Positional breakdown: Set-piece defense, missed opportunities cost Missouri soccer

issouri was unable to reap the rewards of a generally strong performance, making crucial mistakes and not capitalizing on several chances.

Missouri soccer played well on Friday, but was unable to come away with points, losing a 2-1 thriller at the hands of Tennessee.

Here’s how each positional group did against the Volunteers:

Goalkeeper

At the end of last season, the goalkeeper situation at Missouri was chaotic. All of the Tigers’ rostered keepers went down, and the starting spot was wide open for 2020.

Right now, it seems as though Missouri has found its two keepers.

On Friday, head coach Bryan Blitz gave sophomore transfer Isabella Alessio the nod. Alessio started against South Carolina in Week One, but was pulled in the 70th minute after struggling to hold on to the ball.

Alessio made a strong case for why she still deserves to start in her return to the lineup . She was lights out, making five fantastic saves and coming off her line to grab the loose ball many times. She was challenged early on with several low, bouncing shots – the types of shots she struggled with in her last outing. But she dealt with them perfectly, using good form and not letting the ball spill.

The goals scored by Tennessee were not Alessio’s fault. Both were placed out of the reach of the 6-foot keeper.

However, Alessio can still improve on her distribution. Countless times, Alessio could have rolled the ball to an outside back to keep possession, but instead booted the ball up the field, often nowhere near a Missouri player.

Tennessee was able to get lots of counter-play off of Alessio’s punts and goal kicks, which overloaded the Tigers’ back line who were tasked with tracking the runs of several speedy Volunteers forwards.

Alessio has certainly made Blitz’s job more difficult. She and fellow sophomore McKenna Sheehan will likely be competing for the starting job all season, and may end up substituting at the half. That’s something, Blitz said, that the coaching staff has not ruled out as a possibility.

Defense

Pushing up the field with the rest of the team continues to be an issue for the Missouri back line.

When this doesn’t happen, the opposing team has the entire midfield wide open should the Tigers give away the ball. Against a team with pace like Tennessee, Missouri will be punished. This nearly happened multiple times, but the Volunteers were caught offside.

Credit the defense for working together to hold their line in these situations, as the flag was raised not just because the Tennessee attackers didn’t hold their runs, but because the defense stepped up to draw the Volunteers offside.

Man-marking on set pieces is also a concern. With 10 seconds remaining in the first half, Tennessee scored the first goal of the game on a free kick from the left side. The ball into the box was a good one, but Alicia Donley, the goalscorer, had a free header from the center of the six-yard box.

The same thing happened on corner kicks. On Friday, Missouri conceded seven corners, and they conceded seven against Vanderbilt as well. While that isn’t a bad thing on its own, it becomes a problem when the defense on corners is inconsistent. Set-piece defense is certainly something for this back line to focus on.

That being said, Missouri’s defense was strong when it came to defending in the normal run of play, and midfielders showed excellent fitness dropping back to help defend Tennessee’s dangerous wingers. Mackenzie George, the Volunteers’ left-winger, was largely kept at bay. Credit Zoe Cross for staying goal-side of her and tracking back when she got beat.

Attack

Missouri’s offense was electric on Friday. While it only scored one goal — off of Cross’s attempted cross — it had the ability to score many, many more.

In the opening match at South Carolina, the Tigers generated almost all their offense up the wings. Last week, at home against Vanderbilt, they utilized the center of the pitch much more often, finding Julissa Cisneros as the target, letting her play the ball off to an advancing teammate.

But on Friday, the two attacking styles mixed with each other to create a complex, dynamic, well-oiled offense that showcased what it was capable of this season. The Missouri offense recorded 20 total shots, nine of which were on frame. They had 19 shots all season long coming into this game.

Cross, the goalscorer, had four shots, all on goal, the most she has ever taken in one game. Her goal was also the first she’s scored in a Tigers uniform.

She nearly tied the game in the final seconds with a beautiful strike from 35 yards out, but Tennessee goalkeeper Lindsey Romig made a game-saving play to tip the dipping shot just over the crossbar.

Midfielder Lindsey Whitmore was a major part of the attack on Friday, getting wide when she had the space and cutting in when she saw an opening in the Tennessee defense.

A major opportunity for Whitmore to get on the scoresheet came in the first half. Cisneros played a perfectly weighted ball to Whitmore, who was streaking into the box from the left side. The midfielder took a touch and tried to slot the ball past Romig, but the Volunteers goalkeeper made a clutch save to keep the Tigers scoreless.

However, Missouri did not take advantage of its golden opportunity to get a goal. In the 55th minute, Cisneros played a square ball to fellow forward Jenna Bartels just inside the box. Bartels was brought down by a defender and the referee pointed to the spot, signaling a penalty kick.

Grace Kitts took the kick, but her shot hit the post and rebounded away from danger.

Notably, Cisneros did not take the penalty. She had scored six straight, so it was a bit surprising to see Kitts take it.

Cisneros was kept quiet in the first half. The Tennessee defense shut her down, cutting down the space in front of her when she had the ball and man-marking her every time she tried to make a run.

But the second half saw Cisneros take off. She was all over the field, and when she got the ball she played with purpose. Her passing was perhaps the most impressive, different from her usual tendencies as a goalscorer. That being said, she still led the Tigers with five shots.

Despite the losing record to start the season, there is still much to be proud of. Expect the Tigers to continue to improve this Friday against a struggling LSU side.

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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