The Florida Gator soccer team began the first round of the NCAA Tournament with a victory for the 12th straight year, this time it was a 3-1 victory over the South Alabama Jaguars on Friday night in Gainesville.
Florida got to this game after a dramatic 2-1 overtime loss against the Texas A&M Aggies, a loss that ended a two year SEC Tournament title run. In this game, the Gators looked sharp in every football aspect.
The Gators started the game with a tactical change in their lineup. Lais Araujo played as the central striker in the 4-2-3-1 formation. This is not Araujo’s natural position; she normally plays as a creative midfielder. So, this meant that the Gators did not start the game with a natural central striker on the pitch; this change happened because of Deanne Rose‘s absence due to international duty with her national team, Canada.
Parker Roberts also had to play as a central defender once again because of Kristen Cardano‘s injury. The Gators have the luxury of having that much depth in their lineup. The players might change, but the system stays the same.
Florida’s Harmonious Ball Movement
Early in the game, the Gators showed aggressiveness both offensively and defensively. They exploited the wings perfectly – especially the left one – thanks to the dribbling ability, passing vision and positional versatility of Mayra Pelayo and Gabby Seiler. The Jaguars struggled at covering the open gaps between defenders and the personal marking.
The Gators moved the ball harmoniously. That allowed them to have more open spaces and better creativeness in the last third. But curiously, the Gators could not execute too many shots at the beginning of the game. Pelayo had one clear chance early in the game, but not more besides that one. Sarah Troccoli, Brianna Solis, Seiler and Pelayo dragged rivals thanks to their positional switching and passing flow but struggled at finishing the last pass. All of that changed after Madison Alexander came in substitution of Araujo.
Alexander, a natural central striker, offered more quickness at dragging rivals and playing off the ball. Something that definitely helped the Gators was the resilient performance by both of their fullbacks: Julia Lester and Sammie Betters. Both players showed anticipation at the ball recovery, had an influence on offense by constantly advancing to the last third and creating passing opportunities.
In the 34th minute, the home team could finally open the scoring thanks to a beautiful triangle play designed by Troccoli, Seiler and Alexander. Troccoli, who had a fantastic playmaking performance, sent the through-pass to Seiler and split the backline inside the box; by cutting inside the box, Seiler was able to receive the ball and find enough space to easily assist Alexander in the goal; Alexander just had to tap it in. This was the fourth goal of the season for the freshman.
Some 10 minutes later, the Gators showed how collectiveness can nurture the individual talent. For the first time in 2017, Melanie Monteagudo scored a goal. On the left wing, she dribbled through two defenders and created her own shooting angle to bend it to the left corner of the net.
Defend As Well As You Attack
The Gators slowed down their attacking pace during the second half. But they did not stop being the dominating team thanks to two factors: South Alabama’s lack of creativity and Florida’s mesmerizing collective defense.
What Coach Burleigh said about her midfielders is important to take into account. Tess Sapone‘s defensive performance was pivotal for the Gators to get this victory. Throughout the season, Sapone had struggled every time she has had to be a big influence on offense for her team. This time was different because she did not have to do that.
Sapone was very solid at maintaining her position every time the Gators attacked the Jaguars; her positional sense and quick anticipation to recover the ball allowed Solis, the fullbacks and the rest of the attackers to have a more fluid offensive game. South Alabama struggled every time they tried to advance through the middle because of Sapone’s hustling on defense.
In the 54th minute, the Gators scored their third and last goal of the game thanks to Troccoli. Monteagudo dribbled and split her personal mark on the left wing once again to assist Troccoli; the junior received the short assist and sent the shot right away with her right foot to the near post.
The 3-0 advantage on the board allowed the Gators to make some substitutions to give rest some players and slowed down their intensity on defense. Unfortunately, with six minutes left on the clock, this allowed the visitors to score their only goal. Audrey Duren took advantage of the defensive mistake caused by a bad return from Sara Wilson to Kaylan Marckese.
Now the Gators have to wait for the winner between the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles and South Florida on Saturday. The second and third rounds of the NCAA Tournament will be between Nov. 17 and 19.