(1) BYU vs (2) North Carolina – 8:00 PM EST
(BYU Rotation [4-2-3-1]: Probable Starters – Owens, Oldroyd Cusick, Bazzarone, Lisonbee Cutshall, Hunt, Colohan, Manning, Murphy, Ringwood, Thornock, Payne Holmoe. Likely Reserves – Jensen, Nimmer, Varner)
(North Carolina Rotation [3-4-3]: Probable Starters – Gay, Gardner, Ball, Murray, Brooks, McFarlane, Bowen, Dunn, Lubrano, Ohai, Green. Likely Reserves – Morris, Premji, Elby, Nielsen, Rich, Nigro)
-Senior center-back for BYU Lindsi Lisonbee Cutshall possesses a great shot from range, a powerful presence in the air, and plenty of talent with the ball at her feet. While she’ll be needed most for her defensive ability as she tries to help stop a destructive North Carolina frontline, her role in helping build from the back can’t be overlooked. Carolina’s made a name for themselves over the years as a team that defends from the front, as you might expect from a team with a three player defense. The Heels have thrived off of turnovers and will relish the opportunity to dispossess the BYU backline, but nicking the ball off of Lisonbee Cutshall probably isn’t going to be an easy task. If Crystal Dunn plays up front, it wouldn’t be surpassing to see her press Lisonbee Cutshall on goal kicks or punts to try and get the ball delivered elsewhere. If Erica Owens goes long though…
-…UNC could be in trouble. The Heels are many things, but they aren’t equipped to win too many balls in the air in midfield. Amber Brooks is 5’6″, Crystal Dunn is 5’2″, and they’re going to be outnumbered in the center of the park unless some of the wide midfielders pinch in or the forwards drop into midfield. Even if they do try to even the odds in midfield, BYU has plenty of height in the center of the park, with defensive midfielders Rachel Manning (5’9″) and Cloee Colohan (5’8″) holding a distinct size advantage. Add in attacking midfielder Jessica Ringwood (5’9″), and you’ve got a whole lot of muscle in the middle. Given UNC’s high pressure mentality and BYU’s size advantage in midfield, I’d be shocked if BYU’s distribution from Owens isn’t long for much of the match.
-BYU played a 4-3-3 last season but switched it up to a 4-2-3-1 this season, which looks like a masterstroke at the moment. It’s the perfect example of a system being just right for a certain group of players, and it’s worked perfectly so far for the Cougars. Freshman Michele Murphy and sophomore Jaiden Thornock have provided penetrative dribbling from out wide, with Thornock usually aiming to stretch play wide, with Murphy slashing inside from out left. Carlee Payne Holmoe hasn’t been an explosive goalscorer, but she’s been the pitbull the club’s needed up top, playing much bigger than her 5’5″ frame and holding the ball up and setting teammates up when necessary. Attacking midfielder Jessica Ringwood cleans up with late runs into the box, though her finishing can get wayward at times. Defensive midfielder Cloee Colohan’s been more involved in the offense as the season’s gone on, and her runs forward might be necessary if Payne Holmoe gets swarmed up top. Lisonbee Cutshall can also make things happen going forward, though her teammates on the backline may be more reserved given the attacking threat facing them. The pieces haven’t really been in sync as of late, but it’s a thing of beauty to watch when everything’s working well, so BYU has to hope the gremlins of last week have been worked out ahead of this one.
-Caitlin Ball’s return to health late in the season has allowed Anson Dorrance to move Crystal Dunn back up the pitch, with Ball partnering Satara Murray and Hanna Gardner on the backline. The setup against the 4-2-3-1 has the potential to succeed, depending on how well the wide midfielders defend against the wide elements in the attacking midfield band of BYU. If they can shut them down, Payne Holmoe’s probably going to have a rough night going 1 v 3 against the three central defenders for UNC. BYU would probably have to take more risks going forward with Ringwood and Colohan charging into the final third to trouble the three defenders of Carolina. Conversely though, the balance could be tipped if the wide midfielders are derelict in their duties and allow BYU’s wide midfielders to rampage forward without abandon, potentially creating a 3 v 3 or 4 v 3 if Ringwood gets forward as well.
-As you might figure from the above, the game could be won or lost out wide. The freshman matchup between UNC’s Katie Bowen and BYU’s Michele Murphy could be one of the round’s most intriguing. Murphy’s been one of BYU’s most dangerous players going forward despite her youth, and Bowen’s defensive abilities will be put to the test in trying to shut her down. Dunn has played on the left earlier in the year but has been shifted further up as UNC’s searched for more answers further up the pitch. Kelly McFarlane’s played out wide in her stead, but I’d be mildly surprised if she was preferred over the more defensively adept Meg Morris in this one. Conversely, BYU’s wide attackers will have to be aware of Bowen and McFarlane or Morris motoring forward, but they should have a little cover at least from the full-backs. How brave those full-backs are will be worth watching, as leaving a 3 v 3 situation against the North Carolina forwards on a potential counter could be disastrous.
-So where does Dunn end up? Defense doesn’t look likely after Ball’s return to help, though she could certainly end up back there if UNC needs to protect a lead late. Out wide on the left is a possibility if the club wants to try and get her forward wide, and you’d favor her to get the better of Thornock defensively. As odd as it sounds, flipping her over to the right to try and shut down Murphy would be an interesting, if defensive, move. Operating as the attacking midfielder could be a gamble. Dunn will probably be imposing wherever she ends up, but there’s a risk she could be muscled around by Colohan and Manning in that zone. If she does end up as the attacking midfielder, she’ll probably try to play “between the lines”, in between the defensive midfield band and the back four, getting the back from a teammate and trying to break at pace the other way, running at the backline or setting up a teammate. Dunn could also be used in lieu of Maria Lubrano up front for an ultra attacking front three. At that point, it’d all be about getting service to the front three. Ranee Premji would almost certainly slot in at attacking midfielder in place of Dunn in that setup.
-Service to the attacking players centrally could depend on Amber Brooks getting time to pick out passes up the field. The heartbeat of the Carolina midfield, Brooks will also surely be a marked woman all night on Friday. Responsibility for marking her will likely first come to Jessica Ringwood, though the Cougar attacking midfielder really isn’t known for her defensive work. With that in mind, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see her doubled with Carlee Payne Holmoe dropping back or Cloee Colohan or Rachel Manning moving forward. If Thornock and Murphy can stick to Carolina’s wide midfielders, Brooks wouldn’t have an easy out ball and be forced to lump it forward, where BYU would theoretically still have a 5 or 6 v 4 advantage. In this regard, it will be critical for Green, Lubrano, or even Dunn and Ohai to drop wide in between BYU’s full-backs and wide midfielders and give Brooks a viable target with diagonal balls.
-Consistency hasn’t exactly been Carolina’s strong suit in attack this season. Summer Green, Kealia Ohai, and Maria Lubrano all have seven goals, but they’ve also been prone to stretches of up and down runs of form. The frontline was in electric form against Illinois last weekend but was then rendered toothless for much of regulation against Baylor, though they’d step it up in extra time. I’d expect the front three to try and rotate occasionally to avoid the clutches of Lisonbee Cutshall, who’s a great threat to mark out whoever’s in her path. Off the ball movement will also be critical to open up space for Dunn (if she plays in the attacking midfield role) or some of the other midfielders deeper in UNC’s formation. For Carolina to punch their ticket to San Diego, they really need the group from the second round to show up as opposed to the dopplegangers that struggled so mightily for much of the third round. BYU’s defensive record has been excellent this season, and if Carolina’s forward line is struggling, they could be in some trouble.
-BYU’s depth took some big hits earlier in the season with the loss of Niki Fernandes and Colette Jepson to injuries earlier in the year. The Cougars have plenty of offensive weapons, but the lack of that depth could be wearing on the offense a bit. Marissa Nimmer’s been in good form as of late and has seen her role increase as the season’s gone on. She and Kayla Varner will likely be the reserves used to spell the front four on Friday. Cami Jensen’s another big body that could be useful at the back and has plenty of starting experience to fall back on and could spell Dana Oldroyd Cusick in defense or be used as extra cover if BYU is trying to protect a lead late. North Carolina has a ton of options available to them. Morris and Premji will be in contention to start and should see serious minutes in midfield, or in Morris’ case, defense, if they aren’t in the first XI. Alyssa Rich is likely the first attacking option off the bench, while the likes of Paige Nielsen, Brooke Elby, and Kat Nigro could be utilized at various points. BYU may have the altitude advantage, but UNC’s got more trusted bodies to fall back on if it turns into a trench war.
-There are a ton of variables at play in this one, making it perhaps the hardest quarterfinal to judge. There’s the much discussed altitude effect which has given BYU one of the best home field advantages in the nation. Carolina has generally been a pretty fit team though and flew into Provo on Tuesday to try and adapt by Friday’s kickoff. Whether it works is anyone’s guess, but they’d best try to get out to a fast start and not be forced into chasing the game. The general rule has been that if you fall behind in Provo, you lose, or you certainly don’t win. The last team to fall behind in to BYU on their turf and come back to win? Arizona State. In 2004. That obviously guarantees nothing, but the odds will be tipped heavily in BYU’s favor if they score first. They also will have a massive crowd at their back, with Friday’s game a sellout. The huge turnout creates an electric atmosphere that can throw some teams off their game (see: Penn State, earlier this year). If it goes to penalties, some might think both sides are at square one having been involved in shootouts last weekend. But the reality is that North Carolina only needed four shooters to dispense with Baylor, while BYU needed eight rounds and may have revealed more than their opponents. Given Payne Holmoe’s rather emotional reaction to having her penalty saved and Ringwood’s outrageously bad penalty that followed, seeing either step up if this one goes to penalties would be a gutsy decision. UNC’s also given away the fact that Bryane Heaberlin, who has been the club’s backup for much of the season, will be in goal to repel penalties for the Heels, so that element of surprise has gone as well. This is a very unique fixture, in that almost all of the tactical decisions are Dorrance and UNC’s to make. BYU isn’t likely to upset the apple cart, probably sticking with the same XI and tactics that got them here. Dorrance has multiple personnel decisions to make, including where to stick Dunn and how best to defend BYU’s dangerous wide midfielders. In my opinion, it’s the most intriguing of the four quarterfinals and one that go in many different directions. Though they have many intangibles on their side, I just think BYU’s offense isn’t clicking enough at the moment to tip them for victory. I see UNC grabbing a goal and holding on despite a tremendous effort from the home side.
Prediction: (1) BYU 0 – 1 (2) North Carolina