Two consecutive heartbreaking defeats have dashed the Yale women’s soccer team’s hopes for an Ivy League title this season.
On Saturday, the Eli seniors will lace up their boots for the final time at Reese Stadium as the Bulldogs (5–6–3, 1–3–1 Ivy) host the surprising conference leader, Columbia (7–4–4, 4–0–1). A win would be Yale’s second in the conference season, matching its highest win total in league play since 2011. It also provides an opportunity for the Bulldogs to play spoiler for a Lions team that enters the game with a razor-thin two-point margin over Harvard at the top of the conference.
“I’m excited because senior game is always fun and our friends and families are coming out,” captain and defender Colleen McCormack ’17 said. “It’s crazy that it’s our last time playing at Reese — I’m not sure that’s quite hit me yet. But we definitely want to go out with a big win.”
The wheels have fallen off the bus for the Bulldogs in recent weeks. The Elis dropped a frustrating 2–1 decision at Cornell two weeks ago in which Yale created the vast majority of chances but failed to translate that offensive effort onto the scoreboard. Last Saturday against Penn, Yale conceded a goal 10 minutes from the final whistle. The Bulldogs thought they drew level late on, but controversial officiating ruled out a potential equalizer from Aerial Chavarin ’20 condemned the Elis to a shutout defeat. After the consecutive losses, Yale has slipped down the table into a three-way tie for fifth with the Big Red and defending champion Princeton.
Columbia dropped its first points of the Ivy League slate as it failed to muster a goal and break a scoreless draw with cellar-dwelling Dartmouth last weekend. Prior to that, the Lions won their first four league games of the season, earning a two-point cushion over second-place Harvard. With two games left to play, Columbia’s 13 points have already marked a significant improvement over the 10 they garnered last season, a total that left them nine points adrift of the top spot in the Ancient Eight.
“The last couple of defeats have been pretty hard on our team, especially because we have been playing well and there have been a few controversial calls that have gone against us this season,” goalkeeper Alyssa Fagel ’20 said. “However, we are staying very focused at practices and hope to finish off the season on as high a note as possible. Even though we can’t win the title this year, it would make a huge statement if we can hand Columbia [its] first loss of the season.”
The calling card for Columbia this season has been its defense, as no Ivy League team has scored against the Lions. In fact, the last player to find the back of the net past the Lions’ goalkeeper Allison Spencer was Seton Hall’s Sarah Cortes on Sept. 18. Part of Columbia’s success derives from the defensive emphasis in its formation, as the Lions’ lineup routinely features five defenders. The young backline, which includes two freshmen, took time to gel, conceding nine times in the opening eight games, before embarking on a scoreless streak that currently stretches to 775 minutes.
The Columbia defense will be tested by a talented Yale offense that ranks in the top half of the conference in goals scored. The Elis have netted 21 goals on the season, nine of which came courtesy of Chavarin, the team’s top scorer. Last weekend’s defeat against Penn marks just the second time the Bulldogs have failed to score this season. Yale must convert their chances on offense in order to avoid becoming the eighth consecutive attack the Lions have blanked.
“The fact that Columbia has not conceded any goals yet in the Ivy [League] is motivating,” Chavarin said. “I want us to score on them as many times as possible. We are going to play our game to the best of our ability. In order for us to be successful, we need to stay compact defensively, and once we win the ball we need to be patient, possess and play the simple passes.”
While Columbia has proved nearly invulnerable defensively, its offensive output has been less consistent this year. The Lions have scored 17 goals in 15 matches, and two of their past three games have ended in scoreless draws. The main offensive threat comes from sophomore forward Emma Anderson, whose five goals and three assists both lead the team. Columbia’s second-leading scorer, junior Natalie Neshat, has split time between forward and defense this year, emphasizing the defensive mentality at the heart of the Lions’ philosophy.
The Yale defense has been inconsistent this season, mixing long runs of brilliance with momentary lapses leading to goals. Set plays have been the team’s Achilles’ heel; unsurprisingly, Penn’s game-winning goal last weekend came off of a corner kick. Columbia has proven adept on set pieces in Ivy League play, with a full third of its league goals coming from dead ball situations.
“Columbia hasn’t been scoring too many goals,” Fagel said. “They have definitely proven themselves to be capable of [scoring] when necessary; whether it’s 1–0 or 2–0, Columbia seems to always find a way to pull out a win. We will need to stay composed in the back and avoid any small lapse of focus like we had against Penn in order to avoid another heartbreaking loss in a dead-even game.”
Yale kicks off against Columbia at 4 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.