Benavides is the bow on the Skyhawks’ 4-4-2

Durango Herald file photo (2011)

Elena Benavides loves to have the ball at her feet in the Skyhawks’ 4-4-2 attack. “As long as my team’s winning, I’m happy,” she said. “I find it more fun because I get to find the ball more at my feet instead of running a lot. It’s better running to get the ball than running in space and not getting it.”

By Ryan Owens Herald staff writer

Her game is not easily quantified by numbers.

It’s not one of great flash, of pomp and circumstance, but rather a subtle substance.

It’s the kind of game her team can’t thrive without.

Elena Benavides is the engine in the central midfield that makes the Fort Lewis College women’s soccer team go, the thread that connects the defense, wings and forwards with a neat bow.

She’s become so adept at it her head coach paid her the ultimate compliment, comparing her to FC Barcelona’s finest.

“She likes to have control of a game in a different way than most players,” FLC head coach Damian Clarke said. “You think, to be honest, she’s more of probably a Xavi or an Iniesta, someone who’s going to assist and playmake, but sometimes the play that’s made is so far away from the assist that it’s not even recognized.”

Benavides, one of just two active seniors on the roster, didn’t come in as a ball-control specialist. She had a quality career as a goal scorer at Sandia Prep High School in Albuquerque and played up top early on in her FLC career. But the central midfield affords her the ability to play with the ball at her feet more often than not, something she craves.

“I came to the conclusion that as long as my team’s winning, I’m happy. ... I find it more fun because I get to find the ball more at my feet instead of running a lot. It’s better running to get the ball than running in space and not getting it,” Benavides said.

That said, it takes a particular mindset to play the position, one that doesn’t mind not scoring the big goal or making the big save. A person who’s content to scramble back and forth repeatedly to facilitate the offense.

Numbers-wise, Benavides doesn’t stand out much, with just eight goals and 19 assists in her career. But it’s the unquantifiable that makes her so useful, both as a player and a captain.

“To be honest with you, she probably runs five miles a game,” Clarke said. “She also has to do it with exquisite technique. If you make bad passes, then obviously the other team is on top of us the way that we play.”

Last year, the Skyhawks had quite the combination in the middle with Benavides and partner in crime Sara Egbom, who formed quite a potent ball control tandem as FLC advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament for the second consecutive year.

Benavides, understandably, misses Egbom because of the connection built after so much time playing together. But she quickly added how pleased she was with the way Egbom’s replacements – notably Therese Romero, Emily Walters and Brooke Milliet – have made life after Egbom as easy as possible.

“Actually, it’s made me happy that I haven’t had to direct other midfielders as much as I thought I would, missing Eggy,” Benavides said. “I think they learned in the spring when we played together or even just watching how to play with me, which I’m very grateful for.”

But the most valuable quality of all in the central midfield, besides maybe endurance, is vision. The person in the middle has to be able to see the next pass before it happens, to exploit passing lanes and perhaps start the chain reaction that leads to a goal a few passes down the line.

Think chess. And Clarke’s convinced he’s got his Garry Kasparov.

“Her head has to be on a swivel. As the ball’s coming in to her, or even two passes ahead, she’s looking over her shoulder to check what’s behind her and what’s available,” Clarke said. “A lot of times she’s playing the ball into someone and telling them where to go next.”

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