A tense atmosphere pervades the cold night air on November 2 at Stevenson-Pincine field. Fans, packed into the stands, shiver under their coats as they wait, or rather hope, for the deadlock between the Brown Bears and Penn Quakers to be broken. There is much reason for confidence, of course. The Bears have won every game they’ve played at home this season. And even with a draw, they’d finish the day in first place in the Ivy League standings. But there would be more pressure on the team to get a positive result against Yale the next week, a challenge that everyone would like to avoid. Everyone wants to celebrate a conference title right here and right now instead.

The play of the team on the field seems to reflect this nervous energy. The passes aren’t quite as crisp as normal, the quality scoring opportunities not as available. Penn’s back four seems unwilling to allow Brown to break through, and Penn has had a few chances foiled by superb saves from star goalkeeper Kayla Thompson. But still, the Bears are playing a good game. They’ve had the majority of the opportunities and possession.

Every time Brown is in an attacking position, the crowd seems to suck in its breath in anticipation. But so far, the Bears haven’t converted, and the crowd breathes out in disappointment after each opportunity is lost. As time ticks down, it looks more and more likely that Brown will at the very least have to wait a week to clinch, as both sides remain scoreless in the final period of OT that is played under college rules. But suddenly, the referee signals toward a spot in the Penn penalty area. The crowd erupts, as it hasn’t all night — a potential Ivy League-winning penalty kick with under 30 seconds to go. Brown’s event staff tries to calm down the crowd as senior Abby Carchio is about to take the kick. And then:

       And that does it. Brown clinches its first Ivy League title in 25 years after a remarkable season. But the story of how Brown has gotten to this point might be even more remarkable than the finish.

           ...

When a friend told me about Brown Women’s Soccer earlier in the fall, I was skeptical. I had seen a lot of Brown sports teams show promise before falling short of expectations. I wasn’t the only one whose expectations were tempered. The team was selected sixth out of eight teams in a preseason Ivy League poll after finishing with a losing record in the conference the previous year. What transpired afterwards was remarkable — a 14-1-2 overall record, a top-20 ranking in the nation, and the aforementioned Ivy League title guaranteeing that Brown would host a national tournament game against Monmouth, which the Bears subsequently won. But the roots of this success were planted years before.

Of all the events most directly linked to the team’s current success, perhaps none surpass the December 2015 hiring of Kia McNeill, former defender for the US U-19 and U-23 national teams and the Boston Breakers of the NWSL. At the time, the move was a gamble since McNeill had no previous managerial experience. But it paid off. Brown had gone 9-14-5 in Ivy League conference play in the four years before McNeill took over but has an impressive record of 17-8-3 in such matches so far under her tenure.

It is easy to see the roots of Brown’s success in McNeill’s defensive background. Strong defending and counterattacking have been key parts of the team’s success this year, with the Bears conceding just six goals in 17 overall matches and four in seven Ivy League matches this season.

Coaching isn’t the only reason for the team’s success and defensive prowess though. Key contributors have stepped up for Brown. Foremost among them is the aforementioned Kayla Thompson, a junior goalie who transferred from West Virginia University and has been the foundation of that strong defense. Thompson helped West Virginia get to the third round of the NCAA Tournament in 2017 but appeared in just one game for the team in 2018. Since transferring to Brown, Thompson has represented a marked improvement at the goalkeeping position for the Bears. In over 1200 minutes, Thompson has a .900 save percentage, compared to a .781 save percentage by Brown’s primary goalkeeper in 2018. This jump has been critical, allowing the team to defend more aggressively, with the Bears knowing that they have strong backup.

Thompson hasn’t been the only newcomer to make an impact, however. Freshman Brittany Raphino has made valuable contributions for the team. She has three assists to go along with a team-leading eight goals on the year. Raphino has provided a strong attacking complement to Brown’s strong defense.

Of course, any team must rely not only on new faces, but also on improvement from returning players. And Brown has gotten just that from another cog in the team’s attacking play this year — junior Sydney Cummings, who recorded seven assists this season, the most of anyone on the team, after having one assist in her previous two years. Cummings also improved her shot on goal percentage from .583 in 2018 to .636 this year, showing that her finishing ability has improved along with her prolific assist-making. This kind of player development exemplifies how McNeill’s system has brought the team to where it is now.

 Despite all their success, nothing is a given for the Bears as they come off their first win of the NCAA tournament. Looming in a potential second round matchup is a top-five team in the nation, Florida State, who handed a 5-0 shellacking to the Villanova team that gave Brown its only loss of the season. But despite this, there is much reason for hope. The Bears have a solid foundation that has given them success, even as they were doubted along the way. If it has worked up to this point, what can stop it now?

...

Two weeks after Brown clinched the Ivy League title, on a bright Saturday afternoon, I watch the team celebrate again. After the game, Kayla Thompson leads the team over to the student section to celebrate Brown’s penalty shootout win against Monmouth in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. As I watch this, one thing is clear to me. They sure don’t think anything can stop them.