October 7, 2010 8:51:00 AM
STARKVILLE -- The Mississippi State women''s soccer team knew before the season a six-game road stretch that led into the start of the Southeastern Conference schedule would be a challenge.
No one could have predicted the team would go 1-5 and have more players end up on the training table than on the field for the next game.
But that''s the case for the Bulldogs (7-6, 0-4 SEC), who are coming off a six-goal loss to Florida and a seven-goal defeat to South Carolina.
MSU will begin a five-match homestand this weekend when it welcomes Tennessee (5-6-1, 2-1-1) at 7 p.m. Friday and Georgia (7-2-4, 2-0-2) at 1 p.m. Sunday for its first home matches since beating Jackson State on Sept. 10.
The Bulldogs will have a different look for a variety of reasons. Injuries already have ended the seasons of midfielder Lauren Morgan and defender Allison Ouren, both of whom shelved due to metatarsal problems.
Both players have been out for all but one game this season, but the injuries the team suffered on its road swing through the state of Oklahoma and in four SEC matches have forced it into tactical changes.
Right back Danielle Kite and center forward Rachel Wannek are nursing high ankle sprains, while Leanna Baldner''s medial collateral ligament strain forced her to miss four games.
Senior forward Kat Walsh, who led the team in scoring last season, has battled a metatarsal injury for the majority of the season and has just one goal.
Goalkeeper Skylar Rosson, whose had two anterior cruciate ligament surgeries since joining the team, has played with a fractured rib.
"With the injuries, it''s hard to keep the team morale up," Walsh said Wednesday. "It dampens spirits knowing you have a big game and you don''t have all your best players. All you can do is keep pushing and adapt to the changes."
The biggest change for the team is switching systems from a 4-3-3 to a 4-4-2, which coach Neil Macdonald hopes will cover up some of the deficiencies created by injuries.
Even if the Bulldogs have Kite, Walsh, Baldner, and Wannek on the field this weekend, they won''t be fully fit. MSU needs players to be in prime condition in a 4-3-3, where midfielders are asked to cover more ground and to win more one-on-one battles. At 100 percent, staying in a 4-3-3 was a reality. But with the team''s list of injuries and current run of form, Macdonald opted to return to the 4-4-2, a system the team ran in 2009.
"In the 4-3-3, you can''t hide players," Macdonald said. "We''ve been struggling with some speed and athleticism in the middle of the park, and moving another player into midfield should help with winning the ball.
"We were getting exposed in the 4-3-3, so we hit the reset button. Sometimes, when you take heavy defeats like that, it''s the best thing you can do."
Switching styles in the middle of the season won''t come without a transition period, as players are asked to change roles. Macdonald said it will take patience as players revert to a system in which most of the team''s players are already familiar.
Walsh believes goals could spring from the 4-4-2, as forwards are asked to track back on defense less than before.
More than anything, Walsh thinks the likelihood of MSU making a smooth transition into the 4-4-2 will depend on training and moments of good fortune.
"We have to get the work done this week if we expect to get things turned around," Walsh said. "I think once we get that spark, that shot on goal, that one through ball, we''ll start to play with confidence in the system."
Remaining confident in the wake of a stretch that has seen MSU lose five of its last six and be outscored 25-3 also will be key. Competing in the SEC has been a struggle for MSU, which is 1-22-2 in league play the past three seasons.
Baldner was candid about the team''s recent losses, calling the score lines "horrible" and admitting the team''s discouragement after its 6-1 start. The challenge, in her mind, is to forget about the last game and to focus on the next fixture.
"Nobody really wants to remember it, and it does get hard," Baldner said. "When you''re in a state of losing, it''s like, if you give up a goal you''re wondering how you''re ever gonna come back. We can''t let that happen. We can''t afford to."
For players like Baldner and Walsh, who have seven games remaining in their college career, scrapping preseason goals and benchmarks is a must. Closing the season with a realistic goal is the only way to see tangible success each week, Baldner said.
"If we win four out of our next seven games we could go to the SEC tournament," Baldner added. "Focusing on that and taking it game by game is the best way to set your mind."