Tuesday evening saw the Lawrence women’s soccer team overcome Ripon 1-0 in a home conference matchup thanks to a first half goal from first-year Natalie Linebarger. The Vikings dominated throughout, clearly the superior side with Ripon hardly having a kick. Lawrence outshot their opponents 30-1, posting 18 shots on goal in the process. Goalkeeper Sarah Yochem could have left the gloves at home for this one, as she wasn’t required to make a single save and only ever touched the ball with her feet. Other key performers on the night were junior Jackie Blake and Cambrie Rickard, who presented the main attacking threat on the night. Blake and Rickard managed 13 shots, including 9 on goal, between them, and had the Ripon back 4on high strings all evening. So how did the Vikings manage to pick apart the visiting Redhawks with such ease? The answer lies in the tactical knowledge of Head Coach Joe Sagar and the wide variety of talent the team possesses. Let’s have a look at the inner workings of Lawrence’s Women’s Soccer team and how they’ve risen to become a force to be reckoned with in the Midwest Conference.
Tactical styles tend to come and go in terms of popularity within soccer. In the mid 20th century, the Italians led the way with the uber-defensive Catenaccio, followed by the famed “total football” of Dutch genius Johann Cruyff in the 1970s and ‘80s, and more recently Pep Guardiola’s tiki taka that took Barcelona to the top of the footballing world for more than a decade. Nowadays, we tend to see successful teams play some form of a 4-3-3 with an inverted midfield 3 and very attack-minded wingers and fullbacks. Coach Sagar, on the other hand, has opted to play the more dynamic 3-4-3 akin to top sides like Chelsea in 2016-17 under Antonio Conte. I must admit, when I first noticed the team’s shape in late August, I was skeptical. The 3-4-3, while very effective, is a highly risky system to play. It involves highly specialized wingers, while placing a large burden on the pair of central midfielders, and can be exposed by overloading the flanks to get after typically slower central defenders. Given this level of complexity, and Lawrence’s first-year-dominant squad, I had guessed it may be too much of an adjustment for a crop of student-athletes also being forced to adjust to being a student-athlete in the first place, as well as the rigors of Lawrence’s academic setup. I have since been (gratefully) proven wrong. This Vikings team possesses the perfect blend of soccer IQ, skill, athleticism and work rate to fluster opponents with their tactical uniqueness. Next, we should have a look at key performers in each role and highlight their contribution to the team; soccer is far more than simply scoring goals, after all.
I’ll begin in defense, where the foundation of any top team is built. The Vikings have a goalkeeper in Sarah Yochem who needs no introduction. The Junior from Illinois has a habit of making top class saves, but where her value really lies is in her leadership. As the goalkeeper sees the entire field, it ultimately falls to Sarah to dictate movement off the ball and verbally direct the flow of play when the Vikings are in possession. Anyone who has been to a game has definitely heard this in action, and can see the positive effect it carries on her teammates. Moving forward into the back three, we find a host of players who personify composure on the ball. Lawrence likes to possess out of the back, so this is key. Players like Charlotte Linebarger, Audrey Deppen, Caitlyn Rodko and Madeline Forman keep the team ticking by helping to organize play and finding their more creative teammates further up the pitch. Into midfield now, and we find the engines that move the Vikings forward. In a 3-back system, much of the cleanup work defensively happens in front of the defensive line so as to avoid exposing the lack of numbers in front of goal. As such, players like Hannah Knudsen and Emma Vasconez may go unnoticed statistically, but hold an unwavering impact over the course of the match. They are responsible for transitioning the ball from defense to attack, either by winning it themselves and playing forward, or by disrupting so their center backs can win the ball, and then receiving on the half-turn to find their forwards in attack. The result is a lot of glamourless play, but a vital cog in the machine. To the wings and we find the pace merchants, the wingbacks. These players are responsible forcovering an incredible amount of ground up and down the wing all game long, and creating serviceable chances for central players. Upper classmen dominate the squad in wide areas, with typical starters Brynn Schroeder and Ellie Younger, as well as freshman Natalie Linebarger, tasked with doing the wide running. Finally, we come to the center forwards. It’s a story of experience meeting youth here, with Freshman Cambrie Rickard splitting time with Junior Jackie Blake. Two very different players, Sagar tends to pick whichever he believes will unseat the opponents’ defense most effectively. The former holds the ball up without fail, combining with the midfielders around her to create chances for themselves as well as herself. The latter prefers to remain off the ball until the final third, picking it up in space to run in behind the center backs. In this combination, whoever Sagar chooses to play offers a unique threat that allows the team to catch opponents cold with a quick change of style of play.
The women now stand at 2-2 in conference play, in a very open year within the Midwest Conference. They possess all the talent necessary, as well as a quality blend of youth and experience and a large squad. Look for the team to push hard for conference tournament qualification in the coming weeks. The team goes away to Grinnell College this Saturday at 11am, be sure to catch the livestream on the athletic department’s website.