Positional breakdown: Missouri soccer has room for improvement, but luckily there’s plenty of time

The Tigers’ game against BYU revealed key weaknesses that are preventing their success.

No. 13 Brigham Young exposed numerous areas in dire need of improvement in Missouri soccer’s play style on March 6. The Tigers need to clean up their play if they want to survive their tough spring schedule and get a bid for the NCAA tournament in April. If Missouri can solidify its back line and finish goal-scoring opportunities, it can be achieved.

Goalkeeping

The most consistent line on Missouri’s team is its goalkeepers. Sophomores Isabella Alessio and McKenna Sheehan put together solid performances in the opening games of the season.

Missouri coach Bryan Blitz determines the starting spot on a week-by-week basis and said Alessio and Sheehan have been equally impressive leading up to the BYU game.

Alessio played a perfect game against Creighton, earning her first shutout as a Tiger. Missouri relied on her in the fall 2020 campaign with Sheehan as a strong backup option.

Both keepers prevented a far worse result against BYU. Sheehan notably had two full-stretch saves at the beginning of the second half.

Alessio and Sheehan’s biggest area of improvement will be to better organize their back line. The defense, however, has to take responsibility as well.

Defense

BYU’s fast-paced and overwhelming attack tested the Missouri defense. Playing with three defenders in the back is difficult enough, but against a top-tier team, the formation is often exposed.

The graduation of center back Grace Kitts forced Missouri to adjust its players around to fill such a key member of the back line.

Senior midfielder-turned-defenseman Cassidy Nurnberger is tasked with leading the defense. However, the change has proven to be a challenge for Nurnberger and her new defense.

BYU’s offense, led by recently NWSL-drafted Mikayla Colohan, scrambled and picked the Tigers apart for the vast majority of the game. The back line had its strong moments, but Missouri needs to sustain that same level for the entire 90 minutes.

The most common formations consist of three forwards. In almost every matchup, Missouri is forced to closely track every attacker. If BYU ever brought up a midfielder to join the attack, which is exactly what Colohan did, the Tigers would be outnumbered.

There are two solutions to this issue: the Tigers can either add another center back or play a mix of man-to-man and zone defense.

While the 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formation is common, Blitz prefers allocating more Tiger players to the offense to administer suffocating pressure in their opponents’ back third. The downside is that once the midfielders join the attack, they are too far out of position to help the defense.

The other option would be to change the defensive style from strictly man-to-man defending to a combination of close coverage and zone coverage. A relatively young and inexperienced defense like Missouri cannot always keep up with quick and intelligent attackers. Therefore, dropping back and slowing down the opponent will give enough time for support to arrive.

Playing strong competition and gaining experience from teams like BYU is exactly what Blitz wants from his mostly freshman back line.

Offense

The Tigers’ forwards did not play like their usual selves in their last game. They lacked their usual high-energy, high-pressure tactics. Missouri needs to play like its usual self if it wants any chance of making the NCAA tournament.

Junior forward Julissa Cisneros and senior forward Macy Trujillo were quiet against BYU. Cisneros especially needs to have a more active presence if the Tigers want any goal-scoring opportunities.

Despite being heavily outshot by the Cougars, Missouri still managed 14 shots, most coming from quick counterattacks where it caught BYU off guard.

Blitz said he was satisfied with the 14 shots taken, but the next step is to finish them. The Tigers have the goalscorers; they just have to get back to where they were at the end of the fall season.

All discussion of goal creation is pointless if the Tiger’s buildup play isn’t satisfactory, which was the case against BYU. Missouri’s progression up the field was often cut short due to slow movement off the ball or inaccurate passes.

The offense seemed desperate to find a goal the entire second half, evident by long, over-the-top through balls that only gave BYU possession again. When Missouri kept the ball on the ground and moved laterally instead of forward, that’s where its chances came from.

If the Tigers can clean up these areas, they could have a chance of making the NCAA tournament. It’s important to note that the amount of teams in the tournament has been reduced from 48 to 36 this year due to COVID-19, so earning a spot will be even more challenging than normal.

Edited by Kyle Pinnell | kpinnell@themaneater.com

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