Season Preview: What to expect from MU soccer and the rest of the SEC

The shortened conference-only schedule changes everything, but don’t expect teams to look much different on the field.

SEC soccer is on this fall — on Aug. 27, the Southeastern Conference announced that the season would kick off on Sep. 18, consisting of an eight-week, eight-match conference schedule and end with a 14-team conference tournament at the conclusion of the regular season.

“Two games a week was great, but it’s brutal,” redshirt junior Zoe Cross said. “One game a week will definitely give us a chance to recover, turn around, and give us more time to get ready for our next opponent.”

The SEC unveiled the full season schedule on Sep. 9, and the Tigers will play their opening match of the season at home against the Florida Gators on Sep. 19.

The Tigers’ season will have alternating home and away matches throughout the season. Their home matches include Florida on Sep. 19, Vanderbilt on Oct. 3, LSU on Oct. 16 and Kentucky on Nov. 1. They travel to play South Carolina on Sep. 27, Tennessee on Oct. 9, Mississippi State on Oct. 24 and Georgia on Nov. 6.

“At this point, we’re grateful that we’re going to have a season, so everyone is more optimistic about everything,” junior forward Julissa Cisneros said.

Led by players like Cisneros, who scored 11 of the Tigers’ 30 goals last season, Missouri hopes to bounce back from a difficult 2019, which saw it go 7-10-1 and just 1-8-1 in conference play.

The Tigers will have to carry on without Sarah Luebbert, who graduated last spring. Luebbert started 17 of the Tigers’ 18 matches last season and earned first-team All-SEC honors in addition to second-team All-Southeast region recognition. The team lost five out of 11 starters from last year’s squad either to injury or graduation and will look to new leaders like Cisneros to step up big.

In addition, many freshmen will have the opportunity to step up big for the Tigers this season.

“The whole freshman class is really exciting,” Cross said. “I think they're going to add a lot to the team this season. I think there’s a lot they’re going to give us.”

The pandemic has impacted player fitness, according to Head Coach Bryan Blitz. That will be a big focus leading up to their first match.

“Some of our kids haven’t played since the fall,” Blitz said. “Never in their life have they been through that. Even the return to play has been unique. It was almost like starting over.”

Big Teams

The SEC is a stacked conference. At the end of last season, South Carolina and Arkansas were ranked in the top 10 nationally, and a total of six SEC teams finished top 50. Here are some teams that stand out.

South Carolina The Gamecocks, last year’s SEC tournament champions and quarterfinalists in the NCAA tournament, will look to build upon last year’s success. They were the only team to go undefeated in conference play last season, and, led by veteran head coach Shelley Smith, they are certainly the team to beat this season. Expect them to wreak havoc with this conference-only schedule.

Arkansas Runners-up in the SEC tournament but regular season champions, the Razorbacks will play with a chip on their shoulder to begin the season. They scored 62 goals last year — the highest in the SEC — while allowing opponents a total of 11. 19 players scored at least one goal, proving that they don’t just rely on a star or two to come up clutch. Their depth is one of their biggest assets.

Texas A&M The Aggies finished second in goals scored last season, but they were upset by Florida in the quarterfinals of last year’s SEC tournament. They also made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament, defeating the rival Texas Longhorns in College Station before losing to No. 9 USC. They lose 3-time All-SEC striker Ally Watt, who scored 16 goals in 20 matches last year, and are one of the most youthful teams this year, with just three seniors.

Big Games

Florida at Texas A&M (Oct. 11) These two teams faced each other in last year’s SEC tournament quarterfinals, with the Gators pulling off the upset. Texas A&M will certainly play with that game in the back of their heads, but expect a high-scoring performance in front of their home crowd (which may or may not be allowed into the stadium). The Gators will look to senior Parker Roberts, who recorded an assist in last year’s match against the Aggies, to spark their offense. Roberts finished last season with five goals and five assists, second in total points on the team behind graduating senior Vanessa Kara.

South Carolina at Arkansas (Oct. 16) A rematch of the SEC tournament final, this will be the first time the two teams have faced off against each other since the Gamecocks beat the Razorbacks 1-0 last November. Both sides have a stellar back line: Last season, Arkansas’ defense only allowed 11 goals, and South Carolina's a mere eight. At the same time, both teams have high-powered offenses. Will South Carolina’s forwards be able to break down Arkansas’ sturdy defense? Or will Arkansas get the best of the South Carolina back line?

LSU at Missouri (Oct. 17) Missouri’s only conference win last year came against LSU, and with their difficult schedule to start the season, they could still be looking for their first win when they welcome LSU to Columbia in mid-October. If Missouri is able to get a high number of shots on goal, expect them to score a few, especially since LSU’s goalkeepers are very young — two of the three rostered are freshmen, and the third is a sophomore transfer from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. On the flip side, just six LSU players scored a goal last season. If Missouri can keep the goalscorers quiet, they have a good chance at victory again this season.

Alabama at Auburn (Nov. 8) One of the SEC’s biggest rivalry games will take place on the final day of the regular season. Both teams finished in the middle of the table last year, but Alabama got the best of Auburn in the first round of the SEC tournament, defeating the Tigers for the first time since 2011. Expect Alabama sophomore Macy Clem to do damage again against Auburn. A standout freshman last season, Clem scored the golden goal to beat Auburn, and will certainly be a threat in the midfield both in this matchup and all season long. Regardless of where the teams are in the standings by this point, both squads will find a second gear in them for this match, with potential seeding implications involved leading up to the tournament.

Edited by Jack Soble | jsoble@themaneater.com

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