We’re just three days away from the Tigers kicking off the season at home against Clemson, so it’s time for the preview!
No, this isn’t a flash forward to the end of the month. The Auburn soccer team also starts the season at home against Clemson, but this one is on Friday, August 19th. The Tigers have set up a very challenging schedule this season, but they have the roster to handle it. Let’s take a look at what may be one of the best teams on campus this fall, no matter how the other football team does.
The primary reason for optimism this season is that Auburn is returning most of a team that made it to the sweet 16 last season. Out of Auburn first choice starting lineup last season, only Kala Faulkner has departed. Logan Beal and Sophie Simantel both featured in nearly every game, but only combined for 9 and 5 starts respectively out of a possible 23 last season. Let’s break down what Auburn has in the four personnel groups:
Auburn’s top two GKs return from last season. Alyse Scott started several games towards the end of 2014, but was beaten out for the job in 2015 by then redshirt freshman Sarah Le Beau. Le Beau wound up starting all 23 games between the posts for Auburn, allowing just one goal per game and posting 9 clean sheets.* Auburn is in very good shape here.
The back line is where Auburn must replace the biggest departure from 2015. Kala Faulkner was 2nd on the team in minutes, was a reliable defender, a captain, a goal-scoring weapon on set-pieces, and a great distributor from the back. It was her ability to act as a de facto holding midfielder that allowed all of Auburn’s midfield to join the attack. She won’t be easy to replace.
However, part of the reason Faulkner could play that holding/distribution role was that Kiana Clarke was there to clean things up if anyone got behind Faulkner. Clarke led the team in minutes last season, and did all of the dirty work that never shows up on a standard stat sheet.
So who will make up the rest of the back line? It’s tough to figure out from twitter starting lineups (not necessarily in the standard order**) and the listed positions on the roster. If I’m following correctly, Courtney Schell may be taking Faulkner’s spot as a distributing CB. The fullbacks should be a rotation of Hannah Alspach, the Solaru sisters (Samantha the senior and Dani the freshman), and possibly Britne Holderby and freshman Avery Batson, who could also fill in at centerback. Fullback tends to be a position where you can stash a player who doesn’t fit your formation, so it could be several others as well.
This is where the situation is more known. Auburn still has the Ramsier sisters patrolling the midfield. Casie led Auburn in goals last season (12), and Brooke led Auburn in assists (11). The heart of a team is in how the midfield operates, and Auburn’s situation is well-served by having two players that have literally been together their whole lives. Casie was named to the Mac Hermann Trophy watch list, and Brooke is Auburn’s top set-piece taker. If you want a simple reason Auburn is highly ranked both nationally and in the SEC this season, the Ramsier sisters are numbers 1 and 1A.
If Courtney Schell has moved to centerback, then Auburn may be moving away from the 4-4-3*** they used last season. A 4-4-2 with players like Ellie Leek, Taylor Troutman, Haley Gerken, or any of the previously mentioned fullback options playing on the wings. That leaves the Ramsier sisters to patrol the middle of the field.
While the loss of Logan Beal affects the depth up top, Auburn looks to be in very good shape. Both Haley Gerken and Kristen Dodson were the last two names listed in both exhibition games. By most team sheets, this would mean they’re starting towards the top. Dodson played some last season, but she had to wear a bulky knee brace as she recovered from off-season surgery. Gerken missed all of last season with an injury. It could be that Hoppa just wants to get them plenty of minutes to get match fit, so we’ll just have to wait and see.
Aside from Gerken and Dodson, we’ll should also see Taylor Troutman and Ellie Leek up top. Those two combined for 5 goals in 32 shots on goal last season. Auburn also brought in a lot of freshman attacking talent on signing day, so look for some of them to get time at the front as well.
Auburn has the talent to return to the NCAA tournament and make a deep run, but to do so they’ll have to navigate a tough schedule. Thankfully the biggest non-conference games are at the Auburn Soccer Complex. Clemson, Cal State Fullerton, Iowa State, Southern California, and Baylor all make trips to the plains. The Tigers only non-conference road games are against in-state opponents Samford and South Alabama. All in all, the #14 Tigers play four teams ranked in Top Drawer Soccer’s preseason top 25 (10th ranked Clemson, 8th ranked USC, 7th ranked Florida, and 13th ranked Texas A&M).
As for the conference schedule, there’s one giant oddity: Auburn does not play Alabama in the regular season. The in-state rivals played an exhibition game last Thursday night (it finished a 2-2 draw), which I have to figure was scheduled because the SEC Soccer schedule, which is 11 games packed in between September 9th and October 27th, does not guarantee that they’ll play an official game this season. Just another way expanding the conference to 14 teams ruined everything.
The pundits are high on the Tigers this year. They’ve been ranked 12th in NSCAA preseason poll****, 14th in the Top Drawer Soccer preseason top 25, and 3rd in the SEC according to the coaches. That would be an improvement over last season’s 4th place SEC finish. Coach Karen Hoppa believes this may be her most talented team to date.
As for me, I think this could be Auburn’s best season in their relatively short history. The core of the team has been playing together for a while now, and the only major piece lost from last year’s Sweet Sixteen run is Kala Faulkner. She won’t be easy to replace, but the chemistry between the midfield and forward line should lead to an increase in the 1.65 goals per game they scored a year ago. Third place in the SEC is about right, given that the two teams put ahead of them, Texas A&M and Florida, are both road games this season. If Auburn can take advantage of their home schedule and knock off either Clemson or USC, not drop more than 2 games against the rest of the home slate, I think they could be looking at hosting more than one game in the NCAA tournament. Will it add up to a run to the College Cup in North Carolina? I won’t go that far yet, but I really like the setup of this team.
*-The stat sheet technically credits her with 7 because Scott finished two games before SEC play (college soccer doesn’t play by FIFA-sanctioned substitution rules; it’s a free-for-all). Le Beau played all but 38 minutes of last season, so I’m crediting her with the two “team” shutouts.
**-”standard order” is a bit of a misnomer anyway. It’s usually GK; LB, CB, CB, RB; [midfielders left to right]; [forwards]. There’s never a guarantee that it’s actually in order anyway.
***-I’ve also seen Coach Hoppa use a 3-4-3 and 4-4-2 in the past. SEC Network+ games don’t always have the best camerawork, so sometimes it’s tough to tell the true setup unless FourFourTwo starts charting SEC games.
****-The NSCAA poll has South Carolina ranked at 24, which gives Auburn 5 ranked opponents according to that poll.