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Led by Bartoli and Swaby, Roma's Defense Showed Dramatic Improvement

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Roma's captain and their young American/Jamaican center-back led one of the league's stingiest defenses this season.

ACF Fiorentina v AS Roma - Women Serie A Photo by Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

I'm not sure I've ever seen a league in which the cream of the crop is so clearly and definitively separated from the pack quite like Serie A Femminile. The division between the top four sides—Juventus, AC Milan, Fiorentina and AS Roma—and the remaining eight clubs is as stark as it gets. And truth be told, the margins between the top four sides are getting narrower by the day, which makes every goal conceded a potential death blow to a club's Champions League hopes. It's not exactly a recipe for a healthy league, but it makes the fixtures between those four sides incredibly tense—every match between the top four is a veritable cup final; the stakes are that high.

While the rest of the league marvels at Juve's defensive record—only 18 goals conceded over their past 38 league matches—Roma, quite surreptitiously, improved their defensive record dramatically over the past year, slashing their goals conceded (1.4 per match vs 1.1 per match) and nearly doubling their +/- from 2018-2019 (+13 to +24).

Much like their attacking units, Betty Bavagnoli's back-line is trending upwards, so let's take a quick look at the women responsible for this turn around.

Goalkeepers

AS Roma v ACF Fiorentina - Women Serie A Photo by Giampiero Sposito/Getty Images

When the season started, many assumed that veteran Rosalia Pipitone would resume her position as the unquestioned starter, with new signee Camelia Ceasar serving as her understudy. And that's how it went...for one week. After conceding three goals against Milan in the season opener, Pipitone was quickly replaced by the 22-year-old Romanian keeper.

Pipitone is a solid keeper with a long career to look back upon, but once Ceasar took the starter's gloves, Roma's rearguard looked markedly better. Ceasar can't match Pipitone's size or experience, but what she lacks in stature she more than makes up for in agility, aggression and reflexes. To put it in basketball terms, Ceasar can get off the floor quickly. She may not look like much at first glance, but she can pick out a shot out of the air in the blink of an eye.

And what's more, she played well against the top sides in the league, helping Roma take four valuable points off Fiorentina and keeping Roma alive in their second fixture against Milan this past January.

All told, Ceasar made 13 league starts and kept six cleansheets—second only to Juve's Laura Giuliani.

Ceasar is definitely an up and comer and Roma would be wise to hang onto her.

Full-Backs

AS Roma v Juventus - Women Serie A Photo by Giuseppe Bellini/Getty Images

While the Giallorosse aren't quite as starved for quality at full-back as their male counterparts, the story of their first two seasons has been finding a partner for club captain and Azzurre stalwart Elisa Bartoli. The born and bred Roman has been the unquestioned leader for her hometown club through it's first two seasons in existence, bombing up and down the left flank and maintaining her status as the best left-back in the league. In addition to her defensive duties, Bartoli has been an unexpected wellspring of goals, pumping in seven Serie A strikes over the past two seasons, matching the best two-year stretch of her career.

Last season, young Angelica Soffia garnered the lion's share of minutes at right-back and did about as well an 18-year-old making the leap to a bigger club can do. But with a fresh sense of purpose last summer, Roma recruited depth at nearly every position on the pitch, including at right-back, where Kaja Eržen arrived from Tavagnacco.

Soffia's broader tactical flexibility enabled her to maintain a spot in Roma's rotation, but Eržen was the unquestioned starter at the position from the word go. With 12 starts in 13 appearances, the 24-year-old Slovenian was a rock for Bavagnoli this season, offering a bit more physicality at the position than Soffia.

While she didn't match her four goals from last season, Eržen was a pretty reliable threat going forward for Roma. If Eržen and Soffia return next season, expect a heated battle for starter's minutes.

Center-Backs

Football woman Roma-Juventus photo by Massimo Insabato/Archivio Massimo Insabato/Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images

After arriving midway through the 2018-2019 season, Allyson Swaby was an unknown but interesting depth move, having played everywhere from Boston to Iceland. But, after a brief acclimation period, she soon became an unquestioned starter in the center of Roma's defense; a role she continued and improved upon this season.

With 13 appearances and over 1,000 minutes, Swaby continued her ascension up the club pecking order. Swaby was arguably already one of the league's strongest and most physical defenders, but she took another step forward in her development this season (not a single card all season), taking on a greater role in building up play from the back. So impressed with Swaby's development was Roma that they inked her to a new contract extension through 2022. (We'd also be remiss if we didn't pass along Swaby's personal and powerful post on her experiences with racism during her collegiate and professional career.)

Swaby, along with Bartoli, were really the only sure things for Bavagnoli back in August; the rest was up in the air. With Emma Lipman moving to Florentia last summer, the assumption was that Swaby and Federica Di Criscio would team-up in the center of defense, but once the latter went down with an ACL injury in December, Bavagnoli's best laid plans fell by the wayside.

But who would step up and assume the mantle next to Swaby?

Roma had two very intriguing options: young Tecla Pettenuzzo, who signed from Sassuolo over the summer, and the even younger Heden Corrado, who made a few promising appearances in ‘18-’19 as a 17-year-old.

In the end, Pettenuzzo's experience won out and the 20-year-old Vicenza native seized the opportunity, making 13 starts and logging 1,080 minutes—fourth most on the team. It's no stretch to say that Pettenuzzo was the surprise of the season.

While she wasn't an unknown commodity—she started all 22 matches for Sassuolo the prior season—Pettenuzzo showed a level of poise, vision and touch not many people expected when the season began. She showed some of the telltale inconsistencies one expects of young defenders (late switches, ball watching, some rash challenges), but she was quick enough to close down virtually any attacker in the league, she read angles and predicted passing patterns well enough and generally toed the line between aggression and passivity well enough to make you think she'll be a ten-year starter at the position, if not more.

With Di Criscio hurt and Corrado not yet ready for full-time duty in the top-flight, Roma added 30-year-old Swedish defender Petronella Ekroth (formerly of Juventus) midway through the season. She only made four appearances but certainly showed enough to be given a longer look in the future.

Room for Improvement

Outside of Bartoli, the remainder of Roma's back-line is extremely young, as Swaby, Pettenuzzo, Erzen, Soffia and Ceasar are all 25-years-old or younger. In that light, they simply need more time to gel. With another season under their collective belts, some of the minor communication issues between them should iron themselves out.

Given the uncertain professional status of the league in the short-term, it's difficult to predict how many of those players will remain with the club in the long run, but Bartoli still has a few years of peak production left in her, the Swaby-Pettenuzzo pairing has the potential to be one of the strongest in the league, while Corrado and Soffia have as much potential as any U-21 defenders in Italy at the moment.

We also shouldn't count out the return of Camilla Labate, Roma's 21-year-old full-back/midfielder/winger who bounced between the senior and Primavera teams last season (nearly winning the Scudetto) before spending this season on loan with Sassuolo.

It wouldn't be shocking to see another veteran full-back signed in the summer to spell Bartoli and/or compete with Erzen on the right flank, but, like virtually every other part of the team, the defense is bursting at the seams with young talent and seems primed for big things in the near future.