An undefeated team will take to Rhodes Field this Friday, one of two squads yet to post a loss in Division I. That team, however, will not be donning the Red and Blue, but the traditional white designated for visiting teams.
Penn women’s soccer will play host to Cornell under the lights at home on Friday, less than a week removed from its 2-0 loss at Harvard in the team’s Ivy League opener. On the other hand, the Big Red (8-0-2, 1-0-0 Ivy) are riding a five-game winning streak, one that includes a 1-0 shutout of Columbia in their conference debut last weekend.
And yet the Quakers (4-2-2, 0-1-0) remain calm, fully aware of the seemingly monumental task ahead of them. No special game plan is being drawn up; no secret weapon is being readied for attack and no secret formula is being concocted in the labs of coach Nicole Van Dyke, who is undaunted by the Big Red machine coming her way.
“We don’t even look at things like that,” Van Dyke said of Cornell’s untarnished record. “We obviously try to focus on their tendencies when we talk about the opponent, but a lot of it is about how we’re going to play.”
That sentiment has trickled down to her players, who also feel up and ready to defend their home pitch.
“I think they’re definitely going to be a good opponent, but if we play like I know we can play, we should be fine,” senior captain Paige Lombard said.
While the loss to Harvard was certainly disappointing, particularly the Crimson’s 25-5 advantage on the shot chart, the Red and Blue back line seems as strong as ever. Especially when the absence of starting senior goalkeeper Kalijah Terilli is taken into consideration, conceding two goals to last year’s Ivy champions does not seem too bad.
“Defensively we’ve been doing a good job. We gave up two set pieces against Harvard, but you’ve got to fine tune those little pieces about the game,” Van Dyke said. “In the run of play defensively we were great.”
As good as Penn’s defense is, Cornell’s might be better. Anchored by junior goalkeeper Kelsey Tierney in the back, the team has only let in one goal in its last 10 games — a feat that earned Tierney back-to-back honors as Ivy League Player of the Week earlier this month. When the Big Red finally let one slip by against Wagner last Sunday, it was the last team in D-I to concede a goal.
In hope of breaking down this Cornell defense, the Quakers have been paying special attention to finishing and possession in training this week, working hard to find that final ball that might lead to a shot on goal.
“We’ve got to be able to string a defense about and get them to move and shift and create some space for each other,” Van Dyke said. “We want defense to be our backbone, but at the same time we want to find an offensive threat going forward, to find a way to score goals.”
According to Lombard, much of this will come down to fundamentals, such as stressing movement off the ball to open up passing lanes and promoting communication among some of the team’s more inexperienced players.
“Sometimes the ball-watching has taken us to the point where we get stuck standing,” Lombard said. “I think just remembering to always be moving — even if it’s not to get yourself open but to get space for somebody else to run in — has been a big thing that we’ve been focusing on this week.”
One thing that might bode well for Penn in its second conference game is the return to full strength of senior defender Lauren Petite. The Moraga, Calif., native found the back of the net in the team’s season opener but was nursing an injury against Harvard last week.
Van Dyke also points out increased and improved finishing in training as a positive sign for the Quakers, something that will hopefully translate into more goals come game time.
A win against Cornell will not be easy, but coming off two draws and a loss, a big challenge may just be the thing that Penn needs to keep the second half of the season intact.
“We always talk about how Rhodes is our fortress, so we never want to lose at home,” Lombard said.
“A win would be great, even if it’s just to revitalize the season and get us ready for more conference games.”
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