Saturday will mark the biggest game of the season for the Harvard women’s soccer team, as the Crimson (7-6-1, 4-0-0 Ivy) takes on Princeton (11-3-0, 4-0-0) at Jordan Field, with sole possession of first place in the Ivy League standings at stake.
Harvard and the Tigers enter the contest as the only remaining unbeaten sides in the Ancient Eight and tied for first in the conference. The team that emerges victorious on Saturday will surpass the other for an outright hold on the top spot in the league with just two conference games left to play.
Despite a slow start to the season, the Crimson has rebounded and enters the matchup riding a five-game winning streak. Harvard struggled at the start of a campaign which featured games against three nationally ranked programs, including then-no. 1 Virginia, taking home a mere two wins from its first nine contests. Since Ivy League play began a month ago, Harvard has found its footing and has taken full points from six of its last eight matches.
Junior forward Midge Purce has been the catalyst in the Crimson’s resurgence this season. The striker has tallied six goals on 32 shots in Harvard’s last five games, including a hat trick against Yale. Purce has also earned Ivy League Player of the Week honors two times in a row for her efforts this season.
“Midge has hit her top form,” Harvard coach Ray Leone said. “I am proud of how she has handled herself this year.”
The Crimson will look to carry its momentum into a match that has historically been decisive in deciding the conference champion. Either Harvard or the Tigers has captured the Ancient Eight title in six of the last seven seasons.
Last season, the Crimson narrowly prevailed over Princeton in a hard-fought 5-4 win en route to the team’s second Ivy League championship in as many years. The match was a seesaw affair, with Harvard taking the lead twice, only to see the Tigers pull even each time. This year’s contest figures to be lower-scoring due to the Crimson’s consistent defensive play, as Harvard has yet to allow a goal in Ivy League play.
“I think we have a very strong team mentality of defending all over the field,” junior goalkeeper Lizzie Durack said. “I think that’s something that we have shown strength in throughout the season, and I think it will be key in stifling Princeton.”
The Crimson will have to be flawless on defense, as Princeton enters the contest as the most dangerous offensive team in the Ivy League. The Tigers currently lead the Ancient Eight in shots, goals, and assists, and boasts the sixth-highest-scoring offense in the country.
The Princeton attack has been spearheaded this year by junior forward Tyler Lussi. The striker leads the conference in nearly every offensive category, with a league-high 11 goals to her name. Her scoring heroics have earned her Player of the Week honors three times this season.
Tigers sophomore midfielder Vanessa Gregoire is the Ancient Eight leader in assists - the only offensive statistic not dominated by Lussi. The second-year has set up seven goals in 2015 in addition to the four times she has found the back of the net herself.
“The back line has been exceptional this year, not only in their airtight defense but also by playing huge roles in the attack,” senior forward Emily Mosbacher said. “We’ll look to them to keep up a tough defense, as they have over the past five games.”
Indeed, the Harvard back line has done its job consistently this season. The team has conceded just a single goal so far in the month of October. Durack has only needed to stop eight shots on goal in Ivy League play began. The junior is currently second in the conference in clean sheets, with six on the season. On Saturday, Durack and the rest of the Crimson will face its toughest challenge yet.“Princeton is always a tough competitor, and this year is no different,” Mosbacher said. “It is really exciting to meet them when both of us are undefeated. It’s definitely going to be a good game.”
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