Updated Nov. 15 at 1:40 p.m.
The crowd at Rocco B. Commisso Soccer Stadium watched in frustration at women’s soccer’s 2018 Ivy season opener against Cornell, as the Lions repeatedly took shot after shot at the Cornell net but were unable to finish.
Lions fans leapt to their feet after each shot, ready to celebrate what was supposed to be the goal to deliver Columbia its first Ivy victory of the year. But the Lions just could not connect. The decisive goal had not come. After 37 shots, the crowd began to lose hope.
In the 101st minute of double overtime, the crowd rose to its feet once more. Junior midfielder Maddie Temares took the ball on a cross from senior forward Rachel Alexander and curved the ball just past and over the Cornell keeper where it settled into the upper left corner of the net. Columbia won 2-1, officially reaching 1-0 in Ivy League play.
After beating Cornell, Columbia was on its way to completing its goal of winning a conference title. After all, that’s what happened in 2017: Last year, the Lions finished second in the league, boasting five straight Ivy shutouts and a 5-1-1 conference record.
But the Light Blue’s play in 2018 did not mirror that of last season. Instead, it more resembled the Cornell match, with the Lions unable to defend their own net and find the back of their opponent’s.
For the Lions, game strategy begins with the goalkeeper. According to head coach Tracey Bartholomew, her team has always been more defense-oriented. Bartholomew admits that her own experience as a player factors heavily into this team focus.
“I was a goalkeeper and never liked to get scored on,” Bartholomew said.
No keeper wants to concede a goal, but the Lions have based almost their entire game strategy on this mentality. According to both Bartholomew and star senior forward Emma Anderson, Columbia views an impenetrable defense as the first step towards an Ivy title.
“Defense is always the foundation of our teams,” Anderson said. “No matter what year it is, that's where we start.”
The Lions believe they have a chance to win every game they play as long as nothing gets past the keeper. This strategy worked beautifully last season, with the Lions tallying eight shutouts and an impressive 540 straight minutes without allowing an opponent to score.
In 2017, then-junior keeper Sophie Whitehouse had a save percentage of 0.964 in Ivy League play. She recorded 27 saves and let up only a single goal in conference. This truly remarkable performance resulted in Whitehouse being named to the second-team All Ivy. This season, however, Whitehouse faltered at the net.
The Lions allowed an average of 1.13 goals per game this year compared to last season’s 0.81. Whitehouse personally saw her save percentage drop from 0.840 to 0.719 and let up a total of six goals in Ivy play. This difference, while not massive, should have resulted in a change in game strategy. Columbia could no longer rely on defensive dominance to make up for lower-scoring matches.
Instead, the Lions were forced to turn to their offense and create more opportunities to score. Bartholomew noted that in recent years, the Lions have tried to become more of a “possession-oriented” team, focusing on controlling the ball and putting up a greater number of shots on goal.
Despite pressure on the offense to compensate for a weaker defense, Columbia took almost 60 fewer shots in 2018 compared to 2017. Not only were there fewer scoring opportunities, but a lower percentage of the shots Columbia was taking were on goal (the Lions had a shots on goal percentage of .447 this season compared to last season’s .495).
With fewer shots on goal, it was even more imperative that the shots being taken were finding the back of the net. Columbia, however, put up 12 fewer goals this season compared to 2018 and averaged almost a full goal less per game. With the Lions failing to convert and scoring less often, there was little hope of the offense negating the increase in goals scored by opponents.
If last season’s performance was any indication, the Lions had the potential to at least finish toward the top of the Ivy League table. Columbia had four returning All-Ivy players this season, and multiple players ranked in the top five in the league for shots.
One such player was Anderson. In her first year with the Lions, Anderson led the team in both shots and goals, something she did for three out of her four seasons at Columbia. Bartholomew decided to play to Anderson’s strengths and encouraged her aggressive attitude when it came to shooting.
“Anytime Emma got the ball it was to go to goal,” Bartholomew said.
In the past, this strategy aided the team’s quest for a stronger, more proactive offense. But this season, Anderson scored only three goals and instead led the team in assists with a career-high five.
This was due in part to other teams closely defending and even, at times, double-teaming Anderson, forcing her to create opportunities for other players rather than take shots herself.
Upon first glance, this assist-first focus appeared beneficial. In the final three games of the season, Anderson set up first-year Jessica Schildkraut for three separate goals, two of which were game-winners.
But with the change in Anderson’s play, the Lions suffered a net loss of two goals from the forward that they could not afford—Anderson dipped from eight goals to three, but her assists only increased from two to five.
If the Lions had beaten Harvard and Princeton had fallen to Penn, the Ivy standings would present a different narrative of Columbia’s season. Instead of finishing fifth, Columbia would have retained its second place position from 2017 and the upward trend would have continued.
Instead, Columbia’s loss to Harvard sent them tumbling down the ladder and represents all that went wrong this season. While the Lions were able to outshoot the Crimson and utilize some of their strongest players this season—in this case, Schildkraut and Anderson—to pick up the equalizer in the 17th minute, they failed to convert their shots.
More importantly, though, the Light Blue let up a late goal in the 79th minute. This brought the score to 2-1 Harvard and with the Lions averaging 1.38 goals per game, their chances of victory were greatly diminished.
But Bartholomew is not making excuses. The team did not underperform due to injury or extenuating circumstances. Columbia simply gave up significantly more goals than in years prior and failed to convert shots on goal. The Light Blue’s shortcomings were the result of the team being unable to adapt on offense in response to a shift in defensive play, despite having the shooting talent to do so.
Anderson’s time in Morningside Heights has come to an end, and with it, her dreams of an Ivy title are also over. But with a team that clearly has the potential to win a championship in the near future, she has turned her attention toward the next generation of players, optimistic as ever.
“Even if we can’t win an Ivy League championship, how do we help the people behind us do it?”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that goalkeeper Sophie Whitehouse was a junior, and that senior forward Emma Anderson assisted first-year midfielder Jessica Schildkraut on one game-winning goal. Whitehouse is in fact a senior, and Anderson assisted Schildkraut on two goals. Spectator regrets these errors.