Arthur Christory / Gavel Media

Women's Soccer 2022 Postmortem

It’s November on the Heights and while the leaves might be turning, the fate of women’s soccer stayed the same—a rough ACC season that wrapped up in October with no postseason play. In a repeat of last year, the Eagles finished the season with a .417 win percentage, this time ranking last in the ACC. One step forward (ACC ties instead of losses), two steps back (finishing last in the ACC) for the Eagles. 

Anyone that has followed women’s soccer’s season knows how much of a slog the college circuit is—18 games in two and a half months. Add in a season where wins just aren’t coming, and that two and a half months can feel like an eon. So, instead of jumping in on everything that went wrong, let’s take a minute to look at everything that Eagles have going for them.

PERSONNEL

Sonia Walk, Laura Gouvin, and Emily Sapienza will be seniors. Éabha O’Mahony, Wiebke Willebrandt, and Sarai Costello will be juniors. Sophia Lowenberg and Sydney Segalla will be sophomores. All of those names are key players on the Eagles roster going forward and each of them either had a breakout season or learned valuable lessons this year that will absolutely make an impact going forward. Yes, there are a lot of seniors graduating (and who opts to take their extra year of eligibility at Boston College is still unknown), but those who stay have the experience to make the absences less noticeable.

Willebrandt in particular took a huge step forward in her development this year. The sophomore goalkeeper was more vocal; viewers watching from home could hear the keeper yelling out instructions for her team to push forward and Willebrandt actively organized the defense on corner kicks and other set piece opportunities. More than that, the keeper seemed more comfortable with the ball at her feet, electing to come out of her box more and serve as an outlet pass to relieve pressure from the defense. As the season progressed, Willebrandt played a huge role in keeping games close—both by making routine saves and also saves that seemed impossible, and providing an extra layer of stability to a backline that experienced several changes throughout the season.

Lowenberg and Segalla, as well as freshman midfielder Riley Kerber, represent where the program is going: a true center forward in Ella Richards flanked by speedy wingers—Andi Barth, Segalla—and backed up by a physical midfield in Loewenberg, Walk, and Kerber, and potentially Gouvin, should she return to the midfield from her stint at right back this season. If a team manages to get past all of that, Willebrandt still has to be beat. If nothing else, that specific core of players should prove challenging to opposing teams.

The duality of Segalla and Lowenberg give the Eagles the ability to change both the attack and defense easily. A speedy winger, Segalla can also play the center forward role, giving the Eagles a different look up top, with Segalla drifting wider than Richards traditionally does. Where Richards is a pure goal scorer with technique as an added bonus, Segalla is more about speed, taking her deep into the corners of the field where she can then send in a cross while the defense scrambles to close down on her. With both Richards and Segalla on the roster next year, the Eagles have a forward duo that can change depending on what the game calls for. Richards can drop deep, pulling the defense to her, while Segalla is then free to turn on the jets to catch up to a ball over the top.

Lowenberg, of course, is distributing the ball over the top. Usually a holding mid, Lowenberg can also play on the backline, a move head coach Jason Lowe made a few times to try and find the spark that would lead to an ACC win. With two goals on the season, the freshman can also provide a presence in the box, adding to the Eagles arsenal on-set plays or transitions. Regardless of where Lowenberg plays, her long diagonal passes can help shorten the field and bypass a strong opposition defense, especially with the speed the Eagles have up top. Having played in all 18 games and starting 13 of them, Lowenberg will have plenty of experience heading into her sophomore season.

However, the Eagles would be the first to tell you that several things have to change next season to improve the team’s fortunes. The three most important changes are space, possession, and a knock ‘em dead mentality. These are all connected in a way that makes it difficult to choose which matters the most. What those three elements mean, though, is that for everything the Eagles bring across the field, there’s always an element missing—hence the frustration. BC knows they’re good, but the results never show that.

TOO MUCH SPACE

Let’s start with space. If, at any point this season, you looked at a goal scored against the Eagles and thought, “I must be having déjà vu,” you aren’t alone. There’s a fine line between overcommitting and allowing a forward to step by you and holding a position long enough that the same forward can pick a corner of the goal and fire off a rocket. The Eagles tended to err on the side of giving the opposition space, allowing attacking players to find passing lanes or think about where to shoot the ball, making it that much harder for Willebrandt to make the stop. Instead of closing down on an attacker, the Eagles’ defenders would stay a step or two back, holding position and allowing space that any team in the ACC could take advantage of.

The creation of space wasn’t just a defensive problem. Watch any ranked team in the ACC and you’ll see the lines between forwards, midfielders, and defenders become blurred. Teams move as one, which forces the defending team to also move in unison or risk allowing space that an opponent can slip into and cause chaos. For the most part, the Eagles are the exception to this: forwards, midfielders, and defenders rigidly hold their lines, only occasionally overlapping to provide support on defense or offense. While not a bad thing on the surface, the reality of minimal overlapping support runs meant that players were often left trying to defend space and an attacking player, allowing the opposing player time to take the shot without rushing.

POSSESSION

Part of the reason the Eagles struggled so much with support runs and stepping up to onrushing forwards is in the fact that so many goals against the Eagles were scored in transition. Despite fielding quality players in every position, BC struggled with sustained possession, often giving up the ball with poor passes, losing it in one-on-one situations, or sending a through ball forward with too much pace for the forwards to be able to get on the end of it before the ball either went out of bounds or the opposition’s goalkeeper scooped the ball up. Fouls also contributed to turnovers, with the Eagles committing 193 on the season compared to 153 for opposing teams. With all other statistics being roughly equal (corner kicks were 82-84 advantage opposing teams), fouls consistently gave the other team an advantage by allowing the opposition to set up a play and control the tempo of the game.

As players moved around due to injury and lineup tinkering, chemistry and consistency became a little harder to come by. Add in the fact that the Eagles nightmare was space and time on both offense and defense, and possession of the ball becomes all the more important. At least with steady possession and good ball movement, the opposing team usually can’t manage to create chances in transition simply because they can’t get the ball into a transition space. However, poor passes from the Eagles, usually in the midfield, meant most “winnable” ACC games saw the first half be a battle for turnovers by either team, and the second half saw the opposition pull away with possession and the game.

Turnovers are always going to be a part of the game because fouls, mishit passes, slightly out of sync overlapping runs, and other mistakes are part of the game. The inability for the offense to recover and help the defense and vice versa meant the Eagles played long stretches of key matches going nowhere and struggling to get the ball out of their own half, regularly turning the ball over before it could make it into the opposing team’s final third. Possession isn’t everything—a good counter attack from a team who’s only touched the ball a few times can still lead to a game winning goal—but managing to hold possession and prevent turnovers, especially in the midfield, can prevent transition attacks that traditionally see forwards have more space since the defense isn’t fully set yet. Connecting consistently on passes through the midfield is something the Eagles need to work on this offseason.

KILLER INSTINCT

No one should be able to look at a game schedule and pinpoint the moment where a season is going to go downhill. However, the Eagles have won one ACC game a year for the past four years, making the ACC section of the season a nightmare for BC fans. This year, the Syracuse win was at least paired with two ties against No. 21 Pitt and Wake Forest to end the season. Both ties and the win came when the Eagles were playing at home.

The ACC is a tough division, and it’s even tougher when your first four games are against ranked opponents. However, at some point, the Eagles need to find that killer instinct and attack the opposing team, no matter who they’re playing. Playing two games a week means there’s little chance to recover after a loss, especially when they start to stack up. Somehow, the Eagles have to find a way to deliver 90 minutes of solid play. Expecting 10 ACC wins a season isn’t a reality. Florida State, the ACC champions this year, did not have that record. What the Eagles need to do is become a team that’s difficult to play and keeps the errors to a minimum, driving the opposing team’s blood pressure up by playing spoiler.

Killer instinct doesn’t mean that the Eagles need to go out next year and score 40 goals, although that would be nice. Sam Smith led the program with six this year and it’s unlikely that BC has a 10-goal scorer hidden away somewhere on their roster. Where the killer instinct needs to come from, then, is in being annoying enough that ACC teams don’t want to play the Eagles because winning is going to come at an extremely high cost. That can look a lot of different ways: a smothering defense, a physical midfield, forwards that punish you for every mistake you make, set pieces that haunt the opposing team’s nightmares. Not everything needs to or will go right for the Eagles, but when things do, the ball needs to be in the back of the net and the game needs to show up in the win column.

CONCLUSION

There are a lot of good soccer quotes about hope (has anyone seen Ted Lasso?), and it would be a sports writing cliché to end on one of them. The Eagles have two choices: remain where they are at the bottom of the ACC or have the rebuild catch fire and see the team start to climb the ranks. At the very least, they can go back to beating teams like Miami. At minimum, the Eagles need to find a way to capture a sense of magic, to make fans believe that the start of the ACC season doesn’t mean nine losses and one win, but instead, quality matchups that produce the Eagles best soccer and lead to more ties than losses. It sounds trite to say that two ACC wins would be a sign of big improvement. However, two ACC wins, with one coming early in the season, would change the narrative surrounding the Eagles. There’s room for hope, but only if the Eagles throw the script from this season out the window.

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