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  • Sophie Lodes

The Recipe for An NCAA Soccer Upset

The second round of the NCAA tournament wrapped up with plenty of lower-seed upsets, keeping the tournament interesting. With Thanksgiving right around the corner, recipes are on everyone’s mind, and going into the third round, the upstart lower seeds are certainly cooking. To pull off an upset in the NCAA tournament, follow the recipe below.

No. 6 St. Louis v. No.2 Penn St.—Nov. 19th, 1:00 pm

The obvious contribution for what St. Louis brings to the table is defense and goalkeeping. And even though Georgetown managed to snap SLU’s 11-game shutout streak, the Hoyas couldn’t beat Emily Puricelli. The win sends St. Louis to their first-ever Sweet Sixteen in the women’s tournament, making history.

But SLU’s defense isn’t necessarily the key to the Billikens' success over the No.3 Georgetown, at least not in the traditional sense of purely defensive play. Instead, the defensive recipe is how much trust the backline has in Puricelli, allowing them to push higher up the field, take risks, and turn defense into offense. Although Puricelli stays at home in the box, the entire 18-yards are hers as she routinely makes plays to snatch the ball from a forward’s feet the second they cross into the goal box.

That trust keeps SLU pressing forward, even in games where they struggle to hold onto the ball. Against Georgetown, possession favored the Hoyas, but SLU was unconcerned, continuing to step to players and keeping the wingbacks higher up. The team trusted Puricelli would control the space behind them. It also allowed St. Louis to defend in waves, with overlapping runs between the midfield and defense preventing the Hoyas from having an easy path forward. It ensured a smooth transition from defense to offense—SLU’s reason for having 18 players with goals this year.

No.7 Pittsburg v. No.6 Memphis—Nov.19th, 6:00 pm

Speaking of offense, No.7 Pittsburg upset No.2 Arkansas through sheer clutch factor. Winning 4-3, Pitt demonstrated just how hard putting to bed a team with an abundance of offensive threats can be, especially when that team believes in their ability to always find the back of the net.

Comfortable playing soccer that looks a bit like a track meet, Pitt will out-grit an opponent by constantly asking the opponents to score one more goal if they want to win. The Panthers will dare the opposition to score first just to give Pitt a chance to play with a chip on their shoulder. Fast, creative, and viciously efficient anywhere near the box, Pitt’s offense does the equivalent of throwing spaghetti at the wall hoping something will stick. The difference is: the Panthers know their spaghetti is going to stick and their forwards will score.

Put simply: Pitt scores bangers, as many of them as necessary to upset the opponent. Defense isn’t exactly optional, but the team is confident that goalkeeper Ellie Breech will let in one less goal than the opponents will. It’s a high-risk, high-reward game plan that’s so far granted Pitt nothing but success. The come-from-behind grit adds flavor to Pitt’s resume and their clutch factor is unmatched so far in the tournament.

Since Pitt plays Memphis, it’s time to mention what Memphis adds to the upset recipe: a clever, controlled midfield. Winning 3-2 over No.3 Notre Dame. The key to the upset was solving Notre Dame while remaining a mystery to the Fighting Irish, a line Memphis walked the whole game, remaining elusive enough to win by one.

With the offense and defense knowing their rules, the Memphis midfield covered the rest, tracking back, overlapping with the forwards, finding space, and scoring goals. Memphis took the game to Notre Dame, forcing sustained defense out of a team that was looking for an attack. By controlling the tempo, Memphis was able to thread the needle to find the back of the net on three separate occasions.

More than speed and positioning, the Memphis midfield had a nose for the perfect pass in the final third. The American League midfielder of the year Momo Nakao plays a huge role in orchestrating the delicate offense-to-defense balance and connecting the rapid-fire passes together. With her ability to change pace mid-step, Nakao can singlehandedly set the tempo for the match.

UC Irvine v. No.5 Nebraska—Nov.19th, 2:00 pm

The obvious ingredient in any comeback recipe is belief. Now the sole unranked opponent left in the tournament, UC Irvine has belief in spades, going up 2-0 early on Gonzaga. But more than just belief in winning, the Anteaters didn’t even look nervous when Gonzaga clawed back a goal with 50 minutes to go.

Winning a game by scoring in the 87th minute down a player is a different kind of belief than going up 2-0 and then defending a one-goal lead for 50. It requires even more belief when a team loses two of their starting defenders—one in the first game and another in the second match, but the Anteaters have handled every possible twist and turn that’s come their way this tournament.

UC Irvine has belief in spades and a strong record of upsetting their first-round opponent. With the second-round upset under their belt for the second consecutive year, the Anteaters can only increase their sense of belief, especially with the adversity they’ve faced so far. Navigating wrinkles in the past two games could have easily shaken the Anteaters, but instead, they looked comfortable handling the challenges. Belief is like salt in a recipe—easy to forget how important it is but obvious when it’s missing.

No.5 Texas v. No.1 Florida St.—Nov.19th, 5:30 pm

Texas adds a shooters-shoot mentality to the upset recipe, beating No.4 Wisconsin 2-1 to advance to the next round. When not attacking, Texas struggled to keep Wisconsin contained, relying on intense defending and goalkeeper Mia Justus. But with the ball, the Longhorns looked deadly, if not clinical.

With the ability to instantly make a team regret even an inch of space, Texas’s offense is deadly in the attack, forcing defenders to step to any player in the attacking third. Only four of Texas’s 11 shots were on goal, but efficiency doesn’t always matter when the volume is high enough.

Shooters-shoot pairs well with what opponents of Texas would call luck and fans of the Longhorns would call probability. Advancing on the odd deflection goal in the first round, Texas missed going down 2-0 to Wisconsin by barely managing to keep a Badger in an offside position. Luck, a well-designed offsides trap, or simply the product of shooting whenever possible, the Longhorns know the key to their upsets is shooting the ball in the attacking third whenever possible.

No.6 Mississippi St. v. No.2 Stanford—Nov.19th, 4:00 pm

Like a lot of teams who find themselves in the upset column, Mississippi St. knows how to pull off an upset. But what Mississippi St. actually brings to the recipe is knowing how to maximize an advantage by doing one specific thing well. In the case of the 2-1 comeback win over Brown, that specific thing was exploiting space on the wings to send in the perfect ball.

While the game-winning goal came off a corner, the argument is still that Mississippi St.’s service from the wings is what sets them apart from the competition. Quickly distributing wide also pulls the opposing team’s midfielders wide, allowing the forwards to find pockets of space in the middle of the box. Working in tandem, Mississippi St.’s game plan creates enough chances for the Dawgs to consistently find the back of the net.

Advancing to the sweet sixteen for the first time in program history, Mississippi St. focuses in on what they excel at and bends another team’s game plan to theirs. Regardless of whether it’s a long ball over the top, or shorter passes to advance up the field, the assist is coming from the wings.

The Sweet Sixteen begins on Saturday, with BYU taking on Michigan State at 8:00 pm Eastern Time, but the bulk of the games take place on Sunday. There are no easy games left and with plenty of surprises in the second round, the Sweet Sixteen will likely have a surprise or two unfold as well. After all, teams have been studying the recipe for an upset.


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