Just four seconds into the first half of Sunday’s women’s soccer game against the No. 8 University of North Carolina, goaltender Susan Starr ’08 threw up a futile hand as Tar Heel midfielder Yael Averbuch fired the ball into the back of the net from midfield during the opening kickoff, recording the fastest goal in NCAA women’s soccer history.

Averbuch’s goal, which appeared on “SportsCenter” and “Good Morning America,” seemed like a rough start for the Elis (0-2) on several levels. It left the No. 13 Elis immediately struggling to erase the deficit, which gradually increased to 4-0 in favor of the Tar Heels (4-1). It marked the fourth of seven unanswered goals scored by the Elis’ opponents during the Yale Classic. And it signaled the beginning of the Bulldogs’ second consecutive loss after falling to No. 11 Duke (3-1), 3-0, in Friday’s season opener.

But while this was an extremely inauspicious start for the defending Ivy League champions, the Bulldogs believe their two losses to top-20 teams may actually have been more of a blessing in disguise. Now, before the Elis enter Ivy League play, they have a definite idea of where they need to improve.

“Playing against teams of that caliber shows us where we stand,” midfielder Mimi Macauley ’07 said. “It’s a really good test. Those are the best teams we’re going to play all season, so if we can compete against them, then that’s really encouraging. Regardless of the fact that we lost, we played well and we did a lot of good things. If we can do that against Duke and UNC, we can do it against anyone.”

UNC followed up on Averbuch’s goal with two more scores before the half. The Tar Heels capitalized on Yale’s inability to move the ball up the field and attacked Starr and the Bulldog defense relentlessly, racking up 12 shots to Yale’s one during the first half. Averbuch assisted junior midfielder Robyn Gayle on the second goal of the game and then drove home another goal of her own to close out first-half scoring at 28:21.

Despite Yale’s struggle to find the net, captain and defender Christina Huang ’07 said she does not see a problem with the Yale offense.

“I wouldn’t say that we don’t have any scoring power just yet,” Huang said. “We have very strong forwards with a lot of potential so I’m not too worried about it. The only thing that really needs to change is our communication under pressure. We have to start giving balls to our forwards that they can hold on to.”

The Elis partially attributed their struggle to compete with UNC during the first half to their formations. Against the powerful UNC attack, most teams focus on defense, pulling back an extra forward or midfielder to help contain scoring threats like Averbuch and U.S. National Team member Heather O’Reilly. The Bulldogs followed suit, playing four defenders across the back to protect the net, but Yale struggled without its traditional 3-4-3 setup.

After halftime, the Elis began playing three players on the attack. Challenging the UNC defense allowed the Bulldogs to keep the Tar Heel offense away from Starr, who finished the game with nine saves, and limited UNC’s quality shot opportunities.

“Last year, we played them much more aggressively and we had three forwards on their three defenders,” Huang said. “Our approach was what hurt us this time. [After halftime] we went to a 3-4-3 and did much better. Our forwards were closing in much faster on their defenders and we were able to stop the attack much better.”

While the UNC game taught the Bulldogs the need for communication and aggressive offensive formations, Friday’s loss to Duke taught the Elis the importance of being in shape. While both Duke and UNC had played games prior to visiting New Haven, the Yale Classic was the Elis’ season opener. The Bulldogs were unaccustomed to playing a full 90 minutes of competitive soccer, and at around the 60th minute, the Blue Devils began to take advantage of the Elis’ fatigue. Duke netted all three of its goals in the last 30 minutes of play.

“You can’t simulate a game in practice, so it’s going to take you a couple of games to get match fit,” Yale head coach Rudy Meredith said. “It was a similar game when we played Duke last year. There were a couple breakdowns as we got tired. But then when we played them again in the NCAA tournament, we were equally fit and I think that’s why we got a better result.”

This past weekend exposed the Bulldogs’ current weaknesses, but it also highlighted their strengths. Eight freshmen saw playing time and proved themselves capable of handling the pressure of competing against the nation’s top teams. And the Elis got a chance to prove their mettle during two tough battles.

“I was excited to see the work ethic on our team,” Huang said. “Even though we were behind for much of the time in those games, people kept fighting. I’m really excited to see new players stepping up and taking control on the field, and to see so many talented freshmen who are really going to make an impact.”