Tough test for soccer in Oregon

Last weekend, the women’s soccer team went on the road to face two top-ranked teams, including a recent NCAA College Cup champion. This weekend, they do it all over again.

The Bulldogs (1-2) head cross-country to face the University of Washington (0-4) and No. 4 University of Portland (3-1) in the Nike Portland Invitational, looking to improve upon last weekend’s performance at the Carolina Nike Classic, where they dropped tough games to Duke and No. 2 University of North Carolina. Despite the unfavorable outcome, the trip proved that the squad could compete on the same level as two of the top teams in the country, forward Maggie Westfal ’09 said.

“We made a few adjustments and I think we did pretty well last weekend,” head coach Rudy Meredith said. “We played good defensively. Offensively we still need to improve, but we did pretty well considering the level of competition we played.”

The Portland invitational kicks off today, when the Bulldogs play the University of Washington. The Huskies — although winless — have already faced several tough opponents this season, including No. 22 Purdue and No. 25 Marquette.

“Washington is a very dangerous team to play,” Meredith said. “They’re going to be athletic and strong. We’re probably going to be one of the weaker teams on their schedule, and they have already played a lot of strong teams.”

The Huskies return eight starters from their 2006 squad, including their top five scorers. Sophomore goalie Taylor Carr has also settled into her role between the pipes, defending the Husky goal against top opponents like Purdue and Marquette every minute so far this season. Even so, the game is certainly within reach for the Elis, who returned seven of their own starters from last season.

“This is not a game that we’re stretching to win,” captain Mary Kuder ’08 said. “Last weekend we didn’t really know what to expect, but now we know what we’re capable of. We should be hanging with teams of this caliber.”

Last weekend’s matches should also give the Elis an idea of what to expect as they gear up for Sunday’s game against Portland, a squad that won the NCAA championship in 2005 — the same year that the Elis advanced to the third round of the tournament. The Pilots were the top-ranked team in the country until last week, when they dropped a 1-0 decision to Purdue, but they still are still considered one of the strongest squads in the NCAA.

Senior forwards Rachel Rapinoe and Natalie Budge have led the Portland offense this season, combining for seven goals and an assist. Netminder Kelsey Davis has done her job on the other end of the field, with a goals against average of just 0.78 and a 0.769 save percentage. The Pilots have already demolished Florida State, Oregon State and Cal State Fullerton, so the Bulldogs will need to be on their toes to get a win.

The stakes of the game are even higher for the Bulldogs’ leader, Kuder, who transferred to Yale as a sophomore after playing for the Pilots in 2004. This is the first time that she will step onto the field with her former team since she left Oregon, adding to the energy of an already exciting game.

“I’m pumped,” Kuder said. “When I was being recruited by [Coach Meredith], he guaranteed me that he’d set up a game against Portland before I graduated. I never knew that he would follow through on it. There are a lot of emotions that are tied up with the experience, good and bad, but I’m excited to be on the field there again.”

Once they overcome the emotional and physical hurdles of this weekend, things should be smoother on the Elis’ horizon. The Bulldogs will not leave the state of Connecticut for four weeks following their return from the West Coast, and they will be able to build on what they learned in North Carolina and Oregon as they prepare to face more evenly-matched teams.

“These games are our preparation to try to get us ready for the Ivy League,” Meredith said. “They will exploit your weaknesses, that’s why I like to play teams like this. We’ll be able to really find out where our strengths and weaknesses are as a team. If we can find a way to create some more offense this weekend, we should be okay for the rest of the season.”

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