Defensive Consistency: A Game Plan for Success
Defensive Solidity; no matter the sport, with good defense, there are few obstacles that cannot be overcome. Sir Alex Ferguson, recognized as one of the greatest soccer coaches of all time, famously said, “Attack wins you games, defense wins you titles.” This year, Coach Farmer’s plans seem to exemplify this idea and has brought the Cornell Women’s Soccer team to new heights.
Through their first seven games this fall, Cornell did not concede a single goal. They were both the last team in Division I women’s varsity soccer to give up a score and even to lose. As a result, the soccer community is taking notice of the Big Red, who have posted several exceptional defensive performances.
Some people might point to the improvement of Kelsey Tierney, junior goalkeeper, as a cause for Cornell’s improved defensive record. However, through the first nine games, all of which the Big Red did not concede in, Tierney faced 20 shots on goal, many of them from outside the box. That is an average of 2.2 a game, an astoundingly low number. What is it about Cornell’s defense that makes them so strong?
“A lot of it has to do with team chemistry and cohesiveness,” said sophomore defender Whitney Farber. “It’s not just the defense that is putting in the defensive work, it’s the whole team.”
While this new philosophy and team chemistry is definitely apparent, there are other signs that the Big Red’s defenders are key to this impressive streak. In all the games this year where Cornell has won or drawn, they have started with at least five of the same six players on the backline. With Tierney in goal, this squad features from left to right: senior Charlotte Tate, junior Kailey Joyce, freshman Zoe McCormick, Farber, and senior Brenna Mockler, who has also seen time as a starter in many of those games.
“Playing together with the same people…you know what the other person is going to do. I’ve sort of gotten a feel for how [Zoe] is going to play,” continued Farber. “It’s led to us getting much better at communication.”
This consistency seems to be a key factor in the Big Red’s defensive run. In fact, in some games, Coach Farmer has deployed defenders, such as juniors Taylor Wright and Aimee Tavzel, in the midfield rather then disturbing the consistency in his defense, with the back five playing the full 90 minutes in every match.
To understand why completing the full game is so important, you must first examine the NCAA Division I substitution rules. Any player can be subbed off and return within a matter of seconds. There are also no limits to substitutions, meaning you can give any player a one-minute break before throwing them back onto the field. However, against Seton Hall, Binghamton, Columbia, and Wagner — four games in 10 days — Coach Farmer stayed with that back five for 90 minutes, leading to four wins. The only goal conceded was a very controversial penalty late in the game against Wagner, ending the record of consecutive shutouts.
“Consistency is probably the biggest piece we were working at this season,” said McCormick. “We, as a back line, got used to playing together.” As Farber said, when you play together, you get used to the tendencies and playing styles of others. Imagine working on a team with someone for years, versus having your boss change up your teammate assignments whenever he desires. Coach Farmer, the boss of the Cornell Women’s Soccer Team, has chosen to make sure each defender knows with whom they are working.
Jonathan Wilson, a writer for The Guardian, noted in 2009 that the role of the fullback, a defender not playing in the center of the field, has been greatly changing. Rather than just defending, these players are now called upon to attack as well, lending width and numbers to the attacks of modern teams. For example, in the English Premier League, the 2013-14 season provided one of the highest percentage of goals scored by defenders of any season since the league started in 1990. However, Cornell’s fullbacks rarely do that, as Tate and Farber prefer to stay back on their respective sides. Both defenders maintain an unspoken connection with the center backs that has made Cornell’s defense extremely hard to score against.
Also crucial to the unit is the defensive midfielder in front of them, a position that is usually manned by senior Brenna Mockler. “That position is probably the most important one to us as a backline,” said McCormick. “[Mockler] alleviates a lot of pressure that comes to the defense.” While the person in that position might change in game, the role they play never does — sitting in front of the center defenders, winning the ball, and distributing it to more creative players on the wings or in front.
“The strength comes from the unit, not necessarily the individuals,” said Coach Farmer. “So having the unit together as long as possible tends to give you more consistency, better understanding, and better problem solving on the run. That [experience playing together] shows up more in defense than attack.” He also continued to wax lyrical about his defensive midfielders, saying how crucial Mockler and senior Shanay Fischer were for their ability to “win balls in the air,” a sentiment that both Farber and McCormick agreed with.
While Coach Farmer is not demonstrative on the sidelines, he is definitely happy with the change in the program since he became coach. “I was given a chance to get [the Cornell women’s soccer program] back to the level it was, where they tied for the Ivy league title a couple of times.” This year’s nearly impenetrable defense has been key to this new strength and drive of a program that now wants to truly challenge for championships.
Cornell finally lost last weekend, to defending Ivy League champion Harvard, 2-0. For the first time this year, the Big Red was scored against first, and their offense struggled to break down the Crimson’s defense. With another critical Ivy League game tomorrow against Yale, don’t be all that surprised to see the same back five Coach Farmer has relied on all year.