The Arkansas State soccer team hosts the University of Louisiana Monroe Sunday to kick off Sun Belt Conference play as the Red Wolves return home after taking down in-state rival Central Arkansas 2-0.
A-State opened its season on Sept. 13 at UCA and despite a rusty looking first half, the Red Wolves pulled away in the second half of the match.
The Bears played one game previously before taking on A-State, so they looked more comfortable on the ball in the first half compared to a Red Wolves team that was playing in its first match of the season. With the Bears accustomed to game tempo and a young starting back line for the Red Wolves, it took A-State some time to adjust.
“Obviously we were concerned,” A-State head soccer coach Brian Dooley said. “It was slow. There was no tempo. In all of our training up to that point we had been playing at a really high rate of speed. We weren’t expecting that … A little bit of nerves, a little bit of spacing issues, grass was a little bit thicker than what we play on. A lot of little things that can contribute to that but I think it’s one of the things that we addressed at half time.”
Freshman center back Rachel Kutella looked very calm and experienced beyond her years in the back line. The Illinois native played the ball out with ease as well as making stellar tackles throughout the match.
“We have a lot of confidence in Rachel,” Dooley said. “She’s played at a very high level within the club structure. She’s come in from the beginning with strong leadership skills for a freshman. As a center back you need to have that assertive mentality. I think she’s going to get better and be able to play more quickly. I think she’ll gain even more confidence.”
Freshmen Lauren Shah and Hailey Cloud also started in the back line for A-State in a successful debut for the Red Wolves, while freshman Darby Stotts showed great energy in the match Dooley said.
Senior Sarah Sodoma wreaked havoc on the Bears’ back line throughout the match as the Preseason SBC Offensive Player of the Year constantly used her pace and dribbling ability to outrun and outmaneuver the retreating UCA defenders.
During A-State’s slow first half start, Sodoma beat three UCA defenders and cut in on her left foot before firing a shot forcing the UCA keeper into a diving save.
“Sarah’s one of the more unique players I’ve had the pleasure to coach, the opportunity to coach,” Dooley said. “Sarah will try to score, Sarah doesn’t need to score. She does whatever her team needs her to do. She’ll track back 60 yards to track a defender. She’ll make those runs that just shred defenses and then a slot a ball across for someone to finish. She doesn’t have to be the one to score. That allows her to play with a little bit more freedom.”
The breakthrough came in the 70th minute when Sodoma blew by the Bears’ defense and smartly won a corner kick for the Red Wolves. Junior outside back Haley Husted took an inswinging corner that eventually hit the hand of a UCA player in the box.
Experienced senior holding midfielder Victoria MacIntosh stepped up to the penalty spot and tucked away a cool finish to put A-State ahead 1-0.
The Red Wolves played with even more confidence after the goal and senior Hailey Furio extended the Red Wolves lead to 2-0 in the 79th minute after a mistake in the back by UCA.
On a UCA goal kick, freshman Tara Lea pressured UCA’s outside back into a bad pass and another A-State midfielder closed down the next Bear in a perfectly executed press. The second Bear panicked and played the ball right to Furio in front of goal.
A-State closed out the match to return home with a clean sheet.
Looking ahead to Sunday, the Red Wolves open SBC play after only one non-conference matchup. While not ideal, it is a reality A-State has to deal with during the coronavirus pandemic.
Last season the Warhawks went 0-10 in league play and held an overall record of 3-13-2. The past few seasons have not been kind to ULM, the visitors went 0-17 in the 2018 season and 3-13-2 once again in the 2017 season.
However, ULM has a new coach in Sean Fraser and many new freshmen, including many international additions. The Warhawks’ roster also includes many transfers, including more international players.
Although the Warhawks have struggled in recent years, A-State has actually lost two out of the last four matches against ULM.
“We can’t put ourselves into a position to think that we can just step on the field and win a game,” Dooley said. “That’s not the way to be successful. With ULM with a new coach and [transfers] they’ll be a different team for sure.”
The Warhawks were voted to finish last in the league, but with many additions to the roster and without ULM playing a single match yet, it is hard to tell just how they perform on the pitch.
Dooley said A-State needs to work on tempo this week in training.
“If you play slowly the other team can easily close you down and react,” Dooley said. “If we play with a better tempo we catch them in those transitions and we can get in behind their lines better.”
A-State’s head coach also said the team needs to work on higher runs this week to give Sodoma more support up top. Olivia Smith will return to the pitch after serving a one game suspension for receiving a red card in last year’s SBC Final against South Alabama.
“When Olivia’s on the field it changes a lot of things for us,” Dooley said. “She does a lot of the hard stuff, a lot of the dirty work and isn’t afraid to go after things. Take a ball you might not think anything is going to happen from and then suddenly it’s in the back of the net because she’s willing to stick her nose in there.”
Before taking on the Red Wolves Sunday, ULM travels to Little Rock Friday so a few things could be learned about the new look Warhawks in their first match of the season.
Last season the Red Wolves boasted a stellar home record of 6-1-1 and held the visiting teams to a total of five goals across eight matches. Senior Preseason All-Conference goalkeeper Megan McClure looked in form against the Bears and with a quality back line in front of her, the A-State Soccer Park could be a fortress again this season.
McClure is a great shot stopper, but also has the ability to play out of the back. However, the Red Wolves have to be careful and not fall into the pressure that comes with a high press like A-State took part in against UCA.
“With the new rule change for the NCAA that the ball doesn’t need to leave the penalty box on a goal kick, if you’re going to be that team that builds no matter what, that’s going to happen to you,” Dooley said. “The ball is going to get turned over, the ball is going to take a wicked bounce or the goalkeeper is not going to hit it where they need to hit it. The next thing you know you’re turning the ball over within 20 yards of your goal … So we want to make sure we make good decisions so that doesn’t happen to us.”
The Red Wolves took down ULM at Monroe last season by a score of 3-1. Sodoma scored one goal while Sophia Restrepo registered a brace for A-State.
Sodoma remains two goals away from becoming A-State’s all time leading goal scorer. The St. Louis native has 22 goals to her name and is trailing Loren Mitchell who registered 23 goals between 2012-2015. With Restrepo in a more attacking role and Sodoma with freedom at forward, the two could combine for another great performance against the Warhawks.
Kick off from the A-State Soccer Park is set for noon.
“I think there’s a lot to build on, a lot to correct. Being a conference game now, there will be a little bit more intensity.”
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