SEC teams, junior high boys part of out-of-season soccer schedule

By: Matt Jones
Published: Thursday, March 29, 2018
Arkansas soccer coach Colby Hale speaks Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, to members of his team at Razorback Field in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas soccer coach Colby Hale speaks Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, to members of his team at Razorback Field in Fayetteville.

— Colby Hale wanted to find a way to get his players out of their comfort zones this spring.

One way to do that was by scheduling unique opponents, including junior high boys.

The Razorbacks will play the Under-15 Tulsa Soccer Club on Friday at Razorback Field in an out-of-season exhibition match that is free to the public. The match is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m.

While the match might appear strange on the surface, Hale said such exhibitions are becoming more common in women's soccer. Hale pointed to programs at Arizona and Missouri playing against boys, as well as the U.S. women's national team.

One NCAA rule regarding the matches is that they can't involve high school-aged students. Arkansas uses male practice players who are college students, but Hale said he's not quite sure what to expect from males in that age group.

"We polled a bunch of people who have done this and asked them what the challenge was," Hale said. "They almost all said that if you play a good team, they're very technical and very creative. There can be players at that age who are special soccer players.

"It poses a different challenge. When you're in the spring it's all about development. We're trying to figure out ways that we can continually challenge them, whether it's traveling on the day of a game or playing a team that poses different challenges."

One of the challenges of playing the U15 boys, Hale said, is the mental one.

"One of our players probably has an eighth-grade brother and wondering, 'Why are we playing an eighth-grade boys team?'" Hale said. "We have told them that everything we do is a chance to get better. One thing we've been saying a lot is 'lean into discomfort.' We're getting out of our comfort zone and trying something new."

Friday's match is part of a four-game exhibition season for Arkansas, which is coming off consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and consecutive runner-up finishes at the SEC Tournament.

Two of the Razorbacks' spring opponents are from the SEC — Mississippi State and Ole Miss. Arkansas defeated Mississippi State on March 3 when Taylor Malham headed a corner kick by Brooke Pirkle in the 31st minute, and will play Ole Miss on April 15 at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.

Hale said he isn't apprehensive about playing opponents in the spring that he will see again during the regular season. Playing conference opponents also can make the exhibition more meaningful.

"We said, 'This is a conference game and we're playing to win,'" Hale said of the earlier match against Mississippi State. "We said we want this to feel as close to a full regular-season game as possible. What better way to get answers than to play a team in the off-season that we need to play and beat to win a conference championship?

"We played Mississippi State and we did not want to lose, and neither did they. The ref came up to me afterward and said, 'Whoa, that was not a spring game.' That's what we want. It doesn't do us any good to go through the motions.

"We've just said for whatever possible negative effect there is from a scouting standpoint, if these are development games we want to find the best possible teams to play in the spring. We targeted some Big 12 teams, so it wasn't like we just reached out to those in conference; it just worked out that those were the dates that worked."

The Razorbacks will finish the spring exhibition season with a match at Kansas State on April 22.

Arkansas graduated six seniors from last season, so it is playing this spring with only 12 field players, Hale said. The team will be down another member in early April when Malham, a freshman forward, joins the U.S. U18 national team for a 12-day trip to Switzerland.

Malham was Arkansas' second-leading scorer as a freshman with six goals and two assists.

"It's a no-brainer for her," Hale said. "She's going to be playing with some top-level players and is going to play Switzerland twice. From a developmental standpoint it's a great opportunity. It's the best players in our country in that age group playing the best players in Switzerland."


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