The NCAA Tournament is a great experience. Teams should enjoy it but they can’t get caught up in the event and lose focus. COVID protocols make the tournament environment different this year than it has been in the past. The impact, if any, that will have on the ability of teams to stay focused on the task at hand remains to be seen.
Come to play. Teams can’t afford to come out flat in the NCAA Tournament. Teams sometimes dig themselves into a hole early on that can be difficult to dig out of.
Defense. It is trite but true that defense wins championships. Lapses in play on the defensive side of the ball will be costly. Defense has to be a total team effort. The margin for error is slim indeed on the defensive side of the ball. No team wants to have to play from behind in the one and done environment of the NCAA Tournament.
An opportunistic offense. While solid defense is a requirement that is vital, teams must also have the ability and the attack-oriented mindset that will enable them to put pressure on their opponents. There is merit to the statement that the best defense is a good offense. Teams that solely depend on their play on the defensive side of the ball can lapse into the mentality of playing not to lose rather than playing to win. To win, a team must be capable of finishing the scoring opportunities that come their way. The team that prevails in shots taken is not always the team that prevails in the one statistic on the scoreboard that really counts.
Flexibility. Upsets sometimes occur due in part to differences in the style of play of teams. It is important for a team to remain true to their style of play, to play to their strengths, and to do the things well that have worked for them in the past while having the flexibility, persistence, and patience to make the necessary adjustments needed to prevail over a team with a different style of play.
Balance is important. The ability to survive and advance is dependent upon a team’s ability to settle into a rhythm of play that will enable them to apply pressure on the offensive side of the ball while avoiding being vulnerable on the defensive side of the ball.
Team Chemistry. There are plenty of talented teams in the tournament field. The difference is how well a team is able to merge the individual talents of its players into a unified team in which the sum of the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts.
Depth. Teams with the ability to keep fresh legs on the field always have an advantage. This is a factor more so this year due to the fact that several teams have had to replace key players who elected to enter the professional ranks at the conclusion of the fall 2020 season or near the end of the spring 2021 campaign.
Netminders. No team is likely to advance at this level of play without solid play and stability between the pipes.
Play simple. The very best teams continue to embrace the fundamentals. They make good decisions, they make the runs that they need to make to be in the right place at the right time, they don’t force things by taking too many touches, they make the best pass, they avoid costly turnovers, they mark and support, and the most productive goal scorers always follow up their shots.
Big play ability. A team can’t prevail without big play ability. Every contest has a tipping point during which someone comes up with the big goal or big stop that shifts the momentum of the contest. Big time players make the big time plays that a team needs to prevail. Often in the NCAA Tournament an unexpected player rises to the occasion and makes a huge play that changes the course of a contest. Be prepared.
Consistency and stamina. The ability of a team to put in a full ninety-minute shift is crucial. Stamina impacts focus and is often the reason why a contest shifts dramatically within a short time frame. It is true that a two-goal lead is the most dangerous lead in soccer. A team can’t afford to take their foot off the gas. Also, data shows that goals are often scored within a few minutes of each other so whether scoring or being scored upon a team has to maintain their focus.
The Heart of a champion. Grit, confidence, and composure. This is not a game for the faint of heart. Talent is important but it takes physical and mental toughness and determination on both sides of the ball in order for a team to prevail over the course of a pressure filled and hard-fought contest. The ability to dig deep under pressure is often the difference between a win and a loss.
Experience and Leadership – The exuberance that underclassmen bring to the pitch is a plus but history tells us that experience and leaders who set the pace and add stability are a big plus when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.
Penalty kicks. The difference between advancing and going home is often determined by a penalty kick shootout. There is a reason why teams practice pks throughout the year. A great goalkeeper is always a huge plus in a shootout.
Games are won or lost based on what has occurred on the practice field throughout the year. That may be more true than ever before due to the impact of COVID. This is the time of the year when all the hard work and dedication comes to fruition
The love of the game. Having fun on the pitch does not preclude being focused, playing hard, and enjoying the opportunity to represent your school on college soccer’s biggest stage.