Three was the magic number.
Florida State finally reached the pinnacle of women’s college soccer in their third national title final, beating Virginia for the third time in 2014, by a score of 1-0 for the third time. For Virginia, it was three times unlucky, having now gone home empty-handed from the College Cup three times while ruing their third defeat to the Seminoles this season, coincidentally, the club that accounted for all three of Virginia’s losses this season. Virginia stuffed three into central midfield to try and slow Florida State down while nominally playing three up front, though it seemed at times that the Cavs were more 4-5-1 without the ball.
As has been mentioned judiciously in the wake of Sunday’s final, it was not one for the neutral. In this case, familiarity bred caution, with Virginia clogging the midfield to stymie Dagny Brynjarsdottir, and doing it effectively at that, with the Icelandic star having minimal impact in comparison to her past showings against UVA and just about everyone else. But the Cavs paid the price in attack, with Makenzy Doniak too isolated as the frontrunner spearheading the charge. It was telling that Virginia’s best chances flew wide and high of the goal. By the time the Cavs were prodded out of their shell, it was sadly too little, too late, down a goal and down to the wire in the second half.
In the end, Florida State did more than enough to separate itself from the field in 2014. The defeat to Florida early in the season looked less explainable by the day as the Noles ripped up the competition, completing a treble with the win over Virginia in Boca Raton, having pipped their rivals to both prongs of the ACC crown earlier in the year. The Noles pulled off the astonishing feat of shutting Virginia out three times when no other club could even hold UVA to just one goal. Making the Cavs and Morgan Brian look mortal three straight times may be one of the unheralded feats in the history of NCAA soccer when all is said and done.
Probable Starting Lineups
Finality. It’s what Sunday will bring in Boca Raton as Florida State and Virginia finish out a trilogy for the biggest prize in college soccer. It’ll also be the final collegiate match for the likes of Morgan Brian, Dagny Brynjarsdottir, and Danielle Colaprico among others as each tries to go out with a win. Unlike many trilogies, this one isn’t coming into the third match on level pegging, as FSU has won both previous affairs this season, including winning the ACC Tournament against UVA, 1-0, the last time out. Common logic says it’s not easy to be a team three times, especially when there’s very little to pick from between the sides. Then again, it’s hard to doubt either of these sides given their NCAA Tournament form.
There’s little to pick from between the two starting goalkeepers in this final. Virginia’s Morgan Stearns has the advantage in experience and did fine against Texas A&M on Friday and should again be steady against the Noles on Sunday. Florida State’s Cassie Miller has been strong in net for a player with no collegiate experience coming into this season. Her distribution put her defense in trouble on occasion in the semi-final though, so FSU will be hoping for some improvement in that regard. Neither of these keepers is likely to be a goat, though neither seems especially likely to steal the match either.
The Battle In Midfield
As has been the case with Virginia’s last two matches, the battle in he middle of the park will feature multiple players likely to be high picks in the NWSL Draft this season (if they declare). Morgan Brian has been the name on everyone’s lips since the end of Women’s World Cup Qualifying, and she’ll want to sign off from the collegiate game with her school’s very first national title. Florida State have been a real thorn in her side thus far this season though, as Brian doesn’t have a single shot on goal or assist against the Noles in their two meetings thus far in 2014. Isabella Schmid and Michaela Hahn have done a masterful job of shielding the defense thus far in the NCAA Tournament and will probably be doing their utmost to keep Brian from having room to breathe when the ball is at her feet.
Virginia will have to find an answer to Dagny Brynjarsdottir if they’re to emerge victorious though. The Cavs have not managed the feat thus far in their prior two encounters this season, with Brynjarsdottir combining for five shots on goal and the only goal in the regular season meeting between the teams. Much of the defensive burden is going to fall on the shoulders of Danielle Colaprico, who faces a whale of a task in reeling in the burly Icelandic senior. There’s every possibility that UVA’s wide midfielders may pinch in to help double up on Brynjarsdottir. One thing’s for sure: if the Cavs can’t find a way to slow down Brynjarsdottir, they could be in for a rough day in Boca Raton.
Projected Starting Lineups
Florida State does not have fond memories of Stanford in the College Cup. FSU has played the Card just twice in their history, both times in the NCAA Tournament and were swept aside both times with plaintive ease by the Pac-12 powerhouse. A smattering of players on each side were participants in these clubs’ last meeting in 2011, where Stanford eased past FSU en route to the national title. The Card will be clear underdogs going into Friday though, having shown some real signs of vulnerability on their run to the Final Four. They won a tense shootout with Florida after a 2-2 draw and will be hoping to grind out another win against the ACC double winners on Friday.
The Present and The Future
The matchup that most eyes will be focused upon on Friday in this matchup will be the clash between one of the nation’s best seniors and one of its best freshmen when Dagny Brynjarsdottir goes head-to-head with Andi Sullivan in the middle of the park. Brynjarsdottir has turned into a nigh-unstoppable force as a senior, devastating in the air and almost as proficient with the ball at her feet. Clearly, any gameplan from a team facing FSU has to start with neutralizing the Icelandic midfielder’s impact on the match.
Luckily for Stanford, they’ve got a great countermeasure in rookie Sullivan. Widely considered the top recruit in the country going into this season, Sullivan has more the lived up to the hype as a freshman. The Card have needed a calming presence in midfield for a few seasons now, and Sullivan has done more than enough to raise hopes that she could be one of the best ever to suit up in Palo Alto. Sullivan’s reputation has already been surging after her bravura freshman season, but leading the Card to the national title this weekend would surely set the hype machine on overdrive for the three remaining seasons she has with Stanford.
Sullivan will likely get some help defensively from central midfielder Alex Doll, but the onus is probably going to be on the rookie to be the solution to the problem Brynjarsdottir presents.
Projected Starting Lineups
It might be all offense, all the time on Friday, as Virginia and Texas A&M threaten to break the scoreboard in Boca Raton with all the scoring potential on hand. Texas A&M finally broke their College Cup duck with a battling win over Penn State that saw Allie Bailey net a brace. Virginia upset the odds to beat UCLA in Westwood and ensure there would be no repeat national champion. The Cavs locked down UCLA’s wide attack and made the Bruins’ midfielders look shockingly average. They’ll be favored to win on Friday, but the Aggies aren’t about to go down without a hell of a fight.
Star Watch In The Middle
NWSL scouts will be focusing their eyes on the middle of the park in this one, as no fewer than three of the players in that zone could be top ten picks in the upcoming 2015 NWSL Draft. Add in Kelley Monogue, who might be a second half pick in the draft, and it’s going to be an offensive showdown to relish. Of course, the most eyes are going to be on likely first overall Morgan Brian, who is just two matches away from a coronation with a national title. Brian and Danielle Colaprico threw cold water on the notion that they’d be passed around in midfield against UCLA’s central triangle, dominating the matchup. The Cavs’ wide midfielders, Kaili Torres and Brittany Ratcliffe did an expectational job of putting the brakes on the Bruins’ wide game, making UCLA look as average as they’ve ever looked under the reign of Amanda Cromwell.
They face a challenge that’s different on Friday, though one that’s no less difficult. UCLA’s midfield had a little bit of everything, but Texas A&M will make no apologies for an attack, attack, attack mentality through the talents of Shea Groom and Monogue. The duo have ripped up opposing defenses this season, meaning Danielle Colaprico is going to have a whale of a defensive task on her shoulders when UVA’s out of possession. In that respect, Torres and Ratcliffe may be tasked with pinching into the middle of the park to help slow Groom and Monogue down considering A&M’s threat at full-back isn’t near UCLA’s.
It’s a two-way street defensively, though, as A&M, of course, has to figure out a way to stop Brian and Colaprico from rampaging forward. If Groom and Monogue both get sucked up the field at the same time, Brian and Colaprico could give Janae Cousineau severe problems. Cousineau’s not a bad player by any means, but she’s not in either Brian or Colaprico’s league and will surely need help in defense from Monogue and Groom to keep A&M form being overrun in the middle of the park. How A&M deals with the attack of Virginia on the wing also remains to be seen. Kaili Torres and Brittany Ratcliffe figure to have more room to roam offensively, meaning the Texas A&M full-backs will have to watch the wingers closely to prevent wide service to Virginia’s forwards.
1. Florida State
3. Texas A&M
Eliminated in Elite Eight
It really wasn’t supposed to end this way for the Bruins. Certainly not before the College Cup. Who knows if it would’ve hurt more or less if it had been against a lesser opponent or as the result of some kind of fluke. There was none of that here, as the defending national champs were simply beaten by the better team on the night. With the third season always the most important for new managers, it’ll be interesting to see how the Bruins respond to Friday’s shattering defeat. There’s no shortage of promising talent in Westwood, but the back four and midfield needs to be rebuilt, almost from scratch.
Projected Starting Lineups
Texas A&M gets another chance to end the hurt and finally get to the College Cup after falling at this stage many a time in the past few decades. Standing across from them is a Penn State side aiming to return to the College Cup after getting to the final in 2012. They’ll also be trying to salvage a little pride for the Big Ten, who hardly set this competition alight this year. PSU will be walking into a cauldron of emotion, but they still have more than one campaigner who knows how to get beyond this stage.
Slowing Down Texas A&M’s Twin Lances in Midfield
Part of what has made Texas A&M so deadly in attack has been the ability of attacking midfielders Shea Groom and Kelley Monogue to pierce the heart of opposing defenses with their marauding runs forward. At their best, they’re damn near unstoppable running forward in tandem and combining with the front three. Penn State is going to have to keep that duo as far away from goal as humanly possible. PSU’s operated with a pretty fluid triangle in midfield thus far this season, and the trio of Raquel Rodriguez, Salina Williford, and Emily Ogle are going to have to defend as a unit if they don’t want to see the A&M duo breaking past them with regularity on Saturday night.
Projected Starting Lineups
These two teams met in a contentious non-conference match that was decided on a golden goal penalty that was more than a little controversial to some. On the evening, Florida was well behind in most offensive categories but also had a glorious chance to win it in the second half through a Savannah Jordan shot from range that was palmed away brilliantly by Jane Campbell. Form is probably not with the Gators, who struggled in stretches in conference play and blew a two goal lead against Texas Tech last week, while Stanford themselves huffed and puffed a bit against Arkansas and Washington. Ultimately, Florida will have to account for the additions of Taylor Uhl, out of form against them earlier, and Lo’eau Labonta, who played just a quarter of an hour earlier in the season but who also netted the goal and who has become crucial in the midfield for the Card.
The heart of this matchup is probably going to be dead center between the two clubs’ central attacking midfielders, arguably the most important player in each’s squad. Lo’eau Labonta has been huge since these clubs first met and has shown an ability to make things happen in midfield and is the very definition of a big game player. The frontline gets more attention, but Labonta’s ability to drive into space in the middle of the park is going to be a key for a Stanford victory. Given Florida’s 4-2-3-1 though, the Card are going to have to get either Alex Doll or Andi Sullivan making forward runs as well to avoid Labonta being double teamed the entire match.
On the opposite side, Havana Solaun figures to be the leading figure for the Gators and may have a more dynamic role for the club. While serving as a #10 at times, Solaun has also played out on the wing for the Gators this season and is a serious danger to cut inside of full-backs towards goal and let fly with a dangerous shot. Neither of the Gators’ other central midfielders are big threats going forward, meaning Solaun’s probably got some heavy lifting to do if the club wants to attack down the middle of the pitch. If Doll and Sullivan sit back, Florida could find themselves in much the same situation as Stanford in trying to free up their #10.
Projected Starting Lineups
Goliath meets Goliath on Friday night in Westwood as UCLA hosts Virginia in a rematch of last season’s classic College Cup semi-final match. The Bruins have gone from strength to strength since that shootout win and are favorites again to left the national title. UCLA stormed through the first two rounds of the tournament before leaving it very late against Pepperdine. There was no such drama for their opponents, as they destroyed Kentucky, 7-0, in the Sweet Sixteen after easy wins over Rutgers and High Point. While UCLA returns pretty much intact from last season’s encounter, Virginia has changed in some pretty important ways.
Morgan Brian, Sam Mewis, and Sarah Killion among others will naturally get more attention, but it’s ultimately going to be Danielle Colaprico and what role she plays that could have the most impact on Friday night’s match. Colaprico is as versatile as they come at this level and has played in all four midfield spots this year for the Cavs while also having played as a winger in a 4-3-3 in previous years. She started as the club’s deepest midfielder against Kentucky, though UVA didn’t take too long to bring in Campbell Millar to prompt a shift back to the usual setup with Colaprico out wide.
The big question though is where Colaprico’s going to play on Friday, with each possibility bringing advantages and disadvantages. The senior’s not the best defender nor the biggest player, but her technical skill could be invaluable as the club seeks to keep possession in midfield, very likely being 2v3 if it stays with a 4-4-2 diamond that isn’t pinched in. If Colaprico plays out wide, Millar likely gets the role of tracking Sam Mewis. It’s a pretty big mismatch, and UVA may not want to risk Sarah Killion coming forward to overload the zone and overwhelm Millar in the process.
Using Colaprico out wide would help defend against the inevitable forward runs coming from the UCLA full-backs, as well as allow for counters up the pitch. Colaprico’s probably at her best on the wing and looks a better option on paper than Brittany Ratcliffe, who started on the right wing against Kentucky but still very much looks like a center forward playing on the wing. Alexis Shaffer’s a more natural wide option if the club does keep Colaprico deep. Which side Colaprico plays on if she goes wide is also worth watching, as Kaili Torres can play either side of the flank as well.
In short, Colaprico should have a big impact wherever she plays, but Steve Swanson has to judge where that impact is going to come best in handy.
Projected Starting Lineups
The lone remaining team out of the top two seeds to qualify for the Elite Eight, South Carolina will try to make history as they aim for the program’s first College Cup appearance. Opponents Florida State are Elite Eight regulars and have mostly breezed through the opening rounds and haven’t conceded in their first three NCAA Tournament matches.
4-2-3-1 vs 4-2-3-1
As you might expect from two sides that have conceded one combined goal in the NCAA Tournament thus far, both clubs like to keep it tight at the back with just one true forward operating in front of five midfielders. 4-2-3-1 vs 4-2-3-1 doesn’t really translate into great entertainment much of the time, with each #10 facing off against two midfield counterparts, each center forward being flanked by center-backs, and 1v1 matchups on the flanks.
Away, and as underdogs, South Carolina figures to be the far more conservative of the two sides, and it’d be a surprise to see either Christa Neary or Caroline Gray roam forward too much. Organization and discipline in keeping shape are going to be key, as it’s highly likely that Megan Campbell and Emma Koivisto are going to be blasting forward to try and create overloads down the flank. South Carolina are going to have to try and defend from the front as well, with Sophie Groff and Raina Johnson jamming the full-backs to prevent runs forward.
Teams eliminated in round one can be found in last week’s post.
3. Florida State
4. Texas A&M
6. South Carolina
7. Penn State
Eliminated in Sweet Sixteen
The Waves were able to bring the UCLA juggernaut back to Earth, making the defending national champs look mortal after two matches of otherworldly performances from the Bruins. Sam Mewis would pop up late to break Pepperdine hearts, but it had still been a tremendously valiant effort from Tim Ward’s side. Given another draw, Pepperdine could have very easily been still playing this week. But now it’s about maintaining this level of achievement after breaking the club’s NCAA Tournament hex. Lynn Williams leaves big shoes to fill, and finding comparable offense will be the key to not sinking back towards the pack.
10. North Carolina
Whenever the Tar Heels don’t at least make it to the Elite Eight, it feels like a bit of an anti-climax now. UNC had looked like a club that would accomplish that with a forgiving draw in the NCAA Tournament and having won a share of the ACC title after some struggles early in the season. Those offensive struggles became all too apparent again last weekend though, as the club struggled to put Colorado away before the attack ran aground against a disciplined and organized South Carolina side. Losing Satara Murray is a big blow to the defense, and there are serious questions on offense after the club failed to bloom in front of goal. Until the Heels get a fifteen goal scorer firing in their lineup, they might find it hard to make it back to the College Cup.