Seeing the Game Differently

by Kevin Ivany

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – A shift from offense to defense, no matter the sport, comes with several challenges and tends to take time to adjust.

For sophomore Emma Tucker, a forward on the University of Miami soccer team in 2019, she entered the 2020 spring season with thoughts in her head about a position previously foreign to her.

However, a stress reaction injury in March, followed by the spring season being cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak derailed Tucker’s training with the team. Spending time back home in Marshfield, Mass., to regain her fitness levels, she continued to watch film and communicate via Zoom with the coaching staff in preparation for the fall.

Upon returning to campus, conversations once again arose between Tucker and head coach Sarah Barnes about a move to outside back.

“Coach and I had a little bit of a conversation about me learning the outside back position prior to coming to Miami and I remember telling her, ‘I have never played that position before, but it is something I would be interested in,’” Tucker said. “It was something that had been in the back of my mind right before we had another conversation this summer, about me possibly playing outside back. And I just told her, ‘I am willing to do anything that will help the team and make myself better.’ So, I kept my mind open to it and was ready to just jump in and learn.”

For Barnes, it was Tucker’s athleticism that stood out to her from the very beginning and intrigued her most about the sophomore’s potential as a defender.

“The things that we look for in an outside back are athleticism, technique and comfort on the ball,” Barnes said. “We want them to be able to defend, but also get forward and be a part of the attack. So, central midfielders are pretty ideal for being converted to that position.

“I think Emma’s transformation from a freshman to a sophomore, starting last fall, then through the spring, up until the point that the season was cancelled, she had shown a lot of growth in terms of her aggressiveness. She maximized her qualities and was getting more and more comfortable at the college level,” Barnes continued. “This fall, when the position opened, it was one where we looked at a number of different players and we figured it was an opportunity to see if it made sense. And I think she showed a really quick learning curve. She is good defensively, she is patient and again, is pretty comfortable on the ball. We have been really pleased with her growth and believe she has a bright future there.”

Playing 12 matches on the Miami attack in 2019, Tucker’s speed was on full display when finding space behind the opponent’s back line. In just her second collegiate match, only minutes after subbing in off the bench, she received a through ball into the box. Following a hard tackle by a Fairleigh Dickinson defender, she helped set up the Hurricanes’ penalty kick in the 40th minute. One minute later, Tucker once again found herself on a breakaway before burying her first collegiate goal, as Miami cruised to a 4-0 win over the Knights.

It was performances similar to this, as well as her experience as an attacker, that she explained has been the most beneficial to learning a brand new position.

“I feel like it has definitely helped, just for being able to bring the ball up and having that attacking mindset of trying to find the midfielders and moving the ball forward,” Tucker said. “I also think it helps to have that knowledge of understanding how the midfielders will be moving and how the center forwards will be moving behind the midfield. And really, I would say the biggest difference is that I feel like I have more control and I have a better understanding of the game because I can see the whole game in front of me now.”

Just a couple weeks into learning the position, Tucker saw 45 minutes of action at left outside back against the Clemson Tigers on Sept. 12, her first official match at the position.

Excited to get the touches and reps to help learn the new position, it also offered her some game tape and be able to sit down with assistant coach Jeremy Williams and continue to make adjustments to her game and begin to fine-tune her development.

“Jeremy has been really awesome with watching film with me and he answers every question that I have,” Tucker said. “He understands that it is obviously a new position for me and mistakes are going to happen, but he also helps me know that it will be okay if I make mistakes. So that is really comforting. Also, he is always available before practice to get touches in or answer any questions that I may have.”

It is the questions and willingness to get better every day that has stood out the most to the third-year coach.

“I think one of the things she has done very well is coming in with a mindset of being very open to the learning,” Williams said. “I think she has done a very good job of not being tentative with it. I think sometimes when you can see a player transitioning to a new position, a lot of times they err on being a bit cautious with their decisions and I think it has been nice to see her try and be aggressive with how she kind of goes about it. That way we are able to see exactly what she is seeing rather than just sitting back and hoping it works out.

“I also think she has really picked up from a leadership standpoint back there with how she communicates and the way that she kind of presents and conducts herself,” Williams added. “She doesn’t necessarily feel like a player who has only played back there a couple times.”

Continuing to learn on the fly, Tucker was asked by the coaching staff to make a jump into the starting lineup Oct. 1 at Wake Forest, following an injury to a teammate.

Not only did Tucker earn the start, but has now played 180 consecutive minutes heading into Thursday night’s road test at Virginia Tech.

Hearing her name over the PA announcement for the first time in her young collegiate career, Tucker explained the surreal moment in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“It was an amazing feeling to hear my name being called for both games,” Tucker said. “It was a proud moment knowing all the hard work is finally paying off. But for me, this doesn’t mean that the hard work stops, it just gives me even more reason to keep getting better as a player and as a team. I also feel like I am able to be more vocal and lead the team, now having the ability to be out there right from the start.”

Despite being one of 17 underclassmen on Miami’s roster, Tucker is privileged to be playing alongside a trio of veterans on the defensive end—senior defender Morgan Asmussen, junior defender Selena Fortich and junior goalkeeper Tyler Speaks—and credits them for assisting in her transition to being a defender.

“Selena, Morgan and Tyler have all been very vocal, which helps a lot with communicating on and off the field,” Tucker said. “They always make themselves available and help make me feel comfortable when I have questions, knowing I can go to them whenever and say something like, ‘Hey, what am I supposed to be doing in this situation?’ So, they have been really awesome in those aspects.”

As the Hurricanes prepare for a 7 p.m. matchup Thursday against the Hokies in Blacksburg, Va., Tucker says the team is focusing on the future and continuing to get better every match.

“I feel like the team’s mindset now, heading into the last four games is, let’s focus on the future and forget about the past,” Tucker said. “Let’s go out and work hard and give it our all because there are only four games left and at this point we just have to go out there and believe in ourselves. A couple long-term goals, as a team, is just continuing to get better; taking this season, learning from the mistakes and correcting them for the spring and next fall. Short term, my goals are to stay focused and get better every single day, every practice, learn more about the position and help the team overall.”

As he continues to work the Tucker on her development as an outside back, Williams echoed the sophomore’s remarks on seeing her continue to improve every single day.

“The thing I am most excited about, once she starts to understand a little more of the nuances and understand the situations that are little greyer areas, is that I think she has the potential to become a really good outside back, especially with how impressive she has looked this fall,” Williams said. “So, kind of what I want to keep seeing from her is that steady improvement and I am just looking forward to her getting more and more experience so that she become a little bit more clever both from an attacking and defensive standpoint.”