When the sun goes down on Friday, the lights will come on for women soccer’s Ivy title dreams.
The Elis will face their first and probably their strongest league opponent of the season in Princeton tomorrow night at Soccer-Lacrosse Stadium.
The No. 23 Bulldogs (5-2-0) look to rebound from two straight losses in California when they take the field against the No. 17 Tigers (4-1-0). The results of this game between the two highest ranked teams in the Ivies will surely reverberate throughout the Ancient Eight in determining the eventual league champion.
Yale is the underdog, not just in the national standings, but also historically. Princeton leads the all-time series against the Bulldogs 18-9-3, and the Tigers romped to a 4-2 victory over the Elis last September in New Jersey. Princeton has made the NCAA Tournament each of the last five years and lays claim to three of the last four Ivy titles.
But the Bulldogs are a more experienced team this year and are riding a wave of confidence after opening the season with five straight wins, including an upset of a UConn team that made it to the NCAA Tournament finals last year.
Two weeks ago the Elis cracked the national rankings for the first time in program history at No. 19. Despite the two weekend losses, the Bulldogs remain nationally ranked, dropping four spots to No. 23. Perhaps more important to their NCAA Tournament hopes, the Elis are still the top-ranked team in the Northeast ahead of regionally ranked No. 2 Boston University and No. 3 Dartmouth (3-1-2).
Eli goalkeeper and captain Sarah Walker ’05 said the team is unfazed by the losses to No. 15 Santa Clara and No. 20 Stanford. Midfielder Lindsey Weening ’06 concurred.
“I think everyone is really pumped up for the game,” Weening said. “Obviously we were upset that we didn’t come away [from the Stanford and Santa Clara games] with a win, but we played well. Our practices have been great. I don’t think they affected our confidence in any way.”
The Bulldogs’ success is largely due to the play of Walker, who has been guarding the net almost exclusively this season. The Yale squad has allowed just four goals in seven games and is ranked 23rd in the nation in goals against average at 0.57.
But Princeton has been equally parsimonious in allowing goals in its first five games. The Tigers sport a 0.4 goals against average behind the goaltending of junior Emily Vogelzang. Princeton head coach Julia Shackford said she believes the game will be a defensive grind.
“There’s a good chance you are going to see some goals,” Shackford said. “But having said that, it looks like [Yale] has been pretty stingy, and I know we’ve been pretty stingy in giving up goals. I don’t anticipate it being anything other than an exciting game to watch.”
Yale head coach Rudy Meredith said he believes that the first team to score a goal will win the game because of the strong defenses on both ends of the field.
“I think whoever scores first is going to win the game,” Meredith said. “[The Tigers are] a very defensive-minded team — if they score first it’s harder to score on them. Both defenses are really good. I don’t think either one of us is going to give up a lot of goals.”
While Shackford said she has used several formations with her team so far this year, Meredith expects to see the Tigers in a 4-4-2 formation as opposed to the Bulldog’s 4-5-1 set. Both structures stress defense with more players in the backfield.
Meredith said there are two Tigers his Elis must contain if they are to win — senior forward Esmeralda Negron and freshman midfielder Diana Matheson.
Negron has long been one of the biggest offensive threats in the Ivy League. Last season, she was named Ivy League Player of the Year and was third-team All-American. In the first five games, Negron already has two goals.
Matheson, who already has three goals in her nascent career, leads the Tiger offense. Matheson deferred a year to start for the Canadian National Team in the World Cup last year.
“I think it’s going to be a very even match,” Meredith said. “I think Princeton’s got a couple of special players we have to take care of [Negron and Matheson]. If we can shut those two players out, I think we’ll be fine.”
The Bulldogs have not depended on one offensive threat this season, but instead have relied on a variety of players to score. Nine different players have scored for the Elis this season as they have outscored their opponents 12-4. Meredith said no matter what the result is against Princeton, he wants his team to leave it all on the field.
“I just want them to come focused, ready to give a hundred and ten percent on the field, let it all out,” Meredith said. “If they are going to beat us, let them beat us when we give our best effort. I don’t want to walk away from the field saying we didn’t give Princeton our best effort.”
Meredith could not overstate the importance of a victory on Friday night.
“I really think, whoever wins this game will probably have at least a share of the Ivy League title,” Meredith said.