Penn State vs North Carolina – 4:00 PM EST
-Sunday’s final will be full of high profile individual battles, but none will likely resonate as much as the midfield clash between seniors Amber Brooks of UNC and Christine Nairn of Penn State. It goes without saying that each is a critical component of their respective side’s gameplan, and if one is able to assert their will over the other, it’ll likely go a long way in deciding who lifts the national title on Sunday afternoon. Brooks played exceptionally deep at times on Friday night against Stanford, trying to make it harder for the Card to play through the Tar Heels but also limiting her offensive contributions somewhat. Space might be a little easier to come by against Penn State’s 3-5-2 on Sunday. PSU’s frontrunners probably aren’t going to drop back that much to press Carolina’s midfielders, while the Nittany Lion wide midfielders will likely be plenty busy with their UNC counterparts. It’d be awfully presumptuous to think Erica Walsh isn’t going to task both Maddy Evans and Raquel Rodriguez with trying to erase Crystal Dunn from the game. One could theoretically step up and add to the pressure on Brooks, but if the Carolina senior solves the pressure and finds Dunn 1v1, there could be trouble afoot with 3v3 in the Penn State defense against the UNC forwards. Nairn’s contributions going forward to try and overcome Brooks’ defensive attention will be crucial as well. Mallory Weber and Maya Hayes will be outnumbered 2v3 up front, and if the PSU wide midfielders can’t trouble their opposing markers, it’ll be up to Nairn to open up seams in the UNC defense, be it through direct dribbling, long range shooting, or pinpoint passing. Nairn can’t let her defensive duties slip though, as stopping Brooks from being the attacking catalyst in midfield will be vital as well. It’s a high profile battle of the highest order, with further implications as well, with both players likely to be coveted by teams in the new professional league come the new year.
-The odds aren’t quite so even in the other battle in central midfield, as Dunn figures to be watched closely by Raquel Rodriguez and Maddy Evans of Penn State. Rodriguez is versatile enough to play higher up the pitch if need be, but the Costa Rican will probably be called upon in a more defensive role to help try and stymie the forward forays of Dunn. The junior Tar Heel utility player has been ever-present in the NCAA Tournament thus far and played a massive role in Carolina’s goal in extra time that sunk Stanford. Her direct dribbling has terrorized many opponents thus far in November, but asking her to solve two direct opponents by herself will be tough, necessitating some support, be it from Brooks moving up, Bowen or Morris pinching in, or one of the forwards dropping back to help even the odds. Dunn’s also a great defender, of course, and she’ll have to be with the duo of Rodriguez and Evans also threatening going forward. The former is by far the more threatening of the duo in the run of play, and Anson Dorrance has to be a little worried that a composed partnership could be able to play around pressure from Dunn if the support isn’t there. In this regard, Kealia Ohai, likely the closest forward to that PSU duo, could be crucial in dropping back and ensuring the Nittany Lions can’t build out of the back through the center of the park with any ease.
-It’s a much more simple battle out wide. With both teams going with three at the back in all likelihood, it’ll be up to the club’s wide midfielders to provide much needed width on the flanks. North Carolina’s semi-final game saw Katie Bowen and Meg Morris drop well back into their defensive third at times, almost making North Carolina a 5-2-3 at times. That was in part to shut down Stanford’s wide forwards, but with Penn State operating with a pair of center forwards, they’ll have much more freedom to extend further up the pitch and support the attack. In a defensive sense, they’ll also be aiming to pin Emily Hurd and Taylor Schram back into their own end of the pitch, robbing Penn State of much of their attacking width in the 3-5-2. Given Hurd’s problems with the direct dribbling of Jamia Fields in PSU’s match against Florida State, UNC would appear to have a potential advantage on that right flank, but Bowen’s more of a defensive stalwart than offensive weapon out there. In my opinion, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Dunn slipped out to the right flank to try and break PSU down on the dribble if she’s having trouble breaking through the wall of Rodriguez and Evans in front of her. Hurd and Schram can’t all be about defense though. If the Carolina wide midfielders are able to pin them back, PSU could in effect be a broken team, with their three frontrunners cut off from the back seven. Unless the forwards work the channels though, PSU could find trouble in establishing width if Hurd and Schram are shut down.
-Penn State might be left sweating bullets on defense, as they’ll largely be depending on three defenders to shut down North Carolina’s three forwards. The Nittany Lions kept Tiffany McCarty at bay for a good part of Friday night, but that was essentially a 3v1 situation, with the club’s wide midfielders taking on the role of defending their FSU counterparts out on the flanks. This time, PSU’s wide midfielders will have to, out of necessity, be braver with their positioning, as they try to stop Bowen and Morris from providing support out wide. With Dunn likely to be covered by Rodriguez and Evans, Penn State may well feel their best option to shut down Carolina’s forwards may be to starve them of service. That’s going to be easier said than done though, as Stanford couldn’t shut Dunn down despite having the numerical advantage in central midfield, and that was with one of the nation’s best defensive midfielders, Mariah Nogueira, tasked with that assignment. A key for UNC in freeing up Dunn will be the willingness of the forwards to step into midfield and make themselves available for passes. If PSU’s defenders follow, they’ll open themselves up by being dragged out of shape, but if they stay in shape, Dunn could have an easy out ball to Green or Lubrano. In this regard, the Rodriguez-Evans partnership may be vital, as one could fan out to cover a retreating UNC attacker in midfield, while the other stays tight to Dunn. That’s easier said than done though, and communication will be key if PSU are to keep Carolina chances at a minimum.
-At the other end of the pitch, Penn State’s center forward pairing of Weber and Hayes will need to play the game of their lives if they’re to get the better of UNC’s solid three at the heart of defense. They probably aren’t going to be dealing with a brick wall like Stanford did in their Friday meeting, as Brooks figures to step up to confront Nairn, while the wide midfielders will be pushed up to try and jam the PSU wide midfielders in turn. Still, 2v3 at this level aren’t encouraging odds, and the lack of width if PSU’s wide midfielders can’t get involved could be a serious blow to the Big Ten side’s title hopes. Nairn could try and slip Brooks by moving wide and into the channels, but she may be seen as more important to the offense by playing vertical balls through the backline to try and catch the back three out. Weber and Hayes did a good job of slipping wide to take advantage of zones vacated by Florida State’s full-backs on forays forward, and they’ll likely have to try to do much of the same here to try and pry the defense apart. One thing to watch will be how high the Carolina line gets. They caught Stanford offside with some frequency on Friday, but playing a high line to compress the action is a risky tactic against a club with someone like Hayes who has such blinding pace and an affinity of getting behind defenders. If UNC doesn’t defend a bit deeper, then Brooks’ defensive work on Nairn will be critical so as to cut off the supply line to the forwards and prevent through balls to spring dangerous 1v1 opportunities.
-From a tactical standpoint, North Carolina would seem to have the advantage in most zones, though the potential double coverage Dunn faces in the heart of midfield could be a deciding factor when all is said and done. Mere numbers alone aren’t going to stop Dunn though, and solving the problem of stopping Carolina’s attacking talisman is the puzzle that faces the Penn State coaching staff. If they do manage to slow her down from the attacking center midfield position, will Dorrance try to slide her out wide or up front? It could free her up but would also create other problems in the central midfield zone for Carolina. Penn State has two players in Hayes and Weber that look tailor-made to exploit UNC’s high line, but can those forwards get the service from Nairn to spring 1v1 opportunities? In this sense, Brooks could be the game’s key player from a defensive standpoint. If Nairn gets bottled up, the Nittany Lions are going to suffer creatively. How PSU struggled to cope with the direct dribbling of Jamia Fields of FSU on Friday was a concern, and though FSU took advantage of that out wide, Dunn and Ohai are masters of taking players on 1v1 and will be eager to run at the occasionally shaky PSU defense. Finally, though both sides have made liberal use of their benches, you could argue Carolina’s gotten more out of their reserves thus far. They successfully wore out Stanford as their semi-final went on and could do much the same here. I think Penn State’s going to have to score early if they want to win. Chasing the game against this Carolina team isn’t a recipe for success, but I feel that’s going to be the situation PSU faces. They’ll give it a gallant effort, but I think the empire will reign again on Sunday afternoon.
Prediction: North Carolina 2 – 0 Penn State