Thinking Big Red Sports – Cornell Women’s Soccer
Photography by BRSN, Jason Wu
When Rob Ferguson was appointed as the Cornell Women’s head soccer coach in 2019, he wanted to institute a hard-working, winning culture that he feels he has gone a long way towards achieving. The experienced coach from northwest England insists the success his team eventually achieved is down to this new culture and a shift in team identity.
“We’re intense and competitive; we play to a plan. There should be togetherness, there should be grit, there should be positivity,” he said. “These are pretty broad statements, but you watch us play at our best and I think you’ll see those things.”
Ferguson emphasizes the importance of recruiting in creating an identity—looking for players who not only excel in terms of physical speed and strength, but are also willing to battle hard for loose balls and give it their all on the pitch every game.
This strategy is down to his personal philosophy, as well as the nature of NCAA soccer as a whole. “You have to recruit in line with your philosophy,” he preached. “You want players who’ll be willing to work hard. You can have the best soccer playing brains in the world, and the most technical players, but if you don’t go out and win the battles, you’re going to struggle. The college game is a very physical, fitness oriented game”.
Ferguson boils his leadership strategy down to five central tenets. Identity, training, and tactics are central, but the Englishman always comes back to emphasize culture and his team principles.
When he first arrived on the East Hill, he explained, “for two years, [it] was relentless, just building a competitive culture.” Then, it became about principles. “[Principles are] the most important piece, I think, in terms of how we play. We have big lists of all our attacking principles, defending principles, transitional principles.”
Training and preparation can only take a team so far, though. Eventually, the match has to be played, and the players have to organize themselves with a plan to win. This is the role of tactics. In soccer, “tactics,” in the most fundamental sense, describe the way a team lines up on the field and the ways they look to attack and defend. They detail the way a team passes and presses, as well as what kinds of attacking chances they want to create. Ferguson’s principles dictate how he asks his team to think on the field, but tactics dictate what they actually do.
The efficacy of tactics depends on a multitude of factors, and one of the most important is the type of players at a coach’s disposal. Good tactics allow players to play in a way that is aligned with team identity, while poor tactics hinder players significantly. For a team composed of players recruited based on physicality, intelligence, and fight, tactics are likely going to be very direct.
Direct play emphasizes moving the ball forward quickly with high risk, high reward passes, looking to put players in advantageous positions where they can compete for and win the ball before attacking quickly. This means progressing with long balls over the top, which Cornell does primarily down the sides of the field, looking for one-on-one battles that Big Red players are favored to win, and trying to create situations where they can hunt in packs, swarming opponents and taking the ball in dangerous areas.
In order to understand exactly how this looks in game, Iet’s break down two Cornell goals from this season that typify their attacking style of play.
Against Princeton on September 22nd, chasing a late comeback, defender Cecily Pokigo ‘25 spots forward Brooke Brown ‘27 in space on the sideline and tries a long, direct pass.
The pass finds Brown in space, and striker Laken Gallman ‘24 makes a run in behind which drags two defenders out of the way, leaving Brown in a one-on-one where she has a step on her defender.
Gallman’s run completely takes the center backs out of the play, leaving Brown with a chance to face up her opponent near the eighteen yard box. Cornell’s midfielders display the speed and commitment that Coach Ferguson asks of them, beating the Princeton midfielders forward.
When Brown puts in the cross, attacking midfielder Kendall Patten ‘24 has beaten her defender to the box, leaving her with space to receive the ball.
After her touch puts her past a defender, Patten has a point blank chance, which she puts away.
With only two passes, Cornell has gone from their own defensive third, to a goal, showcasing the speed with which the team looks to play and the ideal result of direct soccer. While making these risky, long distance passes down the sideline leads to a lot of possessions ending in turnovers, on the occasions where they do work out, opposition defenders are put in very difficult positions, having to sprint back towards their own goal while facing onrushing Cornell attackers.
If Cornell happens to lose the ball after these long passes, though, another avenue to score presents itself. If they can take the ball from their opponents deep in their own defensive third, dangerous chances arise. The best way to do this is with a counter press: multiple Cornell players swarming the opponent on the ball while others cut off easy passing options. This is exactly the type of physical, aggressive play that Cornell’s personnel is geared towards, and has been a major source of goals so far this season.
In an October 7th match against Harvard, Cornell’s goal came from a move in which they won the ball through counter pressing twice before eventually finding the net.
Here, in the Cornell midfield, Peyton Nichols ‘25 picks up the ball and looks to play winger Mia Gonzalez ‘24 in behind with a long through ball.
Gonzalez is ultimately unable to beat the Harvard defender to the ball, but she puts her under pressure and forces her to immediately pass the ball.
Both the Harvard player who receives the ball and her easiest passing option are put under immediate pressure by Cornell players, forcing a blind pass forward, which is straight Cornell to defender Gaby Gonzalez ‘26.
Gaby Gonzalez immediately plays forward.
Mia Gonzalez receives, and after dribbling past Harvard defenders, attempts a pass in behind.
The pass is intercepted, but once again Cornell attackers put all nearby Harvard players under immediate pressure, and force a bad touch which gives possession back to Cornell.
The loose ball eventually ends up at the feet of defensive midfielder Mariana Kessinger ‘26, who plays a chipped ball over the top, …
which forward Tanum Nelson ‘26 volleys home.
Between direct, long play, and the counter press, Cornell’s general tactical plan is simple to understand, but tricky to stop. Most importantly, however, it takes advantage of a team recruited with an emphasis on energy, drive, and physicality, and with a philosophy predicated on fight and teamwork.
By constantly putting these players in one-on-ones, where speed and strength are a massive advantage, and instituting a strong counter press, where speedy, physical players can close opponents down quickly and knock them off the ball, the Big Red team’s tactics allow players to play to their strengths.
First and foremost, though, Ferguson is a motivator. He holds people management above tactics, a very traditional mindset getting less and less common in the modern game.
“You’ve got to have more than just an idea of Xs and Os and what can win you a game,” Ferguson asserted. “Those things are important, but the ability to get people to find more than they think they have, and then to put it together collectively on a team level, that’s what coaching is.”
As someone who sees tactics as the most important part of soccer, and thinks about the game through a very tactical lens, I found it a tough pill to swallow hearing that a coach with as long and successful a career as Ferguson views tactics as secondary. One part of our conversation, though, made me realize that we might just be looking at a very complicated problem—how to win a soccer game—from different angles, with the answer somewhere in between. It may be possible to arrive at the same result by primarily focusing on either facet of the game, tactics or motivation.
Cornell’s September 15th clash against Binghamton was a tale of two halves. In the first half, the Bearcats were the better team, dominating the game and taking a 1-0 lead into the locker room. The second period, though, was a different story. The Big Red completely nullified what had been a free flowing Binghamton attack, scoring twice and taking the lead. Walking out of the game, I had a clear idea of what had sparked the change: Cornell had changed formation, from a 4-3-3 alignment to a 4-4-2, allowing them to organize their press much more effectively and match up with Bearcat defenders player-to-player, counteracting the passing play that had been Binghamton’s biggest strength in the first half. When I asked Coach Ferguson about what had made the difference, however, he had a different point of view. He thought that his team simply had not competed hard enough in the first half.
“You can talk tactics all you like, you can talk systems, it doesn’t matter how much you know or what your plan is, if you’re second best, if you don’t compete, you’re not going to be successful,” said Ferguson. “It was a mindset thing and it was a heart thing.”
At the end of our conversation, though, we revisited the Binghamton match, and Ferguson admitted that some of my tactical observations had been correct. Although in his mind it was secondary in terms of importance, his team had indeed changed formation, largely in the way I had noticed. And I have to say, upon rewatching the game, to Ferguson’s point, the difference in intensity from half to half was obvious. It became clear, at least to me, that we were simply seeing the same change in two different ways, and prioritizing different aspects. In fact, both of us had honed in on Cornell’s press in particular as integral to the comeback. Whereas I focused on its shape and organization, he emphasized energy and tenacity. We were somehow both correct despite thinking in very different ways.
One thing we do see eye-to-eye on, though, is that in soccer, sometimes you can do everything right yet still not have things go your way. Against Binghamton, despite the adjustments, a late counter attacking goal and a dubious refereeing decision led to a 2-2 finish. In a sport with such small margins, a lucky bounce or a moment of individual brilliance can render almost any game plan, tactical or otherwise, irrelevant. But, that is the beauty of the game: skills and strength, passion and tactics, fortune and dismay.