“Foot, Ball, Goal”

On scoring in a low-scoring game

Margaret “Midge” Purce

The Harvard women’s soccer team seized its moment on a Saturday afternoon last November. A week earlier, the Crimson had suffered its first conference loss in two years, falling 2-0 to Dartmouth; Harvard now needed a win at home in its regular-season finale against Columbia to guarantee its second consecutive Ivy League title.

Enter Margaret “Midge” Purce ’17. The lone player in league history to be named rookie and player of the year as a freshman, Harvard’s star forward had been uncharacteristically quiet in Hanover. But just under 30 minutes into a scoreless matchup with the Lions, that changed instantly. Emily Mosbacher ’16 sent a cross into the box (a pass into the rectangular area in front of the goal) and Purce, using the outside of her right foot, redirected the ball past the Columbia goalkeeper. 1-0 Crimson. In the second half, with the score now tied at one apiece, Purce struck again. This time, she headed a cross from Bethany Kanten ’15 into the side netting for the final margin in Harvard’s 2-1 win, ensuring that the Crimson would hoist the Ivy League trophy and return to the NCAA tournament.

In two split seconds, Purce had saved Harvard’s season. But when asked about those goals a half-year later, she emphasizes the lengthy, collaborative buildup that preceded each strike. “For me, it’s the most beautiful thing to see a ball go from our goalie through” everyone else on the team—all touching the ball and sharing “the same end goal: getting the ball in the back of the net,” she says. “And then I get the great opportunity to be the person who just happens to be the last one to touch it.”

Purce’s humility aside (a trait women’s soccer head coach Ray Leone identifies as one of her many laudable attributes), her comment is also a window into how she has become an expert at scoring in a very low-scoring game. In fact, just halfway through her Harvard career, she already ranks tenth on the school’s all-time scoring list, with 21 goals. 

Purce calls “combinations” the foundation of goal scoring: a series of three to four quick passes with a teammate that facilitates beating a pair of defenders. This hinges in part on outthinking the opponent. (As Purce recalled, one of her former coaches on the U.S. women’s national team, April Heinrichs, suggested likening the process to a game of chess.) It also requires moving off the ball and talking to her teammates on the field. But above all, the success of the combinations depends on Purce and her teammates having an intimate, almost telepathic, understanding of one another’s tendencies—a byproduct of extensive, and some times harsh, on-field dialogue. 

Take her relationship with Dani Stollar ’18, a midfielder who followed Purce as the conference rookie of the year last fall. Earlier in the season, the two women sometimes failed to connect, leading Purce to demand that Stollar make clear what she was expecting Purce to do, and vice versa. In time, Stollar began making similar demands of Purce. Now all it takes is a tilt of the head or a slight hand gesture for the two to anticipate each other’s movements. “Somewhere around that thesis and antithesis, you find the synthesis,” says Purce of the dialectic that leads to team chemistry.

Yet goal-scoring requires more than strong passing and teamwork. It takes a player who can quickly decide where to put the ball—and then actually direct it there, amid enormous excitement about the possibility of scoring. “There’s a split second,” Purce explains, “where you have to relax and focus on finishing” the play to actually score the goal.

“Finishing” requires mental and physical prowess, and Purce has both. Even to the untrained eye, her deft touch, speed, and powerful shot stand out. But Leone says one of her foremost attributes is her balance. Much like Michael Jordan did in basketball, he says, “She rolls with [contact] and stays on her feet and adjusts…so she can change directions very quickly with and without the ball.” 

Purce plays with similar mental balance and power: Jim Bruno, her coach at Our Lady of Good Counsel High School in Maryland, points to her composure. Purce agrees. “Foot, ball, goal,” she tells herself whenever she has a scoring opportunity. But she counterbalances that calmness with a healthy dose of aggression and risk-taking. “As a forward,” she admits, “sometimes you’re a little selfish because you want to go to goal, you want to score, and you want to do that for the team.” It’s extremely helpful, she stresses, to have teammates and coaches who are “supportive of my taking risks.” 

Purce’s talents did not materialize overnight. Growing up in Olney, Maryland, just outside Washington, D.C., she was initially overlooked. On her first youth team, teammates nicknamed her “Midge” because she was relatively small. But her father, James, impressed upon her the importance of working hard—something Purce took to heart. As a youth player, she joined early-morning pick-up games with her older brother, J.P., and his friends. As a high-school player, she went out on the field by herself in the dead of winter. At Harvard, she meets Leone in the Athletic Complex’s bubble at 5 a.m. to train. For some athletes, hard work is a cliché, but for Purce, hard work is a creed. Her Twitter handle is “100Purcent.”

Currently on a pre-med track, she plans to eventually become a pediatric psychiatrist, but she hopes first to pursue a career as a professional soccer player and a member of the U.S. women’s national team. (She has been a mainstay in the team’s youth development program since high school.) From Leone’s perspective, both those goals are well within striking distance, but—fortunately for him and the Crimson faithful—Purce has two more years at Harvard during which to continue delivering scoring strikes on Soldiers Field.

Read more articles by David L. Tannenwald

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