The Maneater

The three biggest questions for Mizzou women’s soccer

The Tigers’ SEC play will define their season.

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Missouri soccer ended last season 11-7-2, with disappointing overtime loses in the quarterfinals of the Southeastern Conference Tournament and the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

While the Tigers return eight starters from last season, the offseason did bring some losses. Mizzou graduated five seniors from last year’s team, most notably All-SEC First Team member Melanie Donaldson and All-SEC Second Team member Lauren Selaiden.

Mizzou’s roster includes 10 freshmen this fall, headlined by freshman Zoe Cross. Cross is from Pease Pottage, England, and played for England’s U19 national team this summer, where she competed in the Union of European Football Associations U19 Women’s Championship in early August.

Despite being unranked in the United Soccer Coaches Preseason Rankings, the Tigers were picked to finish fourth in the SEC this year in the SEC Preseason Coaches’ Poll.

The Tigers struggled against ranked SEC opponents in the 2016 season. To take that next step, Mizzou must capitalize on a strong non-conference schedule, then use that momentum to defeat ranked SEC opponents such as Florida.

Here are three questions to keep in mind heading into the season.

Will sophomore forward Sarah Luebbert continue her dominant play?

Mizzou returned its top three goal scorers from a year ago. Sophomore Sarah Luebbert, senior Allie Hess and senior Jessica Johnson combined for over 50 percent of Mizzou’s goals scored last season.

Luebbert led the team in goals with 10 and points with 24. She was named SEC Freshman of the Year and All-SEC second team. She finished the season ranked fifth in the SEC in goals per game with 0.56 and sixth in points per game with 1.33. In the offseason, Luebbert was called up three times to participate in the U.S. U-23 National Team training camp. The team was comprised of the top 24 U.S female soccer players, who played an exhibition game against the Seattle Sounders in July.

Luebbert had an astounding freshman campaign and will continue to get many chances to score. Luebbert had 54 shots last year, which was the second highest on the team.

But what makes Luebbert special is her ability to finish. Outside of her 10 goals, she also had 27 shots on goal and a 50 percent shot on goal percentage.

However, Luebbert’s expectations are high, and every team now knows to key in on her defensively, which could lead to a dip in her performance this season.

How will Mizzou fare against a tough non-conference schedule early in the season?

The most glaring hole in Mizzou’s resume last year was a lack of marquee wins, as the Tigers went 0-5 against top-25 opponents. There are ample opportunities to change that at the beginning of this season.

Starting Aug. 27, the Tigers have three top-25 matchups in under two weeks. The Tigers begin in Lincoln, Nebraska, against the No. 22 Cornhuskers before taking on reigning NCAA champion No. 3 Southern California at home Sept. 1. They will follow that up with road games against TCU and No. 23 Northwestern on Sept. 7.

This three-game stretch is crucial for the Tigers, as it gives Mizzou a chance to make a statement early in the season. Success in this stretch could carry over into SEC play, where the Tigers consistently struggled against the top teams in the conference a year ago.

Can Mizzou take the next step in the SEC and finish top four in the conference?

When it came to the top teams in the SEC last year, Mizzou was on the outside looking in. The Tigers finished fifth in the conference with a 6-4-1 record against SEC opponents, but all of their wins came against teams ranked sixth or lower in the conference. In those games, Mizzou went 6-1-1 and outscored their opponents 18-8.

However, the Tigers failed to defeat a ranked SEC team last year. Mizzou lost to Auburn, Arkansas and then Florida twice. In those four games, the Tigers were shut out three times and outscored 6-3.

Mizzou was on the cusp of being a part of the SEC elites last year, but the team didn’t make the cut. Out of the top five teams in the SEC, Mizzou was the only one not to reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Mizzou takes on Florida and South Carolina this year in SEC play, both in the latter half of the year. The Tigers play reigning SEC champion Florida on Oct. 5 in Gainesville and South Carolina on Oct. 19 at home. Sandwiched between those games is the only other SEC opponent on the schedule that defeated Mizzou last year, the Tennessee Volunteers.

These three games will prove if Mizzou is ready to be counted among the best teams in the SEC because last year showed that beating up on the lower half of the conference doesn’t translate to post-season success.

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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