Gator Soccer Rides Second-Half Goals to First Round Win Over FGCU

For the Florida soccer team it wasn’t the third time that was the charm.

Nor the fourth.

Nor the fifth.

It was Florida’s 15th shot of the game that finally broke the deadlock in their NCAA Tournament first round match-up against the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles. The goal, via Meggie Dougherty Howard, gave the Gators a lead they wouldn’t relinquish and sent them on their way to a 3-0 victory that sets up a date with Wisconsin in the second round.

Before the goal, the Gators hadn’t been able to find the back of the net despite out-shooting the Eagles 14-2 through 64 minutes of play, an example of how frustrating the first two-thirds of the match was for Florida in front of a packed house at Dizney Stadium that included University of Florida President Kent Fuchs and Athletic Director Scott Stricklin.

Florida coach Becky Burleigh broke out a 3-5-2 formation for this match, inserting Melanie Monteagudo as second striker to pair up with Savannah Jordan, allowing the team to control the midfield with their high pressing and success down the sides by playing with their usual five in the midfield.

Mayra Pelayo and Julia Lester made consistent runs down the wings throughout the match. Pelayo, specifically, was a danger every time she went forward, showing off her good footwork to get defenders off-balance and to open up space to send in crosses for scoring opportunities.

The other benefit of the formation was that it allowed the Gators to press the Eagles early and often. Florida maintained a high defensive line and suffocated the passing lanes whenever FGCU had the ball, and thus was able to keep most of the action in the opposing half for much of the match.

Despite everything they did well, including attempting nine shots in the first half, the Gators entered half-time with a scoreless draw thanks to some good goal-keeping from FGCU’s Melissa Weck. Gator forward Savannah Jordan acknowledged the good defensive effort from the Eagles in the first half, saying they gave an all-out effort in the first half to keep them off the scoring sheet.

That clean sheet would end at the 66th minute.

A give away in the midfield allowed the Gators to break on a counter attack with favorable numbers. Samantha Chung slotted a through ball to a Meggie Dougherty Howard who slipped behind the Eagles’ back-line, and took a good touch before sending a low, driven shot with her right foot into the far side netting. The goal from eight yards out, Dougherty Howard’s career-high seventh goal of the season, was the kick-starter the Gators had been looking for. Although Burleigh says she liked the patience the team had been showing up to that point, Dougherty Howard says the goal came as a sigh of relief to the team and helped settle the team down. 

The Gators scored two more goals in the following 16 minutes that put the game away.

At the 77th minute, freshman defender Julia Lester made a solo run in to the box. She danced away from a defender to give herself an angle to unleash a left-footed effort from five yards out that rolled into the bottom right corner. The goal marks Lester’s third score of the season, and provided the Gators with a more comfortable lead with 13 minutes left in the match.

Four minutes later, the Gators added a third goal to put the icing on the cake, and it couldn’t have been anyone other than Savannah Jordan. In describing the lead up to the goal, Jordan gave credit to Rachelle Smith for building attacking play from the defense. Smith connected with Pelayo, who whipped in one of her numerous dangerous crosses. The ball eventually fell to Florida’s second all-time leading goal-scorer, who slotted the ball into the bottom right hand corner.

In the end, the Gators persistence paid off. Florida’s patience in attack and consistent pressure let them eventually break down FGCU’s stingy defensive effort, with Burleigh saying she liked how the team played in attack.

The Gators are now winners of seven straight games, their longest win streak of the season. Even with that being said, Burleigh says her team isn’t peaking, but instead is continuing to grow and learn from every game they play.

Florida will look to keep their win streak and season alive on Friday, Nov. 18 when they host the Wisconsin Badgers in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Game time is set for 7 p.m.

About Jonathan Acosta

Native New Englander. Follow me on Twitter: @jonacosta_10

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