Soccer team plays with a target

The squad realizes the rough road ahead.
Junior forward Michelle Collins chases the ball against Iowa on Sept. 19 at Walton Stadium. After going 5-2 against non-conference teams to start the season, the Tigers open Big 12 play this weekend against Iowa State and Nebraska.

Heading into Big 12 play last season, Missouri's soccer team had already upset two teams - Illinois and California - ranked in the top 25. This year, Missouri begins its conference schedule having lost to the same two teams, both ranked again this year.

But don't think those losses bother the Tigers.

"We're always a fast-starting team, and this is the first year we're not fast-starting," coach Bryan Blitz said. "I think it's a good sign moving towards the conference season that we haven't peaked yet, we're just starting to build."

It's not like Missouri flopped during non-conference play. The Tigers are 5-2 heading into their Big 12 opener Friday at Iowa State and have allowed just seven goals in seven games. But it hasn't been easy.

"It was so much easier last year out of conference," Blitz said. "This year, out of conference, we've had to earn every single game. I think that will bode well for us as we move to the conference (schedule), because that's what it's going to be like. It's going to be a grunge game, game after game after game."

No one is more familiar with Missouri's aggressive 3-4-3 system than Big 12 teams.

"After last year, we have a target on our back," junior forward Michelle Collins said. "They're coming after us, so everything's going to be hard-fought, nitty-gritty."

In 2007, the Tigers made their presence known in the conference by upsetting then-No. 4 Texas A&M in the conference opener. This season, Missouri opens against Iowa State and Nebraska, teams with a combined 7-7-1 record and who were picked to finish near the bottom of the Big 12.

Is Missouri thankful it doesn't have to start the conference season against the Big 12's powerhouses?

"It's almost the opposite," Blitz said. "It's like a new season for them (Iowa State and Nebraska). You have to play well every single time you play in the Big 12."

After catching teams off guard with its pressing style last year, each of Missouri's opponents this year has prepared for the Tigers' approach. Blitz said Illinois and California used a "bunkering" technique to slow Missouri's attack, and there's a good chance Big 12 teams will do the same.

"That's the really great thing," he said. "We're not going to be surprised by it now that we start the Big 12."

Despite being picked to finish third in the conference, Missouri is not one of the Big 12's five teams ranked in the top 25, which speaks to the conference's depth. Texas A&M (No. 8), Texas (10), Oklahoma State (13), Colorado (21) and Kansas (25) are a combined 31-3-2 heading into conference play.

Missouri will face Colorado, Texas and Kansas at home, and travel to Oklahoma State and Texas A&M. While the Tigers haven't yet been recognized like these five teams, they're almost glad for it. Just like opponents have learned to counter Missouri's system, the Tigers have learned that it's not how you start, but how you finish.

"It's so important going into conference that you're not necessarily at the top of your game, because you don't want to peak too soon," Collins said.

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