To understand the most important pattern to develop so far this season for the men’s soccer team, consider this statistic: The Bulldogs started the fall with three consecutive ties. In the past three seasons, they had just two draws total.
The Elis (1-0-3) hope to buck the early season trend and build on their first win of the season this weekend at the Dartmouth Invitational. Yale will face off against Rhode Island (2-3-1) Friday, and then battle Drake (2-3-1) Sunday.
For the Bulldogs this season, it truly has been a tale of two halves. In nearly every game — Friday’s tie against Michigan State being the lone exception — the Elis have relinquished first-half leads. The inability to close the door on their opponents has resulted in all four of their games going into at least one overtime period.
“We’re all having trouble focusing in the second half,” forward Alex Munns ’07 said. “It’s about knowing ourselves and learning from the mistakes so they don’t happen again. If we don’t do that, then it’s going to be a long season.”
But it has not been all bad for Yale at the end of games. The Bulldogs picked up their first win of the season against American in dramatic overtime fashion. Perhaps more importantly, the defense has tightened up in the extra frames and has yet to give up a golden goal.
The numbers illustrate the second-half troubles. The Bulldogs have outscored their opponents, 4-1, in the first half, but have been outscored 1-4 after intermission. More telling is that opponents have more than doubled Yale’s shots on goal in the second half of games, 37-18. But head coach Brian Tompkins is quick to note that the statistic may be a bit misleading.
“What you’ll often find is that when teams are behind they are going to put up desperation shots,” Tompkins said. “I think we’re doing the same things [in both halves].”
So far the Bulldogs have been able to escape second-half lapses relatively unscathed, but if the trend continues, sooner or later the Elis may not be as fortunate.
There are a few possible explanations for this pattern, late-game fatigue being one of them. The Bulldogs went the distance the first three games of the season. Their last game, a 3-2 win over American, went five minutes into the first overtime. This exorbitant amount of time may be taxing on the Bulldogs, especially the defense. But Munns insists that physical fatigue is not a factor.
“I think we’re in great shape as a team,” Munns said. “Our games have been spread out so I don’t think fatigue is an issue. These overtime games have made us mentally stronger, so I don’t think it’s a bad thing at all.”
The more precise explanation for their second half woes may be a matter of experience, or a lack thereof. Due to the holes left by key graduating seniors, Tompkins has had to ask his freshmen to contribute immediately — most notably forward Tyler Guse and defenders Markus Jackson and Max Rhodes. While the talented rookies flash their immense potential and skill, they have also shown their youth in tight situations.
Rhodes said playing immediately has not overwhelmed him, but admits he has to learn on the job.
“I really don’t think there is that much pressure,” Rhodes said. “There isn’t really a big fear of screwing up. Obviously there’s a little anxiety, but the team is so supportive all the time. Personally, I feel when you’re young you don’t always know exactly what you are doing because it’s not instinctual yet. You’re trying to adapt to the college game and environment, so sometimes it’s difficult to maintain that discipline.”
The Bulldogs have found themselves mired in constant pressure in the second half. When the Bulldogs do regain possession they have had difficulties in consistently setting up effective counterattacks. As they are backed deeper into their zone, the Bulldogs seem to become tentative and even a bit flustered. Rather than making outlet passes, the Elis often simply kick the ball out of play. When they do try to push it up, it often ends with easily intercepted crosses or misplayed passes rolling out of bounds. From a spectator’s point of view it may seem that the Bulldogs are playing not to lose rather than to win. This isn’t due to a change in strategy, but mistakes resulting from inexperience and mental fatigue.
“It’s just mental lapses,” Munns said. “We got a lot of young guys, and we’re still trying to get a feel for each other. We’re falling asleep here and there, and good teams will make the most out of one mistake.”
As Tompkins explains, learning how to close games is just a part of the maturation process.
“Every team has to learn off a game and that’s something we’re still learning,” Tompkins said. “It’s a good problem to have because it means you are ahead. Our guys are learning a number of things on the run, but I think we’re addressing it and getting better every week.”