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Three Takeaways From No. 7 Penn State Women’s Soccer’s Bright Start

No. 7 Penn State women’s soccer earned a 2-1 victory over Hofstra on Sunday afternoon, completing three wins from its first three matches at Jeffrey Field.

The Nittany Lions will now hit the road and won’t be back home until September 23. In the meantime, they will face West Virginia, Central Florida, Virginia, NC State, and open the Big Ten slate against Rutgers. Suffice to say, a solid start doesn’t guarantee Penn State anything going into a long road streak.

While it comes as no surprise that Dambach’s team performed as it did, there is still a lot to unpack after 270 minutes of the new season. Here are three takeaways from a successful first two weeks.

Erica Dambach Is Experimenting With A New Formation

Through three matches, Erica Dambach has elected to go with a 3-5-2, which can sometimes morph into a 3-4-3 or 3-4-2-1. It has at some points been shaky, but the results dictate that it wasn’t a bad call to deviate from a classic 4-4-2.

The formation can sort of be a tale of two sides of the ball. We’ll get to the defense and its shortcomings later, but the important thing to note is how fluid the offense looks this year, especially considering the absence of Rutgers’ attacking midfielder Frankie Tagliaferri.

One of the more subtle changes that this formation beckons in is the ability for Sam Coffey to play a more attacking role. The Penn State talisman was a defensive midfielder last spring and did a fantastic job at it. However, when she has a more direct role with the offense, the Nittany Lions can be lethal.

“I love it so much. Last year, we had to do what we had to do, dropping [Coffey] back a little bit,” striker Ally Schlegel said. “Having her higher up the field, I love playing with her and [Payton Linnehan]. There’s a lot of dynamic movement, and times where we can fill each other’s spaces and whatnot. It gives us a lot of freedom to be creative.”

Coffey’s position highlights a key role of the new formation: defensively, the squad tries to play as a cohesive, structured unit. But when in attack, they are incredibly fluid.

The Defense Is Vulnerable, And Kerry Abello’s Versatility Will Be Key

Questions remain on the other side of the ball, however.

Sure, the Nittany Lions have only conceded twice in the opening three matches, but it is the way in which the opposition is scoring on them that makes it worrying as Big Ten play gets closer.

There are inherent disadvantages of playing the three-back, the most obvious being the loss of that fourth defender. Last week, we wrote about sophomore Ellie Wheeler’s leadership position on defense, and for the most part, she has done a good job of that thus far.

However, the three starting defenders — Wheeler, Maddie Myers, and Mieke Schiemann — all have certain vulnerabilities.

Wheeler and Myers are essentially playing out of position, making this a pretty makeshift backline. Meanwhile, Schiemann was taken to town by Hofstra’s Ellen Halseth in the first half on Sunday, ultimately leading to the Pride’s lone goal.

Of course, Schiemann is a brilliant player who has earned a spot on the roster. However, Dambach gets a lot of credit for subbing her off and dropping Kerry Abello back to join Myers and Wheeler in the backline. Abello, while also not a defender by trade, had experience as a wingback last year, and she effectively marked Halseth out of the game in the second half.

“I think my versatility is definitely something we can use to our advantage. We can play to what the opponent gives us,” Abello said following the win. “I can show up in different places, and I think you’ll see that trend continue.”

Abello has consistently been a utility player for Dambach over the past few years, but this year might be where the squad needs her the most. It will be interesting to monitor the dynamic between Schiemann and Abello as the season progresses.

Payton Linnehan Is Playing Like A National Player Of The Year Contender

OK, it’s early. However, it’s all in the stats. Through three matches, Payton Linnehan has five goals and two assists, including a hat trick last weekend that came in just three minutes and 24 seconds.

Linnehan is one player that has profited from the new formation, but regardless of any tactics, it is clear that her confidence is at a new level this year.

“We all know that she’s the frickin’ GOAT, and she has it in her to take ahold of games like that,” Schlegel said. “Backlines don’t expect it. She blows out of a cannon.”

Dambach has stated that none of the three matches to start the season have been up to her standard, despite the wins. But when stretches of the games have been underwhelming, the individual brilliance of Linnehan has lifted the Nittany Lions.

“We have all known she’s capable of that [fantastic start to the year],” Abello said. “We are all so grateful that she has had that start. I think she will fly for the rest of the season, and I don’t expect anything less of her. She is incredibly talented, and I’m so glad she’s found her own in the start to the season.”

Linnehan’s numbers thus far are ridiculous and likely not sustainable. However, this team has shown in the past that when one player has a dip in form, another will step up. It is encouraging to see Ally Schlegel start the year with two goals since she’ll most likely need to be that next player up.

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About the Author

Otis Lyons

Otis is a sophomore majoring in print journalism and is one of Onward State's associate editors. He lives just north of San Francisco, and is a diehard San Jose Earthquakes fan. Feel free to send over your soccer hot takes to his twitter @otisnlyons1 and instagram @otislyons

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