Gators soccer in the huddle

Gators stand in a huddle in their final home game of the 2020 season. Florida will play two road games this weekend against SEC opponents Kentucky and Missouri.

After dropping four games in a row, the Gators plummeted from a nationally-ranked program to last in the SEC East. 

While Florida has struggled this season, particularly in its games against Texas A&M and South Carolina, it has also been burdened by a series of unfortunate absences and cancellations. 

Florida missed seven players two weeks ago against the Gamecocks and five in its most recent game against Tennessee, largely due to COVID-19 protocol. The team was also without head coach Becky Burleigh for those two contests. 

UF has also faced a front-loaded schedule this season, playing four top-15 teams thus far. However, the Gators have competed well in these contests, only losing by multiple goals on one occasion.

This weekend the Gators will face fellow SEC bottom-feeders Missouri and Kentucky, taking on the Wildcats at 7 p.m. on Friday and the Tigers at 2 p.m. on Sunday. With the SEC tournament just one week away, these contests are important in improving Florida’s seeding. 

A win in both games would vault UF into fourth place in the SEC East and ensure a first-round bye next week. 

Missouri and Kentucky played last weekend, with the Tigers posting a 4-1 victory on home soil. 

This game provided a couple of takeaways that UF will need to be mindful of to secure a first-round bye in Orange Beach, Alabama. 

The biggest key for the Gators on Friday is shutting down Jordyn Rhodes. The sophomore striker is the SEC’s leading scorer with five goals this season and has accounted for all but two of the Wildcats’ goals on the year. Rhodes’ success isn’t a flash in the pan either, as the striker now has 13 goals in less than two seasons of collegiate soccer.

Rhodes has demonstrated lethal pace and has proven herself to be a really good penalty-taker, so the Gator back line will likely struggle to keep the in-form Wildcat off the score sheet.

For the rest of Kentucky’s squad, it’s difficult to say which team will show up on Friday night. After a triad of draws against quality opposition, the Wildcats played terribly against Missouri, offering very little going forward and defending sloppily. A previous 4-1 loss against Arkansas and a second-half collapse against Vanderbilt demonstrates that Kentucky is a very streaky side.

For Sunday’s matchup, Florida must defend in the wide areas and play conservatively with its wing-backs. Missouri opened up the Wildcat defense twice in the first six minutes, with both goals coming from poorly-defended crosses.

Missouri plays a 3-4-3 formation with a pair of dynamic runners in the midfield, meaning that the Tigers have numbers out wide and several bodies to latch onto crosses. UF’s struggles in the air have been well-documented, so the wing-backs must stay in position and allow all three of Florida’s center backs to stay home and defend crosses.

Going forward, UF will need to withstand the high-pressing Missouri Tigers and exploit its numerical advantage in the midfield. Despite its recent struggles, Florida has quality in the midfield, especially with Carina Baltrip-Reyes returning to action. Missouri only has two central midfielders, who will likely be caught out of position at various times throughout the match. 

Tigers coach Bryan Blitz says that his team plays a high-risk, high-reward soccer style, SEC Network+ commentators said during Missouri’s game last weekend. This means that if the Gators defend well and look for opportunities on the counter they should leave Columbia, Missouri, with a win. 

Fans can catch both games live on the SEC Network+.

Contact Declan Walsh at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @dawalsh_UF.