NCAA Tournament – Elite Eight Review

-If anything, Erica Walsh and Penn State used a calculated balance of aggressiveness and pragmatism tactically to book a spot in the last four with their win over Duke on Friday. PSU has been forced into a lineup with three at the back in a 3-5-2 for much of the season thanks to early injuries to the defense, and it’s been a bit of a rocky road at times, with the club both getting their feet under them in an unfamiliar formation while also having to deal with the usual perils that go along with such a formation defensively. Anyone needing a clue into PSU’s mindset though needed to only look at their response to going up 1-0 through Chrisine Nairn, as the Nittany Lions brought on Corey Persson as a fourth defender and switched to a more sturdy four at the back formation, necessary against a squad with Duke’s firepower. While Walsh would have likely been pilloried for her tactics had the match swung a different way, the early switch proved to not just be brave in a sense but also wise, as Duke hammered at the door all night but just couldn’t make the breakthrough. While PSU’s defensive stand against the Blue Devils will likely get much of the attention, an eye must be turned towards the offense. The club put up just three shots on goal on the evening, with Nairn’s penalty kick goal included in that total. While windy conditions perhaps hampered the offensive effectiveness of both teams, the Big Ten side knows they’ll likely need much better on Friday if they’re to upset Florida State in the College Cup semi-final. Penn State’s tactical mindset will be worth watching in that one as well. Do they continue to start with the 3-5-2? Or will Walsh play it closer to the vest with four at the back against the in-form attack of the Seminoles. Such decisions could be vital for PSU’s title hopes.

-A season that began with so much promise ultimately fell short of expectations for Duke, who failed to advance to the College Cup a season after going to the national title match against Stanford. The Blue Devils were one of the favorites to win it all after returning all eleven starters to the fold from last year’s squad but faced numerous trials and tribulations throughout the season. Mollie Pathman and Kelly Cobb missed the first half of the season on international duty, while the latter would also be hobbled by an ankle injury upon her return, raising questions as to how the injury could potentially affect once limitless potential with the Blue Devils. The defense was a nightmare for much of the season, as Robbie Church did his best to work with a back four that had suddenly lost efficacy since last season’s strong displays. Pathman got thrown into the mix at left-back, but that experiment was eventually abandoned as the Blue Devils opted for a more attacking bent in the NCAA Tournament. It didn’t work for them in the end against Penn State, as they were unable to cope with the wind, their opponents’ defense, and their own inefficient finishing, as their season came to grinding halt. Ironically, Duke saved one of their best defensive displays for last, holding PSU to just three shots on goal, one of those the fateful penalty kick that ended up going down as the winning goal. It’s hard to not think that Duke’s national title window closed for a little while with this loss. The defense loses three starters, while they also lose starting goalkeeper Tara Campbell to graduation. While the club’s attacking pieces return intact for the most part, it’s unlikely that the Blue Devils will have the balance overall to contend for the big prize given the rebuilding job needed on the backline.

-It wasn’t quite their performance against Texas A&M a round before, but Florida State still got the job done in the end, shooting down Notre Dame with an early goal in the second half to punch their ticket to San Diego and the College Cup. Naturally, the decisive goal in the 1-0 win came off the head of Tiffany McCarty, who has been in imperious form in the postseason, having scored in every round of knockout competition Florida State’s played in thus far. McCarty’s largely erased what had been a somewhat tepid regular season with a red hot postseason campaign and could seal a legendary month of individual performances should she remain hot this weekend in San Diego. The defense may have shined brightest in the end though, netting their seventeenth clean sheet of the season in finally putting the clamps on an opportunistic Notre Dame offense that had scrapped their way to goals and upsets all throughout the month of November. With Penn State’s multi-pronged attack over the horizon on Friday, Florida State will need to continue their impressive defensive form if they’re to earn a shot on Sunday at the big prize. There appear to be no problems going the other way, with McCarty in triumphant form at the moment. The return of Isabella Schmid to the lineup has harmonized the Florida State offense, with the results all too apparent in the club’s wins against Texas A&M and Notre Dame. It’s looking beyond Florida State as favorites going into San Diego, and the Seminoles may have their best shot in a long while of finally bringing home a coveted national title this weekend.

-The role of young and talented underdogs suited this season’s Notre Dame side well, but they effectively shed that tag at full-time last Friday in defeat to Florida State. The Irish will be underdogs no longer come next year, but that doesn’t mean UND can’t celebrate a season in 2012 where they overachieved greatly, one season after being one of the nation’s most disappointing teams. Obviously, the infusion of new blood into a team that had looked like it had gone stale a season before helped, with many of the young Irish players looking like they could be pressing for All-America distinction in the future. It took until Mandy Laddish and Cari Roccaro returned from the U20 World Cup before Notre Dame began to truly hit its stride, but once they did, the results were dramatic, with the Irish humbling much more fancied opposition in the form of Wake Forest and Florida in the NCAA Tournament en route to a return to the Elite Eight. Roccaro looks like a potential superstar for Notre Dame, while the likes of goalkeeper Elyse Hight, defender Katie Naughton, and forward Crystal Thomas also showed well as rookies for Randy Waldrum’s side. Now comes the hard part, of course. Expectations are likely to be through the roof going into 2013 for this bunch, and with ten starters expected to return, a trip to the College Cup will likely be seen as a minimum goal. Given the wonders Waldrum was able to work this season in South Bend, you certainly wouldn’t bet against the Irish making that happen next year.

-The season may have ended in heartbreaking fashion for BYU in Provo on Friday night, but there’s no shortage of things to be proud about for the defeated Cougars. Many may forget that the WCC champions didn’t even make the Big Dance last season in one of their most disappointing campaigns in a while. The sense of renewed purpose that had obviously swept over the program between seasons spurred them on to great heights this season, as BYU took home a league title, their first in the WCC, and a #1 seed in the Big Dance. The defense had stood tall in the face of some offensive struggles in the NCAA Tournament and had carried the club to an Elite Eight showdown with North Carolina in front of a hotly charged atmosphere at South Field. The occasion seemed to be getting to the home side early though, as they struggled to string together passes and took some abysmal first touches on the ball. Standing off Crystal Dunn lead to an early deficit, though the equalizer from the spot from Rachel Manning injected some life back into BYU. They’d come out strong in the second half but eventually had to defend doggedly against their ACC opponents. The two chances that were foiled by UNC in extra time will probably weigh heavily on BYU minds for a while, and the Cougars would again fall prey to giving Dunn too much space, as the junior made them pay with another cool finish to win it for UNC. It’s going to be pretty tough to top this season in the short-term, as the club takes heavy losses, including Lindsi Lisonbee Cutshall from the defense and Carlee Payne Holmoe and Jessica Ringwood in the attack. With the likes of Michele Murphy, Marissa Nimmer, Cloee Colohan, and Rachel Manning all returning though, the cupboard’s far from bare. Also coming back is goalkeeper Erica Owens, who established herself as one of the nation’s best this season, including in the defeat to Carolina, where she made multiple huge saves to keep her side alive.

-Long after the final ball has been kicked in anger in this year’s season, Brooke Elby’s lung-bursting run to the endline to block what looked like a season ending shot from Lindsi Lisonbee Cutshall will be remembered well in North Carolina soccer lore. BYU had looked to have busted the Heels on the counter after a UNC corner kick, with the Cougar defender looking odds on to score having rounded keeper Adelaide Gay, but Elby swept in to keep the club’s season alive. There was yet more drama when Crystal Dunn headed a Rachel Manning header from the resulting corner off the line. UNC would make their nine lives count, with Dunn scoring her second of the night to win it soon after. It capped off a breathtaking display from the junior, who ruled the roost in Provo on Friday night, scoring the opener as well when left criminally unmarked. Dunn was again used as the club’s attacking midfielder in the 3-4-3, and she wreaked havoc in the typical way, exploiting space in between the lines with her direct dribbling and fearless attacking thrusts. It was just as well, because some of the other Tar Heel attackers had a poor night finishing in front of goal, with Kealia Ohai perhaps guiltiest of squandering a few gilt-edged chances when left open by the BYU defense. Despite that, the Tar Heels still set a blistering pace for nearly one hundred ten minutes, keeping up and then some with the Cougars and raising the tempo to a pace that the home side couldn’t cope with when they tried to string together offensive moves. The defense swarmed all over BYU’s attack for much of the night, with Gay making a big save at the beginning of the second half as well. Most pertinently though, North Carolina, backs against the wall in extra time, just found a way to win. That’s the mark of a true champion, and the Heels go into San Diego with a very real chance of adding to their trophy cabinet come Sunday afternoon.

-UCLA’s season ended with a creeping sense of deja vu last Friday, as the Bruins’ Elite Eight tilt with Stanford ended in a painfully familiar manner. As had been the case in the club’s regular season meeting with the Pac-12 champs, the Bruins took the lead, this time much earlier than before, with Sam Mewis rifling home a shot from distance in the eighth minute to stun the home crowd. UCLA had limited Stanford to just a single shot on goal through one half and looked to be in with a great shout of finally toppling their rivals and getting back to the College Cup. Things would go wrong for the Bruins early in the second half though, as they conceded to Lo’eau LaBonta after a scramble in the box on a corner. The Bruins would repeat their capitulation on a corner about fifteen minutes later, when the opportunistic LaBonta nailed her fifth of the season from short range. Obviously, set pieces play a huge role when you get this deep into the NCAA Tournament, and conceding twice from them was as good as a kiss of death for UCLA’s hopes of advancing. While the Bruins would put pressure on the Stanford defense all night, including getting five combined shots on goal from Zakiya Bywaters and Rosie White, they just couldn’t find a response to the Card’s second goal, especially frustrating since they didn’t concede a goal in the run of play to Stanford. Going down after leading again against Stanford and the long string of defeats to their Pac-12 rivals might well have some wondering if a bit of a mental block hasn’t developed in Westwood regarding UCLA and their rivals. Of course, there’s tons of talent returning next season, even if they’ll have to make do without Bywaters among others, but head coach B.J. Snow still has to prove he can make all the pieces fit come the business end of the Big Dance.

-It definitely wasn’t the prettiest performance of the season, but Stanford again just found a way to win with the odds against them in a pressure packed situation. As stated above, Stanford found themselves down once again to rivals UCLA, but this time, they were behind almost from the get go, thanks to Sam Mewis’ strike. It looked like a half to forget for the Card, as they struggled to get the offense going against a motivated Bruins side. But the Cardinal would overcome their struggles in the run of play by hammering at a sudden weakness defending corners by the Bruins, scoring twice through Lo’eau Labonta after Stanford corner kicks to completely turn the game on its head. Stanford wouldn’t net after those two goals turned the tide, but they didn’t have to, as the defense held firm to lead the club to another 2-1 win over their league rivals. I’ve said it a million times before this season it seems like, but this Stanford side’s sheer will to win is unlike anything I’ve seen since I began following college soccer. This marked the fifth time that the Card has come from behind to win this season, a staggering feat considering the strength of many of the teams Stanford’s played (and beaten) this year. That of course ignores the fact that falling behind at this time of year isn’t necessarily a good thing, as mounting comebacks is only going to get harder and harder in these final few rounds, as clubs with leads shift into more pragmatic tactical thinking. How Stanford got it done may be almost as important as the fact that they got it done though. This Card team has shown a ruthlessness on set pieces that has served it well this year when the offense has become a bit gummed up in the run of play. They may well have to show that some degree of cutting edge on dead ball situations on Friday against a North Carolina side that will seek to keep it from playing its precision passing game with robust pressing all over the pitch. Still, Stanford’s shown that leads aren’t safe when they’re involved, meaning they should have an excellent shot at retaining their national title this weekend.

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