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Q&A with John Cullen on spring season

CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Another successful spring season is in the books for the Charlotte women’s soccer program and head coach John Cullen. Cullen recently sat down with Charlotte49ers.com to discuss the team’s progression, a breakdown of what he saw out of each position group and what to look forward to for the coming 2016 campaign.

1. Much of the emphasis of the spring is on player development, not necessarily the scores of each of the matches in which you play. How would you assess the 49ers this spring?
Every spring is an opportunity to be more about individuals. It’s a time for young players to shine a bit more and grow into a role. We felt graduating a number of established players, it was an opportunity for some of our younger players to fill those shoes. We moved some players around to new positions to identify what they could bring to a role. There were a lot of pleasant surprises.
There were a lot of positives, but at the same time, we were able to get players back who may have missed time during the fall season. We wanted to get better in both boxes. Defensively, we only gave up two goals, while on the attacking side, we scored 14. Certainly, we feel like we tightened up along the back and we continue to be dangerous going forward.

2. Martha Thomas has had two great seasons but you’re always working to find more options at forward. What’d you see out of that group this spring?
As always, Martha had a good spring in front of the goal. Katie O’Neill had a good session in front of the goal, including a hat trick in one game. Emily Truelove showed really good consistency.
We wanted to continue to build depth up front. Martha is obviously a very prolific striker but we focused on getting more goals from more individuals. We tried a number of players up there – Kyla Clark, Emma Socha, Perri Bonner – just to add more to the mix. The more options we have is certainly beneficial. We have a lot of strikers coming in this fall, which will really add to that group, but we spent time with this current group to understand the movement off one another. We coached them on the awareness of each other’s runs, movements and positioning. They looked dangerous, even though they don’t get a chance to work together a lot during the spring. I still think some of those players will have to go away and will have some hard work in front of them this summer.

3. Midfield seems to be an area of depth and strength. How would you assess that group?
Rebecca Beatty and Virginia Lingo played a new role, alongside of each other. We were very pleased about that partnership.
It was probably one of our stronger units in the spring. We received really good play from every individual that was a part of it. Beatty and Lingo got the most dominant minutes. They gave us a nice balance of on the ball, nice decisions and good passing, along with good retention of the ball. I thought them both also improved with their defensive work, taking away penetrating passes and pressuring. Those two put themselves in a position of strength.
We have other players that chipped in there during the spring, including Cannon Clough, Kaitlin Walker and Truelove who played there a little bit. We feel like we have some options within the group and we’ve also been able to strengthen the group.

4. A number of players also return along the back line. What’d you see from that unit?
Shealyn Dwyer went into a central defender spot and had a very good spring. She put herself in a position of strength.
I think one of the things we had last fall was we were never able to get a consistent back four together, whether through injuries or just form. This spring, we worked predominately with about six players and I think the continuity was much better. Their ability to train more as a group consistently we believe will be the catalyst for them to be a better unit. Defensively last year, we weren’t as sharp or dominant as we needed to be at this level. One thing we found with this group is the more they play together, the better they’ll be. There was a lot of upperclassmen in that mix. Hopefully that’ll give us a little bit more experience along the back, having played two or three years of college soccer already, and that’ll give them a bit more confidence stepping onto the field rather than a younger group.

5. Having to replace an experience goalkeeper is never easy, especially with two players who have seen limited time at the collegiate level. How would you rate this position through the spring?
Both of our young goalkeepers, Abby (Coffey) and Anna (Shelden), got a taste of college game experience really for the first time. Both of them had a chance to play in at least two games and that’s important heading into the fall season.
Between the two of them, they have two career starts at the college level. It’s a unique opportunity for both and a chance for them to establish themselves as Division I-caliber goalkeepers. They’ve trained well.
Anna has faced a more difficult road to getting back, coming off of injuries and time off. I felt like she had a good spring and she laid the foundation that if she could have a good summer, she can kick-on from there.
Abby has continued to get better each and every month. Her challenge now is to build on the things she has done in her first year here.
But overall, I think it’s going to be a very even competition between those two. I feel like we have two Division I-type goalkeepers, but when they get back in the fall, we’re going to be excited to see which one has done more preparation. My hope is that both of them will be very well prepared.

6. At this point, coming out of the spring, what does the team need to do collectively to get ready for the fall?
The biggest thing for this group is the self-motivation to go away this summer and work very hard at its individual game. When players are in front of you and they are preparing for a season, the motivation and desire is there. The challenge we’re putting out to each of our players is that this summer needs to be one of the hardest-working summers you’ve ever done. The challenge for our players is they have to live like soccer players all year ’round, particularly in the summer when there is time away from the program.

7. Lastly, you always conclude the spring with bringing the alumnae back for a game. What does it mean for this program to bring former players back, have them mingle with the current group and make them be a part of the tradition here?
It was fantastic again this year. It was a wonderful day with an amazing turnout of about 28 alumnae back. They played just like they were here yesterday and put on a great exhibition, beating Wingate 2-0. It was great to see them back at Transamerica Field and playing as well as they’ve always played. There were a lot of smiles on faces. We take great pride in our alumnae and hopefully continue to do things that make them proud. It was great to be able to catch up with old friends, having lunch and social with them. It was a great day and something we would like to continue to keep doing moving forward as part of our spring season.

Stay tuned to Charlotte49ers.com for more exciting news about the Charlotte women’s soccer program this summer.