untested forwards, however, it only takes one moment of individual brilliance to get on the scoreboard. That’s what Mohammadi provided with her “olimpico” goal, curling a corner kick directly into the back of the net. The junior, who played a key role off the bench in both of her first two years in Cambridge, once again provided a spark after coming on midway through the first half.
“Leah has been a genius for us at set pieces,” Becker said. “They helped us an incredible amount last season and this goal was just another instance of her ability to change a game.”
On the other side of the ball, it was a completely different story for Harvard. Becker led a back line that entered the game with 97 combined starts. Despite having one newcomer in that group—sophomore Kimaya Cole—the Crimson defense was able to capitalize on its overall experience and chemistry to secure its first shutout of the season.
Goalkeepers Etzel and Kat Hess were also instrumental in preserving the clean sheet, making a combined five saves on the night. Both players logged meaningful minutes last season and their level of comfort as the last line of defense showed.
Harvard will continue to rely on its defense and goalkeeping, but with a span of nine games in 25 days, it also hopes that the offense rounds into shape quickly.
“It’s going to be a collective effort this season,” Hamblin said. “But we have multiple threats and multiple ways we can win games, and I think we’ll pose challenges for our opposition.”
—Staff writer George Hu can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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