Soccer must tune up performance before conference play begins
After soccer coach Diego Bocanegra was hired following the 2016 season, the Cougars promptly went 3-6 in conference play as part of an overall record of 7-9-1. For Bocanegra, though, the team is defined by more than just its win/loss record.
“Growth and success aren’t linear,” Bocanegra said, “but don’t get me wrong, we need to win games because that’s part of it.”
Bocanegra said one of the ways to achieve those wins is to figure out the team’s identity, something he is still working on. Bocanegra is still adjusting the team’s personnel and formations due to some injuries early in the season.
Bocanegra also pointed to the youth and inexperience of the team as something that will get ironed out as the season progresses. The Cougars’ coaching staff has incorporated 13 new players, including 11 freshmen, into its lineup, which Bocanegra said is not the easiest thing in the world.
“As coaches, figuring out the right combinations of players playing next to each other, it’s a balancing act and some days we’re better than others,” Bocanegra said.
The Cougars are 4-4 through the first eight games of the season and have three more to go before conference play starts.
When asked about the team’s progression from game one to now, junior forward Amy Nguyen immediately described the improvements she has seen in the team’s passing, like the through balls that help the Cougars execute the attack.
Players and coaches recognize there is still work to be done if they want to compete with the best soccer teams in the conference.
For junior forward Desiree Bowen, it’s simple. She said the Cougars need to create more chances, score more goals and improve their on-field communication. For Bocanegra, the solution isn’t found on a stat sheet anywhere.
“We really need to figure out how to be on the same page for longer periods of time,” Bocanegra said. “We do it at times for 30 to 40 minutes, but we need that to turn into 60 and 70 minutes and then 90 minutes.”
Although Bocanegra and his players point to these different aspects of the game that still need improvement, the coach has already begun to make his mark on the program.
From 2013 to 2016, the Cougars won 15 combined games. In just one and a quarter season with Bocanegra at the helm, the Cougars have won 11 games.
The next step in the progression of the soccer team is to be more consistent, Bocanegra said. He wants the team to get to a point where it consistently defeats lower ranked teams. Once the Cougars are able to do that, the team can focus on knocking off teams that are more established within the conference.
Bocanegra brought up a particular game from last season: a 2-1 victory over the then No. 21 Cincinnati Bearcats, just their second defeat of the season. Cincinnati would go on to finish third in the American Athletic Conference, but that game showed that the Cougars were rebuilding into something different.
Bocanegra wants the Cougars to “be able to line up against anyone in our conference and anyone in the country, and on any given night, have the ability to win.”
To do that, the Cougars must score goals. When the team can score early in a match, it’s almost like a switch gets flipped. Seeing the ball hit the back of the net gets everybody fired up, Nguyen said. She might be onto something, as evidenced by the Cougars’ victory over Prairie View A&M.
In that game, sophomore midfielder Olivia Lee scored the game’s first goal in minute 11 and opened the floodgates as a result. The Cougars went on to score four more times. Since Bocanegra took over, the Cougars have only lost twice when scoring at least two goals.
So, what constitutes a successful season for the Cougars? Double-digit victories? A berth in the post-season tournament?
“It’s not always about the result, it’s about what we learned from each result, win or loss,” Bowen said. “As long as it’s something we can learn from and it’s something we can build on going forward, that’s a success.”