Ptooooey!

Ptooooey!
So I’ve had better weekends.

And you?

If you were one of the thousands victimized by Hurricane Irene, you have my sympathies. Otherwise you absolutely do not.

The Dawgs dropped a pair of matches this weekend – at home no less – and gave up three goals in each defeat. So yeah, as far as days go when I wouldn’t mind being hit by a truck, today qualifies.

I’m sick over it. This weekend is going to be a tough one to shake. Usually after we play I’ll go to SoccerTimes.com and check the national scoreboard and get my results fix, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it this weekend. I didn’t want to see how everyone else did. I didn’t want to see who won. And I sure as heck didn’t want to read our score on there. I just wanted sit in my chair and stare at the ceiling.

Usually when I write for the Poet I’ll go into some detail about our matches, but tonight I don’t feel much like regurgitating the play-by-play recaps (although I actually do feel like regurgitating). So here’s the Cliff’s Notes version on our weekend.

Texas – very athletic team full of big strong kids that fought hard. By the time the game had ended I thought we had gotten run over. Then on Saturday I watched the film and discovered that we played pretty well and actually had more of the game than they did, and a heckuva lot more than I thought we did. The Longhorns scrapped hard and capitalized on three set pieces to earn the victory. As for us, well, we were pretty good in the middle 84 yards of the field. It was the 18 yards on either end where we struggled. And that’s a real bad soccer problem to have. Regardless, when a team comes to your house and hangs three on you, all you can do is stand up to face the music and say we got beat.

If the Texas game was demoralizing, the loss to Villanova was utterly agonizing. Lex headed home Sooz’s cross to stake us to a 1-0 lead. Fifty-five seconds later we gave it right back as the Wildcats drew level on a scramble in the box following a corner kick. That goal was eerily similar to one Texas scored and I was cursing our luck on defensive corner kicks. But my agitation was premature. Because about ten minutes later they scored again off a post-corner-kick scramble. Buckley cleared their initial header off the goal-line but only as far as the opportunistic attacker who volleyed it home for the 2-1 lead which they took into the half.

I was scratching my head at half-time. As far as I could tell we were pretty much dismantling our opponent. We had the run of the park in midfield and it seemed that ‘Nova had spent most of the first 45 minutes chasing and chasing and chasing. How are we losing this game? It didn’t seem possible.

We began the second half with more urgency and desperation and created four stellar chances in the first ten minutes. But Sooz hit the bar; Pollock hit the bar; Lex fired high from 12 yards and Maddie never got her foot on a ball that bounced just in front of the goal line. Still, we were pretty well humming and it looked like an equalizer was inevitable. Much to my surprise, instead of knotting things at 2-2, we got countered and were looking at a 3-1 hole. Fanfreakingtastic.

Pollock got one back for us with just over five to go as she bombed a left-footed missile into the upper far post, but that was all we could manage before time expired on us.

Losing is no fun at any level for anyone. But losing as a coach is especially sickening. I hadn’t lost a game by three goals in a long, long time. Conceding three in consecutive matches is horrifying. If you’re going to give away three goals every time you take the field then you’re asking your attack to produce at least four. And that just ain’t very realistic. Not on a regular basis.

Five of the six we gave up were from set pieces and three of those were off corner kicks. That’s just mind-boggling. It makes me think of those days down on the Seaside boardwalk, strolling by the criers running the carnival games – “Step right up! Throw a ball, win a prize. Every throw’s a winner!” That’s what it’s like for us right now. Take a corner kick, win a prize! Every corner kick is a winner!

Ptooooey!

This is a stressful time for a coach, because everyone looks to you for answers. And you better come up with some real fast. So that’s what we spent today trying to do – figure out some answers. On Friday we’ll be up in Minnesota where we’ll see if we got it right.

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Furman and a lot of Purple

Furman and a lot of Purple
Honestly I’ve never seen anything like it.  In 21 years – nothing like it.  The slew of injuries we’ve sustained would seem a mathematically impossibility.  Odder still, this epidemic seems to be targeting blondes; we lose one of them every second day… Eddy, Hartley, Owens, Hill… all bitten by the injury bug.  As the saying goes around here, “Bad week to be a blonde.” Our training staff has been working overtime on its overtime and was recently nominated for a telethon.  Still, there’s nothing we can do to change the past and no one is gonna feel sorry for us, so we decided we would just dig in and do our best and respond with an awful lot of hard work.  And that’s what we’ve done.

Last night the Dawgs kicked off the 2011 campaign with a 3-1 win at Furman.  Furman has a beautiful soccer venue in the heart of campus that features seating on both sides of the pitch.  The Palladins put 2500 purple-clad fans in those seats, the most spirited of which sat directly behind our bench and spent the evening zinging one-liners at our players and keeping our coaching staff laughing.  Let it never be said that they were not an entertaining group.

We had heard that the match was going to be a mandatory part of Furman’s freshman orientation and anticipated a large crowd, but 15 minutes before kick-off the stadium was still pretty empty.  Then from the spectator entrance, just behind our goal, a sea of purple shirts flooded into the venue and I thought it would never end.  It reminded me of Noah’s ark – these purple people coming through the gate two by two.  It was spectacular!

We got off to a nervous start and the first ten minutes were pretty haphazard.  Slowly but surely we settled down and discovered the virtue of patience and started knocking the ball around a bit.  Once we got into a passing rhythm the midfield opened up quite a bit and we started creating some legitimate chances.  Let me take a moment to prognosticate for you as this paragraph is all you need to know about Georgia soccer this year.  We have a style.  We train this style every dang day.  And when we have eleven players committed to playing this stye, we’re really stinkin’ good.  But for whatever reason when we put on those uniforms, thee or four players forget everything we do in training and go rogue.  And then we look just like pretty much every other team playing college soccer.  But in those spurts where we get all eleven playing the way we’re set up to play, it can really be a beautiful thing.  So if you watch us play and we’re playing well, it’s because everyone is playing on the same page.  If we’re not playing well… well, I can pretty much assure you we’re doing the opposite.

Our first great chance came from a corner kick that was met by a powerful header from Jamie Pollock.  Jamie snapped that header with such authority that I stood in celebration only to realize that the ball actually went wide of the goal.  From our angle it was an optical illusion of sorts, as I still don’t know if the ball went wide right or wide left, just that it didn’t go in.

The chances started coming with greater frequency but our near misses combined with some stellar goalkeeping began to remind me that the soccer gods love their practical jokes and that this game was setting us up to be the mark of a really good one.  Scoring chances are all good and well but eventually you’d better cash in or you’re going to end up on the wrong one of those statistical anomalies where you outshoot the opponent 18-1 and lose 1-0.  I was getting a little bit edgy because this game had all the earmarks of soccer at its cruelest.

We finally cashed in from Pollock’s 25-yard low screamer that skipped in past the outstretched hands of Furman’s diving keeper in the 27th minute.  I’m glad Pollock scored.  She was a warrior for 90 minutes and an absolute monster in the air for us all night long.  She deserved a goal – even retroactively speaking.

Ten minutes later we doubled the margin as Chika Ibiam, from the endline, neatly clipped a ball to the back post where Maddie Barker tucked in her first official goal as a Georgia Bulldog.  Quite a story in that goal as the assist came from a player who, three months ago, was a member of the UGA women’s soccer club with no intention of playing in the NCAA.  And the goal-scorer?  Well, as I mentioned last year, there is no one on this earth who takes more pride in being a Georgia Bulldog than Maddie.  Just as Maddie was coming into her own last spring – and two days after she scored her first collegiate goal - she was felled by a knee injury that kept her sidelined for the remainder of the semester.  Maddie spent the summer busting her tail to prepare for this season only to reinjure herself a week ago and her frustration overflowed.  We planned to give Maddie limited minutes last night as a trial run, and man did that pan out well.  She was on the field for all of three minutes before striking gold.

We began the second half with a 2-0 lead and nearly went up by a third as Sooz popped a volley behind Furman’s right back and into the path of Lex who was streaking in from the left wing.  It put Lex on a collision course with the goalkeeper who was charging off her goal-line.  From the bench it was like watching two cars playing a game of chicken and knowing you’re about to see a head-on disaster.  The ball bounced once.  Lex got there a second before the keeper.  Fully aware that she was about to be annihilated, Lex jumped for the header and dangled defenseless in the air.   As the ball looped toward the net, the goalkeeper’s momentum never wavered and she crashed into Lex like a runaway wrecking ball.  Both bodies fell to the grass and lay motionless.  All that was missing was a small fire and a plume of smoke from the wreckage.  The ball, practically an afterthought at this point, was cleared off the line by a Palladin defender.  Thankfully both players got up on their own strength and carried on with playing.

Nicole Locandro put us up 3-0 in the 65th minute with a cannon from almost 30 yards.  The goalkeeper got two hands to it, but the weight of the shot proved too much and it trickled across the line.

I give a lot of credit to the Palladins.  Their spirit never broke and they fought hard until the final whistle.  They seemed oddly reinvigorated by Nicole’s goal and cut the lead to 3-1 with a nifty cross and finish combo in the 80th minute.  Five minutes later they had another chance from a cross but the finishing header sailed over the crossbar and that was the last chance either side would see.

Funny thing about soccer… even when you win, it really sucks to give up the last goal of the game, especially if it spoils a shutout. Despite a convincing win our girls left the field disappointed about conceding the late goal.  And if I’m being perfectly honest, I’m a little bit happy about that.  For as much as I spent post-game trying to cheer up our players, I was secretly  seething that we threw away the shutout.  We played 75 very good minutes of soccer.  Now we need to play 90.

Anyway, we’re 1-0 and that’s a far cry better than 0-1 so I’ll take it.  Next up is our home opener next Friday as the Texas Longhorns come to town.  Texas is as good as any team in the nation so we’ll need to produce one heck of an effort.  Hope you can make it out to Athens for the 7 P.M. kick-off.  If you do come out, do us a favor and wear red.

Thanks!

Just Ugh.

Just Ugh.
So this afternoon we finished training with a fitness exercise that involved the players running around the outside of the field. As they turned the corner nearest the Turner Soccer Center they passed a line of 13 college girls in white socks, black shorts and red shirts bearing the ‘Georgia Soccer’ brand. A gaggle of soccer groupies, you ask? Oh no. No, no, no I’m afraid not. That battalion of onlookers is the ever-expanding manifestation of our injured reserve. Thirteen! Thirteen freaking injured players! It’s just absurd. And here’s the kicker - four of them have… wait for it…. shoulder injuries. Huh??? In my 20 years of coaching prior to this one, I honestly can’t recall a single serious shoulder injury to a field player. Somehow we’ve accumulated four of them in 11 days. Bizarre.

We expect nine of our baker’s dozen to return to action in the next few days and weeks. Coming into camp we knew that two of our freshmen, Bella Hartley and Ansley Morgan, would be medical redshirts and miss the entire 2011 campaign. Carly Shultis’ ankle makes her a question mark for this fall. And if you haven’t already read it online, Laura Eddy tore her ACL with two minutes to go in Tuesday night’s training session.

Eddy’s injury was just heartbreaking. She went down with a scream and then the next thing out of her mouth was a prolonged and sorrowful, “Nooooooooooooooo.” When I heard that… well, I didn’t need a doctor to examine her. She wasn’t yelling because of the pain. That was Eddy yelling at the gods because she knew her season was over; the emotional pain trumping the physical one. She just knew. A split second after that awful popping sound Eddy knew all that hard work she had put in over the past eight months just got flushed down the toilet – at least for this year. All of that work, all of those miles, all of those weights and push-ups and pull-ups and box-jumps, all of that commitment, all of those hours - all of that disappointment whittled down to one agonizing two-letter word filling the night sky: No.

The rest of training – the final 120 seconds - was an exercise in going through the motions. Everyone was completely detached from the activity. Sure, bodies chased a ball, but hearts and minds had made an early exit.

Eddy would have to start all over again. It was devastating. And I actually had to remind myself that as impossible as it seemed, somehow it actually hurt her worse than it hurt me. If you don’t know what Eddy’s been through… what Eddy has put herself through… then it might seem like just another women’s soccer another player falling victim to another ACL. But that’s hardly the case.

Here’s the thing about Laura Eddy – she’s the kind of kid you just want to root for. She’s got a gift, a really big one, yet she’s modest and unsatisfied and determined. She’s a warm and wonderful teammate with an easy smile who never has a bad thing to say about anyone or anything. She’s polite and genuine. She’s one of those people who will go through life with no enemies. And oh yeah, she just keeps getting better at soccer. She’s a sponge for coaching. When a coach gives Eddy a correction, it doesn’t take her three days or three games or three weeks to get the hang of it. The change is immediate. The new habit just magically happens and the old habit ceases to be.

Eddy is so determined to be the best player she can be that she doesn’t really work on her weaknesses in so much as she vaporizes them. For example, in April I was recruiting in Florida when I got a text from Eddy that said she wanted to be on the national team. Implied in that message was a request for help in getting her there. So I asked her if she could juggle to 50 on her left foot only. She said she didn’t think so. So I replied, “When you can juggle to 50 on your left foot, I’ll get interested.” Two hours later I got the following text: Done. What’s next?

Honestly, it was more impressive than it was surprising. I’ve been playing this game since… well for a long freaking time and I have never even juggled to 20 solely on my left foot. It took Eddy all of two hours to rise to my challenge and that included the time it took her to drive to the park and put on her boots. But that’s just Eddy’s M.O. - Tell me what I’m not good at so I can go fix it. Then, like a retriever that never tires of playing fetch, Eddy quickly returns, begging to be sent on her way again. When Eddy went away for Christmas break in 2010, long balls were considered ‘in need of improvement.’ So was shooting from distance. When we kicked off our first session of spring training it was obvious that those problems had been summarily squashed. It was like they had never even existed.

Last spring Eddy and I sat down and I identified three areas that I thought were holding her back a bit if she wanted to play for the United States: she was a little too conservative about going forward with her distribution; she wasn’t a great 1v1 attacker; and she was a little too light. So how did she respond?

Well, over the past three months she put on seven pounds of solid muscle and was banging teammates around during preseason. Being light was no longer an issue. And those other two areas? Let’s just say we crossed them off the list, too. Until her knee exploded, Eddy wasn’t just playing on another level – she was playing on a whole other planet! And it was impossible to miss. To see a kid who worked that hard reaping the benefits of that work was inspiring because that’s the way the world is supposed to work. That’s how we’re told it works. That’s how it works in the movies, right? Eddy’s rise is also one of those beautiful subplots that you would never know if you weren’t a part of our team. If you just showed up and watched a game this fall you might have thought, Wow that #14 is really good! But you would never know how hard she worked to get there. You would have no idea how much it meant to her to get that good.

When I went to bed that night Eddy got injured, I stared straight up at the ceiling for what must have been two hours. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. And although I was fully aware of how big of an impact Eddy’s injury could potentially have on our team, that didn’t really concern me. I wasn’t sad that we had lost Eddy the player. But I was devastated for Laura the person. I couldn’t shake the feeling that she deserved much, much better.

So we’ll carry on without Eddy’s services for this campaign. Hopefully her teammates are fast healers because we’re running low on bodies, there’s no vacancy in the training room and our training staff is one misplaced roll of pre-wrap shy of a nervous breakdown. It’ll be a sight for sore eyes when Miller, Locandro, Barker, Shultis, McHugh, Owens, etc. return to the field.

Incidentally, on Friday we drove down to Tallahassee and scrimmaged Florida State. I love that we use our preseason match to face such excellent competition. FSU won 2-0 but more important than the result, we got a really good look at some areas we need to address as the season begins in earnest this Friday night when we travel to Furman.

Incidentally, if you’re one of those irksome people that insist on attackers heaingd the ball back in the direction that the cross came from, you should check out FSU’s first goal – a snap header from the penalty spot. I don’t think too many coaches would try to correct that piece of finishing.

Thanks for reading. Hope to see you at our home opener against Texas!