Women's Soccer

Alana O’Neill leads Syracuse women’s soccer in goals despite playing defense

Jessica Sheldon | Photo Editor

Alana O'Neill scored twice in a game in August. The spark she provides to Syracuse's offense hasn't subsided.

Susan O’Neill followed her daughter’s game live on Twitter. The streaming site she normally used to watch Alana’s away games wasn’t covering the game, and she was constantly refreshing the page to see what was happening against Boston College.

Midway through her freshman season in 2014, O’Neill scored the first two goals of her career in that game.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Susan O’Neill said. “I was just so happy for her.”

Two years later as a junior, she once again scored two goals against Delaware on Aug. 21. Even as an outside defender, she continues to play a critical offensive role for Syracuse (8-5-3, 1-4-2 Atlantic Coast) with a team-high four goals in her 2016 campaign, which will visit Wake Forest (9-6, 1-6) on Thursday at 7 p.m.

But O’Neill has not always played right back. She has played almost every position for head coach Phil Wheddon, spending time at center back, forward, in the midfield, and now on the outside of the back line.

“Alana is a coach’s luxury,” Wheddon said. “She can play a bunch of different positions and she is willing to play a bunch of different positions.

Coming into her freshman year, she made the transition from playing forward for her club and high school teams to playing center back in arguably the strongest conference in the country.

The position was foreign to her, O’Neill said. She never understood the tactical awareness that went into playing the position. It was the hardest adjustment that she has ever had to make in soccer.

“I had no clue what being a center back at the ACC level entailed,” O’Neill said. “Come ACC play I realized this was a lot harder than I thought it would be.”

Coming off two years of playing center back, O’Neill is just happy to be away from that position. Unlike at center back, playing on the outside, she gets attacking opportunities. There are times when she has to bring the ball up the field and generate offense. During the nonconference schedule, she played a mix of back line and on the wings.

Against Buffalo on Sept. 15, O’Neill was at the base of the Syracuse offense. She put a header on frame coming off a Maddie Iozzi corner and nearly assisted on a Stephanie Skilton goal while threatening in the box. But in the 89th minute, when Buffalo was mounting an equalizing attack, a Jessica Vigna clearance left O’Neill wide open for a breakaway. She sped past the Buffalo defense and sent a lofted ball over the outstretched hands of the Buffalo goalkeeper to end the game, 2-0.

alana

Daily Orange File Photo

“She’s a tremendous athlete and dangerous when she goes forward,” Wheddon said. “But in today’s game the outside back is an attacking position.”

The level of ACC play, though, requires her to be in the back, Wheddon said. Syracuse needs her athleticism and ability as a one-on-one defender to play on the back line if it wants to be successful.

It’s a position that highlights all her attributes — athletic, strong individual defender, long throw-in ability and a dangerous attacker — Wheddon said.

“The position was tailor-made for her,” Wheddon said.

Wheddon believes that if she continues playing beyond her collegiate career it will be as an outside back. Even though in conference play she has not had the opportunity to move up on offense, and must remain on defense, she still leads the team in scoring.

Despite being tied for sixth on the team with only 13 shots, O’Neill has netted four goals, and been the most efficient scorer of any Syracuse player with at least five shots.

In games when Syracuse is in need for a goal, its first adjustment is moving O’Neill up the field.

“I was naturally a forward,” O’Neill said, “So anytime I play up top it feels more like home.”

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