(Note: Penn State’s projected alignment based on 3-5-2 starting formation. I’m less familiar with how PSU will line up in said formation than other sides at this year’s College Cup though, so if you’ve got corrections, please send them my way.)
(North Carolina vs Stanford preview coming Friday afternoon.)
Penn State vs Florida State – 8:30 PM EST
-It’s not rare when two goalkeepers in a College Cup match have both played in the college game’s showpiece event. In fact, three of the four starting netminders in San Diego have starting experience in this competition. It is rare when two have experience with the same club and now square off on opposite sides. It seems like an eternity since McNulty started every game as a rookie for the Seminoles in 2007, including a pair of games in the College Cup as FSU finished runners-up to USC. McNulty would miss two of the next three seasons though, on international duty in 2008 before falling down the pecking order in 2010 in favor of Friday’s nemesis, Kelsey Wys. McNulty reinvigorated her career with a transfer to Penn State and has rounded into one of the nation’s finest keepers in two seasons in Happy Valley. Playing behind a sometimes problematic defense this year, McNulty has often saved her club’s bacon with some great goalkeeping and will be key again in this one against a red hot Florida State attack. Though McNulty should be short of no motivation going into this one against her former club, Wys should have almost as much to prove for the Noles. The FSU keeper got a baptism by fire at this level last season, enduring a woeful game in the semi-final defeat to Stanford that raised questions. Wys has mostly answered those questions affirmatively this season, helping marshal a defense which has ranked among the nation’s best for much of the season. The last steps of course are the hardest to take, and banishing last year’s demons with a confident display in San Diego would likely announce Wys to the college soccer world as one of the nation’s premier netminders. The pressure’s scarcely been higher for these two, and both will be eager to outshine the other with a spot in the final on the line.
-Penn State head coach Erica Walsh balanced pragmatism with attacking initiative masterfully last Friday when the club toppled Duke to get here, and they’ll likely have to do so again if they want to still be playing on Sunday. Starting off in a 3-5-2, PSU switched to four players in the defense soon after scoring the only goal of the game in the first half and rode out a 1-0 win. While the move likely blunted the offensive edge somewhat, it may have been one of the only ways to cope with a dangerous Duke attack. How aggressive Walsh wants to be could again dictate tactics on the day, with another potent offense lining up against them. As was the case with UNC vs BYU last weekend, three center-backs against a lone forward in a 4-2-3-1 can make for a long day for the opposition center forward if the supporting midfielders can’t get involved. PSU knows that, critically, Florida State’s full-backs aren’t going to be passive though, with the club getting a steady dose of overloads down the flanks in all likelihood, with Jessica Price and Jamia Fields cutting in to trouble the center-backs, with the full-backs taking on the wing-backs down the flanks. The big question may be whether Walsh might try to shuffle the deck by starting out with four in the back. It’d be a cagey and calculated move, but it could also be a gambit that could allow Mallory Weber into a more attacking role on the flanks, with three up front potentially helping pin the full-backs back. It seems more likely though that Walsh will stay with what’s worked well so far in the beginning of matches, with the 3-5-2. Will Walsh be quick on the trigger if the club is struggling defensively though? Will she be as quick to switch formations if the club takes an early lead as in the Duke game? There are plenty of tactical questions to be asked, and it’ll be interesting to see Walsh’s answers in motion on Friday.
-The 3-5-2 places a lot of defensive pressure on the wing-backs to boss the flanks, even more so when the opponent has full-backs so eager to raid up and down the line. That could be trouble for PSU, with Florida State boasting some of the most aggressive full-backs in the nation. Ines Jaurena is a Hermann Trophy semi-finalist who shows no abandon in bombing up the line, often playing at the halfway line when out of possession of the ball. She’ll likely relish the thought of the likely space in front of her, especially if Fields can occupy Emily Hurd on that side. On the opposite flank, Casey Short’s no slouch either, with her attacking instincts all too apparent after being converted from an attacker before this season. Mallory Weber’s the less proficient of the club’s wing-backs and has likely been more valued for her attacking ability and energy down the flank than her defensive ability thus far. Bottling up Price could be troublesome on its own, but also helping to contain Short could be nightmarish. Given the formation matchup, Penn State may find itself having to push its center-backs up to help contain the wide midfielders in FSU’s attacking band of midfielders, while the wing-backs push up to try and shut down the full-backs. It’s a delicate balance though, and with a likely 3v3 in the middle of the park, PSU could find it difficult to dedicate further numbers to slow down FSU’s attacking down the flanks.
-Penn State also has to worry about shutting down, arguably, the hottest striker in the nation right now in Tiffany McCarty. McCarty’s scored in every round of the postseason FSU’s played in thus far and will be looking to extend that stunning streak this weekend. If the attacking wide midfielders can’t get the better of the wing-backs though, she’ll likely face a 1v3 situation against PSU’s three center-backs, which even her red hot form likely can’t take her by. If the supply line doesn’t come from Fields and Price though, the full-backs might be the ones to rampage up and down the line to whip in crosses. For that to happen though, Fields and Price likely need to cut inside to open up some space in what could be a crowded midfield battle out wide. McCarty has also been reliant in some part on the service of Dagny Brynjarsdottir, who has sat behind her in the attacking midfielder role centrally. The Icelandic international likely faces a duel with Maddy Evans, in yet another battle to keep McCarty from getting service. While FSU’s senior forward can’t do it all herself, she has plenty of outlets for a supply line, and whether PSU can shut them all down for ninety (or more) minutes could well decide how this one goes.
-The midfield battle in the center of the park looks simply defined if Penn State lines up in the logical way. Evans vs Brynjarsdottir is mentioned above, with the PSU defensive midfielder likely facing a torrid time in trying to stop the big Icelandic midfielder. Further up the pitch, Penn State will have to hope that the combo of Raquel Rodriguez and Christine Nairn can provide the supply line forward, as it’s unlikely to come from out wide, with Mallory Weber and Emily Hurd facing a tough task, likely 2v1 out wide. Tiana Brockway, the more defensive of the FSU pair, figures to draw the assignment of stopping Nairn, who I’m guessing will try to slip balls into the channels to try and expose the pockets of space between the full-backs and the center-back when the former motors up the pitch. FSU must be wary of Nairn making late runs into the area as well, with a swiftly played one-two with the forwards a possibility that could see the senior midfielder trouble the Noles with her shots from distance. The battle between Rodriguez and Isabella Schmid figures to ebb and flow. Both have shown their talent this season, but both are also rookies, and it remains to be seen how they respond at this level. Which of Nairn and Brynjarsdottir can stamp their authority on the game will likely give their team a big leg up in the race for a win on Friday.
-If the wing-backs are pinned back in a 3-5-2, as PSU’s are likely to be on Friday, width can be hard to come by, which can be especially problematic against a 4-2-3-1. For that reason, the off the ball movement of PSU forwards Maya Hayes and Taylor Schram will likely be crucial to Friday’s outcome. The duo’s runs have the potential to drag an organized FSU backline out of shape, opening up space for late runs from Nairn and Rodriguez if they can shake their markers in midfield. I suspect Hayes will be more likely to operate on the left to take advantage of quick breaks down that side if Ines Jaurena is caught up the field. It’s also entirely possible that Hayes could operate as something of a shuttling second striker/winger, bouncing between flanks to take advantage of space Short’s forays forward as well. Exploiting that space is likely to be a key to victory for PSU, while Florida State’s full-backs have to be mindful of not tracking back, with any defense from Price and Fields being a huge bonus in pinning the wing-backs back.
-Both of these clubs are very dangerous from dead ball situations. Penn State has profited greatly from Rodriguez’s corner kick deliveries, while Nairn can, of course, strike a ball with real venom on free kicks. Jessica Price’s long throws have been deadly this season, with her tremendous range creating havoc in the box. Kristin Grubka is a tall and imposing target in the box, not just on those throws, and will test the PSU center-backs when she can in going for deliveries in the area.
-This matchup’s a tactical wonk’s dream, especially if Walsh sticks with the 3-5-2. In my opinion though, the matchups largely favor Florida State, with the Seminoles likely to profit from overloading out wide with the help of their excellent full-backs and with the attacking midfielders likely to ably support the red hot McCarty with the defensive midfielders potentially cutting off the supply line to Hayes and Schram up front. The offense didn’t look in sync for PSU last weekend, and much better will be needed if they’re to win here. In the end though, I think the experience and matchup edges in most zones of the pitch for FSU will carry them through to Sunday’s final.
Prediction: Florida State 2 – 0 Penn State