Florida soccer's 6-5 comeback victory over Kentucky on Friday quelled pleas to fire head coach Becky Burleigh in favor of adoration toward the team’s performance.
However, unless UF becomes the first 12-seed to win the SEC Tournament, it will end the season on the heels of its worst campaign in program history, followed by a long offseason for Burleigh’s seat to simmer for the first time in her tenure.
Although the Gators lost to Missouri on Sunday, calls to sack Burleigh are short-sighted and ludicrous.
2020 and the pandemic don’t invalidate criticism of Burleigh, and I have plenty of issues with her management this season. I believe Florida was tactically stubborn this season, taking far too long adjusting to a more direct, progressive style of play. Set-piece defending was atrocious, with UF’s opponents consistently finding gaps in its zonal marking.
Through her goal-scoring prowess and technical ability, senior Parker Roberts has demonstrated over the last three games she should have played in a more advanced role.
But the tribulations UF faced this season are ones no manager could prepare for, and too much stock placed in this campaign undermines this staff’s consistent excellence in Gainesville.
In September, the program’s positive tests canceled its first game against Missouri, and the Gators were largely unable to practice for two weeks. Given the elite fitness and skill required to play soccer, a fortnight away from the game is devastating.
Positive cases and injuries meant Florida missed seven players in its loss against South Carolina, five against Tennessee and two against Kentucky. These absences, coupled with the staff’s decision to play a weakened squad for the final game against Missouri, meant UF was at full strength for just half of the regular season.
Florida couldn’t be expected to lose its most potent offensive player and midfield fulcrum, Deanne Rose and Carina Baltrip-Reyes, and continue the season at an identical level.
The team competed fiercely without these core contributors, losing by one goal on three occasions, including a gut-wrenching double-overtime loss to Vanderbilt.
While UF’s results in the last few seasons haven’t quite matched Burleigh’s lofty expectations, notions that she hasn’t lived up to the “Gator standard” are more indicative of an entitled fan base than Burleigh’s supposed failures.
The Gators were 11-9-1 in 2019, but it's important to note four of Florida’s losses came against top-10 opponents. UF finished fourth in the SEC, and its loss in the NCAA Tournament came against a ranked USF team. Even in 2018, the program’s worst season to that point, Burleigh finished .500 in the SEC and led the Gators to a conference championship game.
In the 23 years prior Burleigh has presided over Florida, she has served as the pinnacle of consistency and excellence, posting a winning record in the SEC every season by a comfortable margin and consistently dancing deep into the NCAA Tournament.
With the resources and support UF sports receive, relative to the rest of the country, Gators fans are fully justified in having high expectations.
But it’s important to prevent recency bias from clouding their judgments and throwing gold, or in this case, a coach who is sixth all time in win percentage, in the trash. A season doesn’t make a manager, and while this year has been unacceptable, that shouldn’t discount the decades of elite soccer provided by Burleigh.
Contact Declan Walsh at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @dawalsh_UF.
Gators coach Becky Burleigh consoles her team in 2015 after a 2-1 loss at the hands of Texas A&M. Burleigh has been at the helm for Florida since 1995.