by Jeff Laughlin
Across the field from the stands, the UNCG and James Madison University women’s soccer teams sat straight-backed against the wall of the stadium. That was the only way to find shade while their coaches strategized. The half looked grueling — a 0-0 affair — with both teams looking a little dead-legged.
Neither team had begun their conference schedules, the meat of their season still sitting on the bone. JMU looked like the more aggressive team throughout the first half, chance after chance forsaken by not executing an extra pass or just missing on a connection near the box.
Off in the distance, roars built and waned. The UNCG softball team was in the midst of dismantling Elon in a fall exhibition. A six-run first inning all but secured them a win, but they pressed on, continuing to put up runs. While they had dugouts to provide respite from the sun, the soccer teams only had the wall, and not much of it.
James Madison’s coach bellowed stats to his players, telling them to move around in the box. He believed that his Dukes had the ball nearly 70 percent of the first half. He shouted this as if he were telling both teams that his squad owned the game despite the score.
JMU possessed the ball an ungodly amount of the time. Just by the eye test, they were the more physically gifted team. Their goalie looked borderline bored as she stood at the edge of the box. Normally, the goalie shouts instructions and directs traffic, but JMU’s goalie stared into the middle distance, shouting occasional niceties to her teammates knowing they were just out of earshot.
I began to wonder if she shouted for show as James Madison won each midfield battle, only relinquishing possessions for long enough to pull a shot wide or get a pass blocked that would have secured a goal.
The second half began the same way — JMU winning midfield battles and moving the ball around just until the point of seemingly breaking the UNCG defense. Then a turnover or a wild shot from distance would end their possession.
Problematically for JMU, soccer does not always reward the better team and possession only matters if it produces results.
The clock in these college games does not work like in the pros. They have a countdown clock like all other sports, with no added time. The resting periods that the pros take — long injury or substitution breaks — do not exist. The ends of halves or games resemble basketball or football. Long heaves down the field often end up inflating goalie’s save numbers, while shots on goal look like mad scrambles more than calculated movements.
Because of the clock, the game’s most beautiful moments came in the second half. No one scored early, so a good part of the first half resembled the opening round of a prizefight. JMU flashed occasional tricks to catch someone off guard, but generally the contest looked sluggish and methodical. Fans could see the game plans unfurl in front of them with uncoordinated attacks and overwrought chances, easily quelled.
The second half presented two much more comfortable teams. While James Madison continued to control possession, UNCG’s possessions began to resemble production rather than rest for their defenders.
It looked like JMU’s game of keep-away either bored the Dukes or wore them down.
Without a corner kick or a set play, UNCG got shots off. They used the longball — the kicks reverberating off of the building behind them like the boom of fireworks. They pursued much better than in the first half, creating turnovers and working the right side of the field.
You could hear the frustration in JMU Head Coach David Lombardo’s voice. His commands from the sideline got less advisory and more apprehensive.
“You gotta move! Switch it up. Don’t just settle for a cross — beat them in the middle,” he yelled with about 18 minutes to go. He wanted the chances his team got to be meaningful instead of plentiful.
Those crosses looked like a sign of exhaustion, while UNCG kept taking larger chances and making deeper passes. For a while, from about 14 to 10 minutes left, JMU got back to their long-possession style, but with so many passes came the opportunity for mistakes.
Chesney White, a junior, took advantage of a breakaway after a stolen pass and put away a shot from short distance. After that goal, the game changed dramatically. UNCG confidently held possessions and forced wild, long passes by JMU. JMU had no shots near the goal until a wild scramble at the finish, and UNCG’s patience provided them with several wasted chances to bury the Dukes.
That said, they produced a 1-0 victory against a controlling team.
The 1-0 win must have felt satisfying despite the obvious lack of offensive prowess. The team climbed back to .500 and they haven’t allowed a goal in 219 consecutive minutes. While they struggled mightily in the first half, the slow burn of confidence they developed late in the game looms important as the conference season begins.
Shuffling toward my car, a slight breeze on the air, I turned back to see the complex. Two scoreboards shone — one reading 12-0 UNCG and another reading 1-0 UNCG.
It probably didn’t seem so hot for the winners, shade be damned.