The Charlotte 49ers women’s soccer team is scoring about the same number of goals to start this season as it scored at the end of last season.
There is, however, one significant difference in the results: This year, the 49ers are winning games despite their low goal production. At the end of last season, they weren’t.
Charlotte’s three wins to open the 2013 campaign were by scores of 1-0, 1-0 and 2-1. The 49ers had a three-game win streak snapped with a 2-0 loss at Virginia Tech on Sept. 6, but one of the Hokies’ goals was an own goal that deflected off a group of Charlotte players. Charlotte rebounded two days later with another 1-0 win at Western Carolina.
The low-scoring games work just fine in coach John Cullen’s plans. Entering this season, he was more concerned about his team’s defense anyway.
“We’ve worked a lot on defending in the preseason,” said Cullen, in his fifth season as Charlotte’s coach. “We obviously feel as the season goes we’ll get better as an attacking force. But we have to rely a lot on our defensive presence.”
Charlotte had a lot of experience returning in its defense. Fullbacks Brooke Mulloy and Dakota Olson and goalkeeper Alex Kubrick are all seniors. Fellow defenders Taylor Dulaney, a redshirt junior, and sophomore Monica Trickett each started at least eight games last year.
With a 10-3-1 record, the 49ers reached the midpoint of the 2012 season with a lot of enthusiasm. During a six-game winning streak between Sept. 16 and Oct. 12, Charlotte tallied 18 goals, although two of those victories were in overtime.
Over the final two weeks of the season, however, the 49ers’ goal production all but disappeared. They scored just two goals while posting a 0-5-1 mark.
The winless streak started and ended with losses to La Salle, including a 2-0 defeat in the conference tournament, Charlotte’s final Atlantic 10 contest. What was most important to Cullen was that his team was losing close games.
“It was a great talking point for us in the spring,” said Cullen, who needs six more wins to pass his predecessor, Jon Lipsitz, as the third-winningest coach in program history. “We felt what we needed to address was finding a way to win those close games.
“Each of the three games to start this season have been close games, and maybe we’re turning the corner and finding a way to win those close games.”
Cullen’s theory is that if you don’t let the opponent score, your team needs only one goal to win.
Just as important to the success of this year’s team was building camaraderie on and off the field. For a couple of years now, Cullen has implored the support of a “leadership council,” a group of leaders that represents every class of players from seniors to freshmen.
For this season, the group came up with a slogan.
“We’re ‘26 players moving in one direction,’” said Mulloy, a Charlotte Catholic graduate who was the 49ers’ 2012 team MVP. “I feel like we’ve really bonded this year. We’re really close. That’s transitioning onto the field.”
In the off-season, players went on a whitewater rafting excursion, got together for movie nights and were “always together,” according to Mulloy.
“We’re really like sisters,” said Mulloy. “We’re going to work hard for each other, push each other, motivate each other.”
With its Sept. 27 matchup at Florida International, Charlotte will be put to a test in Conference USA. After eight successful years in the Atlantic 10, the 49ers return to a league in which they won four regular-season or tournament championships between 1995 and 2004.
Senior forward SarahAnn Waught, a Statesville native, believes the team is ready.
“You can say last season wasn’t how we predicted it and wanted it,” said Waugh. “But it gave us a lot of motivation. We knew what we needed to work on going into this season. Everyone came in this summer prepared and ready to work.”