The Sterling girls soccer team opened a new season on Thursday, and with it a new era, introducing first-year head coach Ali Messina.
“It’s pretty much everything you could ask for,” Sterling senior defenseman Maddie Gasso said. “She respects that we’re a young team, and coming off of last year we have some technical and tactical things we’d like to work on. She knows that these games are going to be a little off; I mean, this is our first week outside, we haven’t really gotten a lot of practice on the ball, our goalie hasn’t been tested, so she’s understanding of that.”
Messina inherits a team which struggled to score at times last year. Through its first eight games of the season in 2018, Sterling scored just twice.
Under Messina, the Golden Warriors are working on keeping control of the ball in order to generate more chances.
“We want to keep possession,” senior midfielder Tiara Munoz said. “Any team wants to keep possession, that’s how you score. If we’re going to focus on that, or we’re going to focus on attacking, that’s what we’re going to get good at, and that’s where we’re going to work.”
In Thursday’s game at DeKalb’s Barbfest, an 8-0 loss to Plainfield East, the Golden Warriors at times struggled to get much offense going, with only a handful of chances in the attacking third of the field. Ellie Gasso had perhaps the best Sterling chance in the game on a run off a 45th-minute free kick, but her initial shot was saved and Hailey Walters’ chance on the rebound went wide.
Messina wants her midfield and forwards to have patience as they work on a system which stresses playing the ball to feet.
“If we can do that, and we can link up combinations on the field of forwards and the midfielders going forward, we should be able to get some really great combinations to get behind the defense and score,” Messina said.
Defensively against Plainfield East, the Warriors often kept a high backline, moving the defenders closer to midfield to draw offside calls from the Bengals forwards making runs. It worked, with play after play stopped when the Bengals’ strikers began their runs a bit too soon.
“We’re young and we’re trying some different things at the back,” Messina said. “Those adjustments that are made on the fly are just about who’s where and how high we can set our line to create some traps for offsides. And what it looks like when we recover, instead of recovering to space, we’re recovering to a man, we recover on a diagonal and mark on.”
Messina was an assistant coach under Alexandra Miller last year, and moved up to varsity along with all of the sophomore and juniors she coached last year.
“She knows what our players are capable of, and knows our players’ personalities and who they mesh with,” Maddie Gasso said.
Messina’s playing days were as a midfielder at Dixon under Mahmoud Etemadi.
“I think anybody who knows and has played for Mahmoud knows that you hear from the sideline that you have to win the 50/50 balls by heading them,” Messina said. “If you’re not hearing, ‘Head the ball!’ from the sideline, you’re probably not playing for Mahmoud. That’s something that’s definitely big, 50/50 balls in the midfield are a big part of how a team shapes up. If you’re first to the ball, you’re going to win the ball and you’re going to maintain possession. That’s one of the thing that any good player would take from him.”
At Sterling, she takes over a team that is not without talent, with Munoz, Maddie Gasso and Lali Sifuentes all moving on to play at the college level next year. Those three form a core group of seniors that will be surrounded by a large group of sophomore and juniors who will be called upon to make an impact.
“I want to see them put some things together and understand the technical and tactical aspects of soccer, and grow their abilities,” Messina said.