Over Penn men's soccer's last four games — all wins — the team has tallied a total of 18 goals, shining offensively en route to a 5-1-1 record. Less outwardly noticeable, though, is the Quaker defense, which hasn't conceded more than one goal in any of its first seven games.
Aiding this strong start to the season have been Penn’s defensive tactics, which, compared to previous seasons, have been drastically altered, influencing the entire team's style of play.
“We really want to be a team that’s possessing the ball in the opposition’s half,” senior goalkeeper Nick Christoffersen said. “We trust our defenders to step up aggressively against opposing players to try to win the ball back quickly. I think we’ve created a lot more attacking chances by being able to lock teams in their own half, which is a credit to our defenders.”
Christoffersen has played the most minutes of anyone on the team this season, serving a big role in organizing the defense. Penn's four-man back line has been pushed higher up the field for the majority of games, leading to new challenges for Christoffersen.
“Being a very offensive team this year, I think our biggest threats for conceding goals are transition sequences and set pieces,” Christoffersen said. “A huge thing that we work on in training a lot is our set-piece play. My biggest contribution probably over the course of the season has been my ability to collect balls off of set pieces and corner kicks.”
Players in the Penn back line have to track back and cover ground quickly when the team loses the ball. That requires Penn’s fullbacks and center backs to be on point at all times during the game, showcasing physicality, pace, and one-on-one defending abilities.
Sophomore center back Leo Burney has played the second-most minutes out of any Quaker on the men’s squad, and he embodies the qualities that are necessary to be successful in Penn’s defensive scheme. Standing at 6-foot-3, Burney's frame makes him dominant in the air and forceful in one-on-ones against strong opposing forwards.
“Ideally, if we're playing well defensively, I don't have too many one-on-one battles throughout the game,” Burney said. “But I pride myself on being able to stand up to a striker and shut him down. I've been able to develop a very aggressive approach to heading where I really want to get my head onto every ball that I can. This approach to defending has been huge for all of us in the backline.”
Burney’s individual defensive prowess and aggressiveness for the ball mirror the other Penn starting defenders and rotational players. Senior midfielder Nick Schimbeno starts alongside Burney and is often tasked with clearing difficult crosses in the box with his head.
The outside players on the Quaker backline, on the other hand, have more varied responsibilities. Sophomore outside back Ben Do has established himself as one of the two starting fullbacks for the Quakers along with senior Jack Rosener. Given the team's emphasis on possession, Do can often be found far up the left side of the pitch, where he tries to balance his attacking and defensive duties.
“Before I came to college, I was actually a winger,” Do said. “So I have these attacking tendencies to go forward. I think the coaching staff does a really good job of making sure that we're defensively minded and disciplined in how we attack, without sacrificing our creativity.”
Covering the outside-left area of the field, Do is usually matched up against fast and technical right wingers, against whom he has to track back and delay by using his speed and composure.
“When I go into a one-on-one matchup, I try to slow my feet down, read his shoulders, read his movement, and avoid overstepping,” Do said. “At any second, the player can easily cut the ball in another direction. The wingers are really skilled nowadays. I think just trusting all the training that I’ve done to prepare myself for games and having confidence in my matchups are keys for success.”
Of course, the Quakers hope to avoid these tough situations by keeping the ball and defending collectively. Communication is key to Penn’s defensive organization, whether it be deciding how far to set up the line for an offside trap or calling out runners trying to get in behind players for dangerous through balls.
Key in forging solid communication is forming partnerships among the defenders, something Burney and Do, who play near each other on the left half of the field, have managed to accomplish.
“I think how well we work as a team, not just us two but our entire team, how we function so well in the field is a testament to how close we are off the field,” Do said. “Leo and I had a really good chance to get closer this past spring. We played a couple of spring games, and we developed really good relationships that took us into this year. I don't think I could have any better center back to play with.”
In the modern college game, defenders have to be physical, fast, and composed at all times to secure results. The members of Penn’s defensive unit have seemingly accomplished this through their first seven games, but they will be tested more so when the team begins Ivy League play at Yale on Saturday.