By Rob Moseley
When Sunday’s match with UC Irvine was over, and the Oregon soccer team had suffered its fourth defeat in five matches, each by a single goal, Kat Mertz performed perhaps her most important coaching of the day.
The Ducks sat in a circle stretching, the mood understandably dour. Mertz walked from player to player, offering handshakes to some, patting the shoulders of others. Oregon had mounted a furious effort to try and tie the game in the late stages, and Mertz wanted her team to be encouraged by that rally, if not the result.
Particularly with sixth-ranked BYU coming to Pape Field for a match Thursday at 7 p.m., to be televised by Pac-12 Networks.
“We don’t have any time to get down on ourselves right now,” Mertz said.
A week ago, the Ducks were coming off an encouraging win over Texas that gave them a .500 record through four games. Hawaii and UC Irvine were tough opponents, but foes against whom Oregon had ample opportunities. Now, after 1-0 and 2-1 losses, that record is 2-4, with just two nonleague games left before a rigorous Pac-12 Conference slate begins.
In its six games, Oregon’s goal differential is even: eight for, eight against. All four losses are by a single goal, and the Ducks have managed just three goals in those defeats.
Perhaps surprisingly, though, Mertz doesn’t see offense as the problem. The Ducks mustered 35 shots in their one-goal weekend against Hawaii and UC Irvine, and that kind of onslaught figures to be rewarded sooner or later.
Particularly encouraging was the play of veteran Bri Pugh. The junior managed 14 shots over the weekend and scored late against UC Irvine to make it a one-goal game. The veteran, who scored two goals all of last season, now has two this fall, and provided leadership when the Ducks were struggling.
The Ducks nearly had a goal late in the first half on a header from Brooke Strawn, but the play was called offsides. Keep chipping away in that fashion, Mertz believes, and the ball will find the back of the net more frequently.
“We showed we can respond,” Mertz said. “The 18 shots was fantastic.”
Problem is, the Ducks already trailed 1-0 at the time of Strawn’s near goal, after UC Irvine had scored just two minutes into the game. Early goals haven’t been an epidemic for Oregon this season, but Mertz suggested a disquieting trend has developed.
“The past four games, we’ve been on our heels the first 10 minutes,” she said. “It’s disappointing to see that. They know we start slow, and they took advantage of it.”
Mertz said there are practice drills she can implement to develop a sharper mentality right from the opening kick. But the bottom line is, it’s just a matter of being “clued in,” as she put it; UC Irvine’s early goal would have been offside had a UO defender been savvy enough to position herself correctly.
Against a top program like BYU on Thursday, such mistakes figure to be even more dangerous.
“We’ve got to tighten up defensively,” said Mertz, a former goalkeeper herself.
“We can’t wait. We have the ability to do it right from the beginning.”