If there’s a theme with the University of Alabama soccer team, it’s that there’s been something missing.
In the bigger picture it’s the absence of a strong program legacy. The Crimson Tide certainly has the proud name, but in soccer has only been to the NCAA Tournament three times during its 25-year history.
It’s something fifth-year coach Wes Hart wants to change as soon as possible, beginning with this season and Thursday's opener against visiting BYU (7 p.m. CT).
“We really don’t have a history,” he said. “It’s time that we start building that. “
But with last year’s team, there was something else lacking as well — something intangible which has been much tougher to define. On paper, the Alabama had a lot of the ingredients that should have led to a postseason appearance, only it didn’t.
The Crimson Tide captured its first victory against a top-five program, yet it was the only win during the final five games when the season was on the line. It finished with a thud at 8-8-3, 2-6-2 in the Southeastern Conference, which wasn’t good enough to advance.
This year’s team is determined not to let that happen again.
“I think our biggest thing, and what we focused on during the spring, was team chemistry, and really forming those relationships off the field so that we can translate that with hard work on to the field,” senior defender Nealy Martin said. “We’re a completely different team this year. We added like 11 new freshmen, four came in the spring, so we’re just completely different this year and we’re excited.”
Alabama returns its leading scorer from 2018, Casey Wertz, who netted eight goals and is now a junior, but last year’s struggles were most evident in the part of the game where a soccer team needs to be the most creative, the offense.
Alabama averaged 16.0 shots per game and 1.95 goals, which were very middle-of-the-road numbers. However, in SEC play the Crimson Tide scored more than a goal only three times (and lost two of those games).
Midfielder Kat Rogers was second in goals with four, and she wasn’t considered a regular starter. Neither was defender Gigi Schorr, who had three, along with then-senior Abbie Boswell.
Things didn’t click, although some of that had to do with injuries and players subsequently out of position in order to help fill the lineup gaps.
For example, when forward Chloe Maize suffered a torn ACL just four games into the 2018 season, Riley Mattingly slid over to fill her spot on the right side. Mattingly is more comfortable in the middle, which can make a big difference.
But Maize is back, Mattingly has returned to her preferred position and the Crimson Tide has a more balanced attack. Factor in the signing class being ranked No. 12 in the nation by Top Drawer Soccer and there’s been a real influx of optimism.
“I think the biggest thing for us is the talent level, I think it’s a lot higher from the seniors down to the freshmen,” Maize said. “We get on the field and you really can’t tell who the freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors are. Even when we sub there’s not a drop in energy or the talent level.”
Among the key additions was Reyna Reyes, a midfielder/defender out of Garland, Texas. She was on the under-17 Mexican National Team member at right back and attended the 2016 and 2018 U17 World Cup, winning a bronze medal in the former.
Reyes, who started playing soccer at age 3, is one of five players on the Alabama roster from the soccer-growing Dallas area in Texas. The group includes freshman forward Carly Wyatt, who is also off to a good start with the Crimson Tide.
Another key addition has been midfielder Carlee Giamonna out of Las Vegas, who has been called up to play with the U.S. Women's U16 and U18 National Team.
“She’s going to score some goals, and help create lot of goals for us,” Hart said. “We definitely have much more depth and quality on attack.”
When asked if it all should lead to more offense, Hart responded, “Without a doubt.”
Alabama’s two exhibition games at the Alabama Soccer Stadium backed that up, as the Crimson Tide won by a combined score of 7-0. The 3-0 victory over UCF was proof that the offense had the potential to be much improved, which Maize “a great start for us.”
The 4-0 win against South Alabama confirmed it. The Crimson Tide outshot the Jaguars 22-2.
“They’ve come in and raised the bar,” Hart said about his newcomers.
“Our new freshmen are going to add more of a dynamic front,” Maize said. ‘They’ve just added so much to our team. We’re excited to see how creative we can be at the top.”
Alabama almost certainly won’t have that kind of success against SEC competition, but the rest of league hasn’t figured out yet that the Crimson Tide could be significantly better this fall. Alabama was picked to finish ninth in the conference coaches’ poll, which isn’t known for rewarding young teams because nothing’s been earned on the field yet.
Regardless, the Crimson Tide is still expected to be in the running for the NCAA Tournament. The league had a record nine teams selected in the field of 64 in each of the last two seasons, and in 2018 eight earned the right to host their opening round match at home.
That’s the goal for this team. Make the tournament, serve as a host, enjoy a run and start making history.
Better talent, improved chemistry and a good start are the early indications that it’s more than a reasonable possibility. The more success is has will lead to it becoming the expectation, which Hart wants to be the case every year.
“Everyone’s bought in, in what we’re trying to do and accomplish this year,” Martin said. “It’s good to get in the habit of winning, too, and this got us off on the right foot.”