Mizzou soccer opener a thrill, but keep it in perspective

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Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator

Perspective.

I’m usually not a fan of clichés in sports. “You gotta take ‘em one at a time.” “You dance with the one who brung ya.” “It’s a (barn burner, nip and tuck, game of inches)”

So when you talk about “perspective” in sports, my eyes glaze over a little. But, sometimes, you have to be reminded that, indeed, one must maintain one’s perspective when it comes to sports.

It was true as I talked Mizzou football with Bob Fescoe on 610 Sports in Kansas City this week. Don’t overreact to a couple of mistakes by James Franklin, don’t overreact to a poor scrimmage or a great one from Dorial Green-Beckham. It’s a long season. Perspective.

So, it’s not time to proclaim the 2012 Missouri soccer team world beaters yet. It’s not yet time to declare the new formation Bryan Blitz sent out against Memphis in the team’s opener Friday night the greatest thing since the Dutch gave the world “Total Football.” Let’s hold our ballots putting Taiwo Adeshigbin up for sportsperson of the Year.

But after one game, we do know that there’s reason to think this might be a very exciting year for the Tigers. I wasn’t sure a week ago what to expect. This team returned a great deal of talent from last year’s team, but last year’s team wasn’t that great. Nobody ranked them in the preseason, and the Southeastern Conference coaches picked them fifth out of seven teams in the Eastern Division. Then, the team went out and got thumped 4-0 in their only preseason exhibition against Southern Methodist.

But we may have learned yesterday that those expecting little out of this club were badly mistaken. We already knew the team could play defense, and they did that well last night, Memphis getting only a few serious runs at the Tiger goal, and notching only two shots and one goal in the second half. McKenzie Sauerwein was solid in goal, and while she’s only a sophomore she already has 19 starts and a maturity and cool in the box that makes it seem as if she’s older.

There was a new-look formation for the Tigers Friday, with the Tigers sending out four defenders but placing Danielle Nottingham in the back after she started 19 games at forward in 2011. The team’s 4-3-3 set will make for continued strong defense, but will give them flexibility as the backs can move forward and score, as last night proved.

Ironically, Missouri got its first goal of the year from the defenders, but not from Nottingham. Candace Johnson, the only true freshman who got picked to start against Memphis, scored in the 15th minute to give the Tigers a lead they’d never relinquish. It may be a sign that we’ll see something that might be remarkable, and a little scary, to think of — a team even more aggressive and forward-thinking than past Blitz teams. After one game the new formation looks like a winner, and Blitz said after the game he’s sticking with it for the time being.

Whether it is a success in terms of wins and losses at the end of the year, this philosophy will make for some soccer that will be very fun to watch, and while the team played with a somewhat conservative, tentative first-game jitters in the first half, we saw in the second half exactly how frenzied this offense could be. In a period of nine minutes and 12 seconds, the Tigers blasted four goals, two from Adeshigbin and then two from Diggs.

It’s a great start, an exciting start. But…perspective.

This team came into the season with a lot of confidence, maybe too much. Blitz described the team’s attitude going into last weekend’s debacle in Dallas as “too cool for school.” Perhaps getting their rears handed to them in an embarrassing loss to the Mustangs might be the best thing that could have happened to the Tigers.

“We learned a good lesson from SMU, that winning is hard,” Blitz said. “We weren’t prepared, and we just didn’t compete.”

Adeshigbin’s breakthrough may be big news for the Tigers. The team already features proven scorers on the front line. The top three scorers from last year — Nottingham, Dominique Richardson and Diggs — all return, as does assist leader Kaysie Clark. Add in big scoring from Adeshigbin, and we could see a team that challenges the high-scoring Blitz teams of the late ‘90s. That kind of scoring combined with strong defensive play and a tough goalkeeper and this team could beat an awful lot of teams in their new league, the SEC.

Perspective.

It’s just one game. Yes, it’s a win over a highly-ranked team, but this was not a full-strength Memphis club. They were missing three top players, including All-American Christabel Oduro, as the U-20 World Cup is being played in Japan. The Tigers won seven in a row last year, a team record. The team then lost three of the next four, all to ranked teams (Florida, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M) and never recovered.

But there’s one good about being warned about over-confidence. It means you have reason to be pretty darn confident to start with, and one game into the 2012 season, the Missouri Tigers have that reason. Explosive offense, solid defense, strong fan support —  we’ll keep our perspective, but we’ll also know that this could be a truly excellent team.

We’ll know a lot more by the end of the weekend. The Tigers next play a team in California-Santa Barbara that had a losing record last season and which lost Friday in overtime to a team with whom we should have some familiarity, the Kansas Jayhawks. The Tigers should dominate the Gauchos. If they come away with another strong victory, it we can add to the level of excitement about the team. If they lose, maybe the Memphis win was a fluke.

Either way, we’ll keep it all in perspective.

Adeshigbin Breakthrough Exciting for Teammates

Taiwo Adeshigbin came into Mizzou from the junior college ranks with a lot of expectation, having notched 66 goals in two seasons. But we learned over the course of the 2011 season to keep her 66 goals at Georgia Perimeter in perspective. Maybe she wouldn’t step up to the challenge of play in the top level of college ball.

But Blitz told us before Friday’s game he expected a lot from Adeshigbin this year, and made a comparison to another Mizzou athlete. “It’s kind of like (Ricardo) Ratliffe in basketball, it took a while to get acclimated to everything at a new level, whether you’re a junior college player or a freshman. She really has embraced the challenge to work hard.” The comparison leaves Adeshigbin with some big shoes to fill. Ratliffe came into Mizzou out of junior college ball and eventually became one of the nation’s top power forwards before beginning his professional career recently in South Korea. Adeshigbin has a terrific attitude, consistently deflecting praise to her teammates while talking about her two-goal performance against Memphis. But while her second goal was the result of a dandy pass and a big of good fortune which found her alone in front of the goal and able to simply nod in the short header, her first goal was one she created entirely herself with some slick dribbling and a powerful right leg.

And while she wasn’t bragging after the game, it was clear others were thrilled to see Adeshigbin get the chance to become part of the score sheet. After rushing through responses to questions about her own performance, Diggs broke into a wide grin when I asked about Adeshigbin.

“Taiwo has been working her butt off all summer. She is an unsung hero, she is awesome.”

Working her butt off might even be an understatement. Blitz said he almost has to tell Adeshigbin to hit the breaks now and then. When he spotted her working out with a medicine ball in between two-a-day practices, he had to tell her to take it easy, to get some rest.

It’s a lesson sports reminds us of in many ways, many times.
Perspective.

One final note: I didn’t see if Mizzou Athletic Director Mike Alden was in the house Friday night, but the strong crowd has to be a great sign for all Tiger athletics. There’s a buzz around everything happening in black and gold with the move to the SEC, and to draw the sixth largest crowd ever for a Tiger soccer match in the opener is a good sign that we’ll see a lot of fan interest, and it’s a pretty safe bet that it won’t just be for soccer.

And there’s something interesting about those games on the chart of best attended soccer matches at Walton — most of those five games ahead of the 1,169 last night were against old rivals from the Big 12, Texas A&M and Oklahoma. The best-attended game ever at Walton, oddly enough, wasn’t a conference game, though. It was a non-conference game, the season opener in 2001, in which 1,926 fans watched the Tigers beat…the University of Memphis.

What’s next?

Sunday the Tigers take on the Gauchos of Cal-Santa Barbara. UCSB went 7-11-2 last season, and while they were not much of an offensive threat last year, scoring just 19 goals in 20 games, they return eight of their top nine players and Makenna Henry, who started all but one game in goal for the Gauchos. Henry and senior midfielder Erin Ortega were both named to the preseason All-Big West team. UCSB is 0-1 on the year after losing in overtime Friday at Kansas.
The Tigers then take to the road, playing Sunday Aug. 26 at California. The Bears opened with a 3-0 win over Pacific, getting two goals from senior Betsy Hassett, who recently played for New Zealand in the 2012 Olympics in London. The Bears were ranked No. 19 in the Top Drawer Soccer preseason rankings.

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