(1) Stanford vs (3) UCLA – 10:00 PM EST
(Stanford Rotation [4-3-3]: Probable Starters – Oliver, Liedle, Garciamendez, Thompson, Quon, Nogueira, Doll, Watkins, LaBonta, Ubogagu, Verloo. Likely Reserves – Payne, Farr, Case, Griffen)
(UCLA Rotation [4-3-3]: Probable Starters – Rowland, Dydasco, Dahlkemper, Lee, Courtnall, Richmond, Killion, Mewis, Bywaters, Smith, White. Likely Reserves: Cline, Oyster, Braun, McCarthy, Stewart)
-As is always the case when talking about Stanford, keeping their full-backs in check is always a key to stopping, or at least slowing down, their offense. While Cami Levin has departed, for the Card, senior Rachel Quon has still been a destructive influence bombing up and down the flank. The Pac-12 champs haven’t wasted any time in finding a great replacement for Levin either, with highly touted rookie Laura Liedle shining early on for the club. Quon and Levin fueled the club’s run to the national title last season, and Quon and Liedle will be looking to do the same here. The duo cannot be derelict in their defensive duties though, with their opposite numbers on UCLA also eager to burst forward and cause overloads on the flanks. Positional intelligence and chemistry between full-backs and wingers could well play a key role in determining who ends up in San Diego next weekend.
-The full-back position isn’t the only area of intrigue on the backline for Stanford this match though. While Alina Garciamendez has been in fine form as usual at one post in central defense, the play of the other center-back, currently slated to be senior Madeleine Thompson, could be crucial in the outcome of this one. Thompson is very much the definition of a late bloomer in Palo Alto, having barely played in her first two seasons on The Farm before taking a role as a key reserve on last year’s title winning team. Preferred over last year’s starter in this spot Kendall Romine and rookie Maya Theuer, Thompson has started for much of the stretch run for Stanford and has gained the confidence of the coaches. Given her overall lack of starting experience, she’ll likely be a target for UCLA’s attacks down the center but has a great partner in Garciamendez and could by a key contributor in this one for the Card.
-The big battle on the day could be between a pair of midfield stars, as Stanford’s Mariah Nogueira tries to neutralize UCLA’s Samantha Mewis. The Bruins’ big playmaker operates largely as a part of a two-headed creative hub in the middle with veteran Jenna Richmond that has worked beautifully this season after Mewis returned from international duty at the U20 World Cup. The sophomore has proven to not just be useful with her feet either, as her size in the middle makes her a formidable threat in the air as well. Despite that, she faces a big challenge in Nogueira, who may be three inches shorter, but has few peers in the air at this level. Six of her seven goals this season have come through the air, and the senior defensive midfielder has only seen her stock rise with some commanding displays in front of the back four this season. Nogueira could also shuttle around and try to neutralize Richmond to try and stop service to UCLA’s forwards, while the Bruins will also have to be keen to not be too lax in closing down the senior, as she also possesses a cannon of a shot from range as well.
-The battle between Mewis and Nogueira won’t be the only heated battle in midfield though. Nogueira’s opposite number on the Bruins, Sarah Killion, promises to have a task in front of her in trying to shut down Alex Doll of the Card. Doll hasn’t exactly been prolific this year, with just six goals scored, but she has been clutch, with four of those goals going down as game winners. Doll has to be mindful of her defensive duties as well though, as Killion has a handful of assists to her name and can create as well as destroy, despite playing as the defensive midfielder on the U.S. U20 World Cup winning team. Stanford’s other midfielder, Nina Watkins, is a big, versatile competitor who has been a mainstay in the starting lineup for the last month. Watkins justified her selection with a big goal in the Sweet Sixteen, but her defensive skills may be most cherished as she tries to help shut down Jenna Richmond. Despite worries about her knees, Richmond has still carved out a spot for herself as a steady distributor and playmaker for the Bruins, leading the team with seven assists. She’s probably the least publicized of UCLA’s three in the middle, but she’s been a bulwark of consistency there this year, which has been a relief with Mewis and Killion on international duty for a chunk of the year. The Bruins’ midfield is more of a fluid triangle, so don’t be surprised to see the matchups shift continuously through this match. Whoever gets the better of the battles will have a big leg up in winning this one.
-It’s taken a while to all come together, but the attacking partnership between Chioma Ubogagu and Courtney Verloo has borne great fruit for Stanford in the second half of this season. Verloo was injured last season, and Ubogagu was gone for the first half of this season at the U20 World Cup, delaying the two working together up front, but reunited again, both have been in fabulous form down the stretch for Stanford. While the two have combined for an impressive fifteen goals, just as impressive has been their combined twenty-one assists. Ubogagu’s silky dribbling and Verloo’s direct attacks at the goal have made a deadly combination and one UCLA will have to be wary of in this one. Center-backs Abby Dahlkemper and Lucretia Lee have proven to be a terrific tandem so far, but they’ll need help from young full-backs Ally Courtnall and Caprice Dydasco to keep the Stanford forwards in check, with plenty of off the ball movement likely to be coming their way as the Card look for pockets of space to work their short passing game through.
-It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out UCLA’s gameplan offensively: Get the ball to Zakiya Bywaters. The senior has been in electric form this season, leading the Bruins with fifteen goals, almost twice as many as the club’s next highest scorer. There were concerns as to whether Bywaters could spearhead an offense herself after playing behind Sydney Leroux for the past three seasons, but the senior has answered those questions emphatically. Bywaters’ ability to work the channels out wide with her pace and skill could also help her be a counter attacking conduit should Quon and/or Liedle get caught up the field. It will be interesting to see how Snow has Bywaters positioned in this one, as if she plays as a straight center forward, she’ll likely face the attentions of Alina Garciamendez in what could be a titanic battle. Bywaters had little trouble finding opportunities in these clubs’ first meeting, with six shots and four shots on goal, and she’ll need more of the same here if UCLA are likely to come out victorious.
-While Bywaters’ success will likely play a great role in whether UCLA can finally knock Stanford off their perch at #1, it’s going to be vital for the Bruins to get their other attackers involved to keep the Card from swarming all over their senior scorer. Taylor Smith came into Westwood with no shortage of hype and has displayed her scoring ability at times this year but has also been fairly inconsistent with her form. She did net UCLA’s goal against Stanford earlier in the year though and will be confident of repeating the feat this time out. Also up front for UCLA will be Rosie White in all likelihood. The New Zealand youth international has shown better than in a disappointing rookie season but has not been in great form as of late, having not scored in the past month. Given the inconsistency of Bywaters’ linemates, they’ll likely need contributions from the midfield trio and the full-backs. If Stanford can press and cut off the supply line to Bywaters and the other forwards, it could be a long night in Palo Alto for the Bruins.
-Most of the intangibles swing Stanford’s way going into this showdown. The Card have dominated the series with UCLA as of late, having won nine in a row, including their regular season meeting this season. That win was likely a big psychological blow in favor of the home side, with UCLA looking in control and in a good position for the win after taking an early lead, only to be pegged for two late goals en route to defeat. This Stanford team is more experienced on this stage on the whole and should have a full house behind them on The Farm on Friday night. It should be another wildly entertaining match, akin to their first showdown this year, but I think the Card will triumph again and march back to the College Cup
Prediction: (1) Stanford 2 – 1 (3) UCLA