There is an old saying that goes “the legs feed the wolf.” Well maybe it is time for those legs to feed a herd of Bisons.
Despite a strong third place in Canada West’s Prairie division in 2018, the U of M Bisons women’s soccer team struggled on the offensive side of the ball. The club finished 10th in goals scored in the conference last season with just 15 goals, four behind the University of Northern British Columbia — the team responsible for ending the herd’s playoff hopes.
The club relied heavily on its goalkeeping, with a 1.07 team goals against average good for fifth in the conference and a strong showing in isolation. When placed next to an even goal differential, it is clear that former keeper Madison Wilford was a major factor in the club’s success.
But for any soccer club to have long-term success, the goalkeeper cannot be the lone determining factor.
Manitoba finished 12th for saves in Canada West with 53, showing that strong defensive play also had a big impact. But although the old adage says “defence wins championships,” the objective of the game is still to outscore your opponent.
Thankfully for the herd, it has just the pieces required to take the club to the next level.
Speed up front, versatility in the back
Watching Manitoba’s season opening game against the University of Saskatchewan Huskies made it clear that the Bisons have weapons all over the pitch. Perhaps the best they have are up front in Nicole Davis, Hailey Lavarias and Celeste Gallego.
Of the three, only Gallego is a dedicated forward, with Davis and Lavarias playing midfield positions but joining in offensive pushes. Gallego has strong decision-making skills and receives crosses well ¾ as was seen in Manitoba’s Sept. 7 game against the University of Regina Cougars.
Gallego works well where Bisons head coach Vanessa Martinez Lagunas has placed her, but Davis and Lavarias could be used differently.
Davis in particular has already shown flashes of brilliance in her second season with the herd. She has great offensive awareness and with her blistering speed she can give defenders fits while generating offensive chances for the Bisons.
Sliding Davis into an attacking midfield position — between Lavarias and Gallego up front and the midfield line behind her — would give Davis room to gather speed and get the ball deep into opposing territory. It would also help get her into the crease to help generate shots.
The other offensive weapon shown during Manitoba’s win over Regina is defender Stefanie Young. The Kelowna-born rookie has the offensive awareness and foot work to help get her up the field to join the rush and create offence.
Bisons fans got to see this on Sept. 7 as Young carried the ball from the Manitoba back field through all of Regina’s defenders to score.
If Martinez Lagunas can put Young in a position where she is confident in carrying the ball while not sacrificing her defensive abilities, the Bisons will not only have a valuable piece to move the ball away from its own goal, but also one able to generate even more offence.
The X-factor: Dalima Chhibber
On Aug. 14, the Bisons announced that Indian national team captain Dalima Chhibber had committed to the club. The move was a big win for the herd, as the midfielder brought a wealth of professional and international experience to a young and relatively inexperienced Manitoba squad.
The New Delhi-born player also represents perhaps the best new tool in Martinez Lagunas’s arsenal for the 2019 season. Chhibber’s ball control and awareness is second to none and the veteran presence she brings to the herd on game days will be a calming force when the road gets rough.
For now, she is getting acclimated to playing in a new system — as well as on a new continent — so she will only improve as the season goes on.
To maximize her impact on the field, Martinez Lagunas has a few options at her disposal. Perhaps the most intriguing would be to place Chhibber as an attacking midfielder, either alongside Davis or on her own.
A 3-4-1-2 formation — three defenders, four midfielders, one attacking midfielder and two forwards — would put both Davis and Chhibber in spots to succeed, but the veteran has the edge in her decision-making and defensive upside.