NCAA Tournament – Elite Eight Preview – (1) Florida State vs Notre Dame

(1) Florida State vs Notre Dame – 7:00 PM EST

(Florida State Rotation [4-2-3-1]: Probable Starters – Wys, Jaurena, Kallman, Grubka, Short, Brockway, Schmid, Price, Brynjarsdottir, Fields, McCarty. Likely Reserves – Pickett, Murakami, Hahn, Bakowska-Mathews)

(Notre Dame Rotation [4-3-3]: Probable Starters – Hight, Hall, Von Rueden, Naughton, Scofield, Roccaro, Laddish, Tucker, Twining, Bohaboy, Thomas. Likely Reserves – Gilbertson, Schneider, Williams, Campo, Simonian)

-Effective width in a 4-2-3-1 largely relies on the ability of the full-backs to bomb up and down the flanks, and Florida State’s offensive success has, in large part, been down to the ability of their superb duo, Ines Jaurena and Casey Short, to do just that. Jaurena on the right has always been a terror for the Seminoles and almost plays a role of a modern wing-back, usually situating herself very high up the pitch, sometimes near the halfway line. Short’s forays forward don’t seem as dramatic, but the FSU defender is a converted attacker and has plenty of attacking instincts to rely on in the position. How well the two Notre Dame wide forwards are able to defend from the front could be crucial in ensuring the wide zones in their defensive third of the field aren’t overloaded by the Seminoles. At the same time though, the Irish will be wary of their forwards tracking the full-backs so far up the field that their center forward becomes isolated. It’s an intriguing balance, and one that Randy Waldrum will have to get right to stand a chance on the day.

-The aerial game is likely to be dominated by the home side, especially in their end of the pitch, as the towering center-back duo of Kassey Kallman and Kristin Grubka are 5’8″ and 5’10” respectively and are an imposing tandem in the middle of defense. Notre Dame’s odds of dominating the air don’t look great eighteen, as their tallest forwards are Anna Maria Gilbertson and Lauren Bohaboy at 5’8″, though neither seems likely to dominate FSU’s center-back duo in the air. This could be crucial, as with the full-backs rampaging forward, UND could have room to cross from wide positions but may not have the personnel up front to take advantage of those crosses. The Irish offense could be forced to play through Florida State’s defense through the middle, which could be an onerous task given the quality of the Noles’ interior midfielders.

-Waldrum’s biggest decision ahead of Friday’s match could be in determining the best role for rookie star Cari Roccaro. The freshman saw action as a center-back for the U.S. U20 team in the U20 World Cup earlier this year and has also seen time as the club’s defensive midfielder and up front as a striking option. While Roccaro’s versatility makes her one of the club’s most important assets, it also forces Waldrum into a tough decision as to where she’s best utilized. It might come down to a question of mentality in the end. If Notre Dame wants to go on a more conservative tact and stop Florida State from playing, then using Roccaro to shield the back four behind Mandy Laddish and Elizabeth Tucker could work out well. A more aggressive mindset could see the Irish use Roccaro as a target forward right off the bat. Regardless of Waldrum’s opening mindset, should the Irish need a goal down the stretch, it almost seems certain that the freshman will be thrown up front to try and give Florida State’s defense problems.

-The revolving door occupying the defensive midfield spot beside Tiana Brockway for Florida State stopped again when Isabella Schmid returned to action for the first time since going out after a half against Boston College in the ACC Tournament. It’s surely no coincidence that a bravissimo performance from the FSU offense followed against Texas A&M last Sunday. The talented duo will have a challenge on their hands against Notre Dame’s Mandy Laddish and Elizabeth Tucker on Friday though. Laddish is arguably UND’s top player and valued as much for her leadership as for her more tangible assets on the pitch. The more defensive of FSU’s duo in that zone, Brockway will probably be tasked with sticking to Laddish like glue, leaving the more creative Schmid to handle Tucker (or vice-versa). Tucker’s not a slouch offensively, but her defensive qualities may be more valued by Waldrum here as he depends on the junior to try and cut off the supply line forward by stifling Schmid’s passing.

-Part of the critical decision of whether to start with Roccaro in a defensive midfield role or up top comes down to stifling Florida State’s Icelandic international, Dagny Brynjarsdottir. The attacking midfielder doesn’t get the headlines some of her teammates do, but she might be the most critical player on the squad in keeping the offense flowing. The difference with her in and out of the lineup, as has sometimes been the case with her off for international duty, has been quite noticeable, and her return to the lineup has been crucial down the stretch. Her partnership with frontrunner Tiffany McCarty has been growing into a lethal one, and stopping her from threading balls ahead for the FSU center forward has to be a top priority for Waldrum’s side. A big problem facing Notre Dame is dealing with Brynjarsdottir’s physicality, as the Icelandic midfielder is 5’10.5″ and will tower over either Roccaro and Williams in midfield. Roccaro’s the safer option for Notre Dame, but it’d come at a cost to the offense, which might have to be paid if the Icelandic international shows signs of stamping her authority on the game.

-If Notre Dame is to stand a chance of advancing to the College Cup, they’re going to have to find a way to stop the unstoppable at the moment. Tiffany McCarty appeared to be having a rather average season going into the postseason, having scored just seven goals in her senior season. She’s scored eight since in the postseason, including at least one goal in every round of tournament play thus far. Her form has been utterly unbelievable over the past month, and should FSU go on to win it all, she’s a prime candidate to lift the Hermann Trophy in January. So there’s no pressure on Notre Dame rookie defender Katie Naughton, right? The Irish freshman certainly hasn’t bowed much in the face of pressure thus far, having helped silence some talented forwards thus far in her debut season at this level. But McCarty’s likely to be her toughest challenge yet, and Naughton’s likely to need help from her equally young rearguard partners to try and keep the FSU attacking talisman quiet. Getting help in midfield to shut down the supply line to McCarty certainly wouldn’t hurt either.

-Both of these clubs have made great use of set pieces to put offense on the board, which has certainly helped since they’ve both shown a tendency to bog down at times going forward in the run of play. Florida State certainly benefits from the rocket-like long throws of Jessica Price, whose launches inside the box can cause havoc for opposing defenses. With two big targets to aim for in Grubka and Brynjarsdottir, FSU has made many opponents pay for lax marking inside the box this year. Notre Dame generally doesn’t have the size FSU does but still has some great targets in Naughton and Brittany Von Rueden. The latter figures to be the one serving the balls into the box on corners though, and she’s certainly proven to be adept at it so far, with her deliveries leading to needed goals on many occasions this year. The Irish have also proven to be good at defending set pieces as well as of late. Florida piled on corners last weekend but couldn’t find a way through the UND defense all game long.

-Both clubs have been unafraid to go fairly deep into their benches in postseason play, though there doesn’t seem to be any true heavy hitters for either side. As you might expect, most of FSU’s substitutions will come in midfield, with Marta Bakowska-Mathews and Hikaru Murakami both having filled in dutifully for Schmid over the past few weeks. Carson Pickett’s looked like one of the club’s top newcomers at times and has great versatility, while Michaela Hahn’s another rookie who’s seen extensive time. If Roccaro is used up front, she’ll probably push Rebecca Twining to the bench, with Glory Williams coming in in defensive midfield. Taylor Schneider’s a Swiss army knife who can fill multiple roles, while Anna Maria Gilbertson will likely be used up front to give Crystal Thomas, Twining, or Lauren Bohaboy a breather. Stephanie Campo and Karin Simonian could also see time for the Irish if need be.

-I feel like I’ve written the same thing about Notre Dame for three straight rounds. They’re a undeniably talented side that’s also undeniably young. That hasn’t stopped them from shooting down two sides with an appreciable advantage in experience though, and now they stand just ninety minutes away from a surprising College Cup appearance. That they’ve been so consistent in the NCAA Tournament up to this point is a testament to good coaching, but the law of averages would seemingly dictate that a letdown is coming sooner or later. FSU’s caused many letdowns for opponents this season and were in irrepressible form against Texas A&M last Sunday. If the Irish can keep their composure and make the most of set pieces and what falls their way in the run of play, they’ve got a chance of springing the upset. I think FSU holds their nerve in the end though and stifles Notre Dame en route to a win that could be closer than it looks on the final scoreline.

Prediction: (1) Florida State 2 – 0 Notre Dame

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