The 16th-ranked Tigers, who are 14-3-2 overall and were the only SEC team to be unbeaten in league play at 8-0-2, will be the host to 22nd-ranked Clemson at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Auburn Soccer Complex. Clemson comes into the match with a 10-7-2 record, but are making their 11th straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Coach Todd Bramble's team likes to get out of the gates fast as they have outscored their opponents 20-3 in the first half of matches this season. Offensively, Clemson is led by Courtney Foster, a sophomore midfielder, who has scored seven goals and added an assist. Senior forward Lindsay Browne is deadly and has put away six goals and has three assists.
Megan Rivera saves a shot during a finishing drill in Thursday's practice.
On defense, Clemson has been solid even with a freshman in net. Goalkeeper Lauren Johnson has only allowed 1.03 goals per game and four solid and speedy defensive backs add needed support.
"Anytime you draw a Top 25 team in the first round that is a tough draw," Auburn Coach Karen Hoppa says about the challenge her team will be facing. "The thing with Clemson is that they are very talented. They are similar to Tennessee in that way. They will probably play a 4-3-3 (four defensive backs, three midfielders and three forwards). They have got three very good forwards who are very dangerous and the midfield is very strong."
For Auburn the key is finishing. The Tigers have had solid scoring opportunities in all of their matches, however, in their three losses Auburn has been unable to finish a single scoring chance. However, they have only been outscored 5-0 in the three games, with three of those goals being given up to Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament.
"We try not dwell on it or anything," Hoppa explains about working on finishing this week. "The thing this week was to go light and technical. Get them their confidence back and get them a lot of touches and putting a lot of balls in the net. You know, just letting them do it rather than talk about it."
Jenny Zarzour fires a header on goal from just outside the box during practice.
Auburn followed that theme on Thursday as they went through their final practice session before Friday's match. The Tigers spent most of the day around the net and really focused on getting the ball in the right spot on passes to the forwards and midfielders in the scoring zone.
Senior forwards Sarah Steinmann and Chrissy Culver will likely be on the receiving end of a lot of those passes for the Tigers' this weekend. Culver leads the Tigers with seven goals, but Steinmann has six goals and six assists as well. However, some other key players who can put the Tigers on the board are junior midfielder Sara Power, junior midfielder Christie Cigno, junior forward Courtney Crandall and senior defender Jenn Walters. Each of those players has scored four goals this season.
In net, Megan Rivera has been as solid as ever. The senior keeper holds a 0.76 goals against average and the Ole Miss game was the first time she had given up multiple goals all season.
Overall, Hoppa says the mood of her team is upbeat coming off a tough loss and heading into their first ever NCAA tournament game at home. "It's been great," she explains. "We came out Sunday night in practice and that was one of our best practices of the year, which was a really good way to rebound from the game on Thursday. Then this week has been great. They are excited about being at home. They are excited about the opportunity to be able to play in the NCAAs again and really show everybody what this team is made of.
Prior to the Auburn vs. Clemson match, Birmingham Southern will take on the tournament's 15th overall seed, Washington. Birmingham Southern and Washington will kick off at 5 p.m. and the winners of the two matches will meet a 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon with that games winner advancing to the round of 16.