Stanford vs North Carolina – 11:00 PM EST
-North Carolina did a stellar job of defending from wide positions against BYU in the Elite Eight, with Katie Bowen and Meg Morris doing their best to physically shut down the Cougars from creating from the flanks. There’ll be that aim again this time out against Stanford, but their task will be much harder with the Card’s full-backs such a prominent part of their attack. Ideally, Carolina would like to use Bowen and Morris to help jam Lo’eau Labonta and Courtney Verloo on the flanks to keep it from being a 3v3 situation in their defensive third of the pitch, but doing so could leave Rachel Quon on the right and Laura Liedle on the left with a lot of room to gallop through down the flanks. In this respect, it’s going to be vital that Summer Green and Maria Lubrano, the likeliest Tar Heels to be patrolling out wide in Stanford’s defensive third, to press heavily from the front and do their best to pin the Card’s full-backs back. If Liedle and Quon are allowed to motor forward, they could help create overloads down the flanks while also stretching the field even if Bowen and Morris retreat into their own end of the pitch to help out defensively.
-By far the most compelling individual matchup of the semi-finals will be between Mariah Nogueira of Stanford and Crystal Dunn of North Carolina in the midfield on Friday. Arguably each side’s best player, this tug of war has a good chance of deciding a winner if either can stamp their authority decisively in this matchup. Dunn was in scintillating form in the Elite Eight against BYU, taking advantage of not having a direct opponent in BYU’s 4-2-3-1 formation and using the space in between the lines to deadly effect, dribbling into that space and causing the Cougars no end of problems. She won’t have that luxury here, drawing a hard assignment in the form of the tough tackling Nogueira. While Nogueira’s received more attention for some of her timely offensive exploits this season, she remains a great defensive asset and crucial in any hopes the Card may have in slowing down the ever-present Dunn. Nogueira has to keep Dunn from using her direct dribbling talent to open up holes elsewhere by drawing defenders out to stop her. With 3v4 ahead of her, Dunn’s going to likely need to help influence the game and supply some service to the club’s forwards, especially if Bowen and Morris are preoccupied with their defensive duties.
-While the thought of Dunn running at the defense could give Stanford some sleepless nights, those fears run the other way too, with North Carolina likely experiencing some trepidation at the thought of their three player backline coming under assault by the three-headed attack of the Card. Stanford’s offense has huffed and puffed a bit at times this year, but they’ve shown signs of coming around as well, with the partnership between Chioma Ubogagu and Courtney Verloo showing real potential at times this season. There are really a few approaches available to Anson Dorrance to try and slow the Stanford attack down. He could opt to order his players to defend deep, with Amber Brooks, Bowen, and Morris helping to double up on the Card’s front three, almost daring the Stanford midfield and full-backs to come forward and beat them. This of course isn’t without risks. The midfield, though not as capable as last year’s unit, can still make things happen, and that plan also depends on Green and Lubrano shutting down the Stanford full-backs, as there’d be plenty of space on the flanks if Bowen and Morris drop back. Offensively, it could also create the specter of a “broken” team, with massive gaps between the back six and front four. The other conceivable option would seemingly depend on the back three winning their individual battles with the Stanford front three, while Brooks, Morris, and Bowen collapse on Alex Doll and Nina Watkins in the center of the park, pressing them heavily and trying to cut off service forward. Obviously, this depends on North Carolina’s front four playing solid defense and stopping runs and easy passes forward, as there could be space waiting to be exploited if Stanford’s forwards drop deeper to win the ball. It should make for an interesting chess match, one that could develop interestingly over the course of Friday night.
-It’s less a tactical point than one of personnel, but it still seems important nonetheless, as the form of Carolina forward Kealia Ohai is going to be worth watching closely. The mercurial forward has the capacity to dominate games, but she’s the furthest thing from a sure bet, with her performance against BYU last weekend serving as a reminder as to how fickle her form can be at times. The Utah native wasted some gilt-edged chances against the Cougars, though she was also foiled at times by some great goalkeeping. As the veteran of the frontline, Carolina really needs Ohai to be a stabilizing and confident presence leading the line. If she can curb her inconsistent finishing and make the most of her chances, Carolina has a great shot at victory in this one.
-While the midfield battle between Dunn and Nogueira will likely capture most or all of the headlines, the other battle in the middle of the park looms large as well. The distribution of Amber Brooks is likely to be key to North Carolina’s chances in this one, and she faces a tough task in facing two direct opponents in Watkins and Doll. It’d be foolish to not expect the Stanford midfield pair to press up the pitch and try to suffocate Brooks before she can pick out passes to try and grind the Carolina attack to a halt. In this regard, the play and positioning of Bowen and Morris will be vital in giving Brooks an easy out ball to the flanks against pressure up the middle. If the above duo can find pockets of space with the full-backs of Stanford potentially pinned back, they could be a big boost in getting forward and supporting the front four. To try and stop Brooks from having such an easy route of passing to the flanks, Labonta and Verloo could drop back and essentially make Stanford 4-1-4-1 without the ball, marking Bowen and Morris and allowing Watkins and Doll to press Brooks in tandem. In effect, it could force Brooks into long balls towards the front runners, a tactic that isn’t doomed to failure given the talent UNC has available to them but also not a sure thing if Carolina wants to break the Stanford defense down. Stanford, naturally, would have to take a balanced approach though, as keeping Labonta and Verloo too focused on defensive duties could make transitioning from defense to offense problematic.
-The mental aspect of this matchup cannot be overlooked. The last time these two met on the pitch in the NCAA Tournament was the 2009 final, where Card came in as solid favorites and went out in disappointing fashion to a savvier Tar Heel squad who rose to the occasion. Again, Stanford enters as favorites (though not by nearly as much as they did three years ago) and will have to deal with expectation after spending much of the later half of the season on top of the rankings. Generally speaking, from the media coverage thus far this week, the history between the two teams has been more on the mind of the Tar Heels, while retaining their title has seemingly been on the mind of the Card. But having never beaten UNC has to be weighing on Stanford a bit, and the defending national champs will want to avoid a slow start that could raise doubts yet again for the Palo Alto side.
-North Carolina’s been the side that’s just found a way to win over the past two rounds against Baylor and BYU, while Stanford’s largely been that team all season, coming from behind to win five times already this year. Neither side will be hoping for the necessity of late heroics in this one, as games between these two have been historically tight to the vest and close run affairs, usually decided by a single goal. I’ve been tipping Stanford to win it all since the NCAA Tournament started, but…it’s hard to overlook the team with the best player in the country in such spectacular form. Dunn looks to be in the middle of a legendary tournament run, and I think she, and her teammates, will find a way to win again. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one goes to penalties though.
Prediction: Stanford 0 – 1 North Carolina