Playing on the road is hard. It’s one of those things that every squad must do, but something that only the great teams do well. There is the travel, which always includes long hours on the road, no matter what level of soccer you play. Granted, there is a significant difference between a four-hour bus ride and a six-hour flight.
However, as someone who made the trek from Ithaca to Boston for last weekend’s match against Harvard, it was not a fun trip. There is also the unfamiliar environment and being forced to stay in a new area. Ultimately, the night before the game usually is not full of excitement.
The following afternoon, excitement builds, as you arrive at an unfamiliar field. The divots and grass cuts are different, and you are only allotted a short time to get used to this new setting. As you attempt to familiarize yourself with the new turf, you start to soak in the atmosphere. The small stadium begins to fill, and every rival fan in attendance is hoping you make that crucial first mistake to open up the game wide for the opposing team.
But, it isn’t just these circumstances that make it difficult to play on the road. You are in hostile territory, so the home squad always wants to come out strong and enforce their style of play. There is the initial barrage from both teams, each just trying to find the early goal and settle the nerves. If the away team gets it, the home squad can rally around the crowd. Yet, if the opposite occurs, the fans become engaged, and it can feel like another long day at the office very early in the game.
It appeared to be that way for the Cornell women soccer team last weekend – Harvard gained all the momentum in the first twenty minutes. The crowd was rowdy, and the Big Red could not mount an effective press. At times, the Crimson midfield was electric, moving action through the middle, as you might expect a home team to do. Whenever they pinched the ball, Harvard narrowed the field of play, doing an excellent job of playing one-twos and pinging wall passes. It seemed like a score from the home team was inevitable.
However, Cornell held strong. In fact, they did more than that. The Big Red defense was resilient and well organized, and the midfield was combative, flying into challenges and holding their own. Not only were they a physical force, but the team’s soccer intelligence was also ticking. Cornell spread the play over 15 times in the first half and made a direct switch of play seven times.
Switching the play is a tough tactic, even for the pros, which involves taking the flow of play and intentionally changing its direction. It feels unnatural and destroys the rhythm of the game, yet it’s an excellent strategy for an away team. The Big Red employed it to the maximum effect on that chilly afternoon in Cambridge.
Soon, the Crimson’s rhythm began to falter. Passes stopped flowing and attacks became uncoordinated. Cornell reached the half unscathed and probably felt like the happier team. The match contained no flow, and, if anything, Cornell had seen moderate success from their flank play. In contrast, Harvard’s play toward the end of the half had petered out, as demonstrated by the frustration of star striker Margaret Purce.
Despite the away team’s clear advantage, the Crimson crowd gave their squad a boost in the second half. Harvard came out the blocks running, and Cornell was under the cosh.
Attack after attack swarmed the Big Red zone. There were quite a few dangerous shots, and the pressure mounted. Keeper, Meghan Kennedy, made a terrific save, then the Crimson hit a nearly open net off a free kick 12 yards out, but struck the bar. The fans were vitalized, Harvard was grooving, and it seemed like only a matter of time until the first and possibly final blow was struck.
However, Cornell rallied and began to play their game again. The midfield started jumping into challenges, and the play spread out. The Big Red switched the play five times in the last 20 minutes of the half, and the Crimson rhythm faltered once more. The usually reliable Harvard midfield played a careless back pass, but Cornell unluckily couldn’t steal a goal.
Heading into extra time, both teams looked spent. The Crimson responded to the urging of their crowd, finding gaps in the middle of the field and playing their narrow pressing game, which allowed them to find chances and test Kennedy.
But, the Big Red found another gear, releasing their players down the wings in dangerous situations twice in the first period of extra time. Harvard had started to focus on the center, and Cornell was one good pass away from netting a goal on two occasions. Both teams reached a stalemate, as the Big Red walked away with a 0-0 draw.
The Big Red did their homework on Harvard’s style of play. Cornell anticipated how their opponents would attack and knew exactly when and where to threaten on the break. Quick passes to the wings and switching the play halted the Crimson’s momentum when it seemed unstoppable and always gave the away team a foothold in the game when it seemed there was none available.
Playing on the road without a plan is hard. It usually leads to lopsided losses that are even seen in the top divisions of professional soccer. “Make your home a fortress,” is a phrase commonly used by top flight managers.
Going on the road with a game plan doesn’t always guarantee a positive result, though, as it can be hard to follow through with that plan. There is unfamiliar pressure and an increased drive and hunger from the opponents to put on a show for the fans who came to see them. Many times, your back is against the wall, but to achieve results on the road, you need to be a group of warriors. In Cambridge last weekend, that is exactly what the Big Red were – road warriors.