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A voice rang out from the Syracuse sideline, yelling “recover” to Max Rosa, who had just switched off Notre Dame midfielder Morrison Mirer. Peter Dearth came over and prevented the dodge, but as Mirer swung the ball away, Rosa put his hands out and looked around in confusion.
Rosa’s uncertainty didn’t lead to any issues on that possession, but the sequence served as a premonition of the disastrous second quarter that followed.
“The experience of the rest of the defense that’s out there, we got to communicate with them, tell them where to go,” SU head coach John Desko said postgame. “We had to slide to them a few times … and the recovery’s important.”
No. 9 Syracuse (6-5, 2-4 Atlantic Coast) gave up a season-high 22 goals on Saturday against Notre Dame (7-3, 3-3). The 22-8 loss came at the tailend of a downward spiral in conference play this season. In three total meetings against UND and North Carolina this year, SU has let in a season-high in goals each time.
With starting close defender Nick DiPietro out with an injury for the rest of the season, a moving timetable on the injury to short-stick defensive midfielder Brandon Aviles and Dami Oladunmoye’s recent absence, SU needs to tinker with its defensive sets to hide the inexperience within the current defense.
Defensive coordinator Lelan Rogers went to a zone at times on Saturday. While the set may not consistently work against top ACC talent, it’s a plan that may come in use to stem runs. The zone can also help cover for SU’s messy slides and recoveries when playing man-to-man that also were prevalent in the loss.
The struggles began early, with Mitch Wykoff (No. 17) and Rosa’s (No. 10) awkward handling of a screen for Pat Kavanagh (No. 51) behind the net.
As Kavanagh crosses the goal line extended, Grant Murphy (No. 90), seeing Wykoff a step behind, scrambles over to help. This leaves Cole Horan (No. 15) in an impossible two-on-one situation in front of the net. Kavanagh makes SU pay for that.
Toward the end of the first quarter, Brett Barlow’s (No. 41) confusion almost leads to another UND goal. With his eyes focused on Mirer (No. 12) dodging on Dearth (No. 9), Barlow shuffles over to try and help. But when Mirer swings the ball behind the cage, Barlow can’t find Wheaton Jackoboice (No. 55), who slyly relocated away from Horan.
Playing zone can also help alleviate the overall pressure on the short-sticks to defend one-on-one. Especially without the athleticism of Aviles and Oladunmoye, it can lead to easy goals such as this one, where Reilly Gray (No. 17) easily drives around Spencer Small (No. 25).
In a potential first-round NCAA Tournament matchup against Rutgers, which features two dangerous scorers in Connor Kirst and Adam Charalambides, those one-on-one mishaps could be decisive. Even with Oladunmoye and Aviles back, a zone could be critical for an SU defense that hasn’t quite figured things out yet.
After Notre Dame goes on a 7-1 run, Syracuse flashes the zone late in the second quarter. With Kavanagh behind the net, UND immediately strikes with Will Yorke’s (No. 99) little curl in front of the goal.
For the Orange to play in a zone, they’ll have to be a little more flexible and recognize dangerous cuts similar to Yorke’s. Brett Kennedy (No. 11) needs to drop deeper and keep his stick on Yorke like he started to do.
Here’s another moment when Syracuse needs to be more concrete on how it wants to play the zone. When the ball goes to Kavanagh (No. 51), Quinn McCahon (No. 15) darts toward the near-post. Saam Olexo (No. 48) doesn’t fully commit to following the run, most likely because he’s worried about Eric Dobson (No. 8) getting the ball right back. Four defenders instead surround Yorke (No. 99) in front of the goal, including Kennedy (No. 11), who was closest originally to McCahon.
The idea to shut off Yorke is good. Kavanagh looks in front of the goal to try and hit Yorke before he swivels his head and finds McCahon. But the question becomes how to limit Yorke while also covering the near-post. Either Olexo needs full commitment to stopping McCahon, or Barlow (No. 41) needs to recognize the threat of Yorke and drop deeper, leaving Kennedy free to cover the near-post.
The zone that Syracuse played against Notre Dame needs cleaning up and a better understanding of roles within the system, but it can work. For an SU defense that’s struggled all season, the zone could be the late-season bandage that holds this team together for a tournament run.
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