Wake Forest’s Aubrey Bledsoe (GK) vs Penn State’s Goal Scoring Legion
Let’s be real. If Wake Forest is to spring the upset on Friday, it sure ain’t gonna be with its offense, which struggled to create chances against a not-so-mighty Morehead State defense in their first round win. Against a team like Penn State, with no shortage of attacking options, Wake Forest is going to have to keep it a tight and low-scoring affair if they’re to stand any chance of crashing the Sweet Sixteen. In that respect, it’s a good thing that Wake Forest has the nation’s best senior goalkeeper, Aubrey Bledsoe, at their disposal. More than ever, the Demon Deacons are going to need their senior stopper to come up huge with the club’s offense so ravaged by injuries. Penn State’s got plenty of firepower, even beyond the fleet-footed Maya Hayes, who will be looking to eclipse the twenty-goal barrier again with one strike on Friday. Tani Costa was on form as a super sub for much of the year, making it impossible for Erica Walsh to exclude her from the lineup. Add in the likes of Mallory Weber, Raquel Rodriguez, and Taylor Schram, who’ve combined for eighteen goals, and Bledsoe might feel like she’s in a shooting gallery on Friday. But Bledsoe is capable of some magic between the pipes and will need one of her best acts yet for Wake to get the better of the Big Ten powerhouse.
Notre Dame’s Randy Waldrum vs Western Michigan’s Nate Norman
If this one comes down to sheer talent on the playing field, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Western Michigan’s in trouble. The Broncos have had a dream season in winning the MAC Tournament and shocking Marquette, but it hasn’t necessarily been a great season for the MAC, with WMU not exactly having much of a pedigree at this level either. There’s probably more of a book on the Broncos now too having been exposed on a national stage after their thrilling 1-0 win in the opening round. With the very real gap in talent on the pitch, it’s going to be up to WMU head coach Nate Norman to cook something up to try and help his side beat the odds one more time. Norman himself has been on a whirlwind tour since his playing days at Notre Dame ended. From volunteer assistant for the men’s side at his alma mater, Norman bounced between assistant jobs at WMU and Miami (FL) before coming back to Kalamazoo in the Summer of 2012 to take over in the hot seat. His coaching stock has already recovered from last year’s debacle thanks to the late season heroics this year, but it might start soaring if his side can achieve the impossible on Friday. Good luck. Notre Dame’s Randy Waldrum is, of course, known as one of the canniest operators in the game. His sides generally outperform expectations this time of year and are probably going to make it very difficult on Norman and the Broncos on Friday afternoon.
Arkansas’ Ashleigh Ellenwood (CF) vs Saint John’s (NY)’s Rachel Daly (CF)
Arkansas’ probably a little more well-rounded on the whole, but both of these sides are largely dependent on their center-forwards to deliver the mail on offense. Both will also be hoping that each can shoot the club to an unlikely Sweet Sixteen bid on Friday afternoon in Durham. Saint John’s (NY)’s Daly has an absurd twenty-three of the club’s thirty-nine goals this season, and when you count her four assists, she’s had a hand in almost seventy percent of the team’s scoring. The Brit has registered at least one shot on goal in eight straight coming into this one and has been money down the stretch, netting goals in five of the club’s past six and six of their past eight as the Red Storm have clawed their way to the NCAA Tournament. Ellenwood hasn’t been quite as dynamic in front of goal, with just thirteen goals this season, but she hasn’t been held without a shot on goal since the end of September. Ellenwood was clutch in the two wins against Missouri, netting three goals in the two matches at the end of the regular season and SEC Tournament that likely got UA into the NCAA Tournament. Her consistency in front of goal still wavers at times though, as she’s scored in just two of the club’s last six. But when she’s on, Ellenwood’s a quality forward capable of causing real problems for opposing defenses. Whichever of the duo can best exert their influence on Friday’s game will have a great chance of helping send their team to Sunday and the Sweet Sixteen.
North Carolina’s Crystal Dunn (AMC) vs Injuries. Time.
No disrespect to Indiana, but they’re very much the guests at this party, with Crystal Dunn’s balky hamstring the focus of the weekend in all likelihood. Dunn’s recurring hamstring injury kept her out of the ACC Tournament semi-final defeat to Florida State, with the USWNT international also being held out of the game against Liberty in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament last weekend. While Carolina still had plenty at their disposal against the Big South champions, UNC knows there aren’t any more gimmes at this point. With the Hoosiers looming on Friday and either Texas A&M or Texas Tech on Sunday if Carolina can emerge triumphant in the second round, UNC definitely needs to be whole or as close to whole as possible this weekend. It seems pretty obvious to say at this point, but Carolina is just a different team entirely with Dunn in the lineup, forcing teams to account for her slashing dribbles from the attacking midfield position, helping to free up space for the frontline. Without Dunn, there’s a lot more pressure on the forwards to engineer their chances to a degree, something that has been evident in the club’s forays without their superstar in the lineup this year. Dunn’s presence in the lineup wouldn’t close the book on the questions though. Just how fit is Dunn going to be if she plays? With two games in less than forty-eight hours, how will Dunn’s minutes be managed if she does answer the bell? Getting it right might be the difference between a trip to Cary and an early exit from this year’s Big Dance.
Virginia Tech’s Jazmine Reeves (CF) vs West Virginia’s Kadeisha Buchanan (CB)
One of the day’s most intriguing matchups on paper also plays host to one of the day’s most captivating individual showdowns between two rising stars, one just beginning her college career and the other trying to avert the end of hers for a little while longer. Virginia Tech’s Jazmine Reeves has been at the crux of her side’s rise into the national consciousness, with her blistering pace and dead eye for goal helping fire the Hokies to a #1 seed. Reeves has spent much of the season making opposing defenses look like they’re moving through quicksand, and the only reason her goal total isn’t higher is the presence of other weapons like Murielle Tiernan and Ashley Meier on the roster. Reeves is the club’s ace up front though, and it’ll probably be her job to find a way around or through WVU’s Kadeisha Buchanan on Friday. Buchanan entered the college ranks with many plaudits and expectations after some eye-catching displays with the Canadian WNT this year. The Canadian hasn’t disappointed as a rookie either, taking her place at the heart of the West Virginia defense and already looking like one of the college game’s premier center-backs. Buchanan has the potential to be one of the best defenders of this generation, and helping to shut down Reeves and getting WVU to spring the upset would only add to her burgeoning reputation. Easier said than done though, and the wily Reeves will be looking to teach her young opponent a thing or two on Friday.
Virginia’s Annie Steinlage (DMC) vs Georgetown’s Daphne Corboz (AMC)
Daphne Corboz has had to settle for being “really damn good” this season as opposed to being the ruiner of worlds as she was during last year’s unbelievable campaign. Corboz didn’t even get started until a few weeks into the new season, still healing up from some injuries but has still managed seven goals and thirteen assists in just fifteen games and thirteen starts. Though she’s been playmaker more than finisher this season, Corboz also has a ton of weapons to work with in the nation’s capital. There’s also no denying Corboz’s importance to this side. It’s not a coincidence that the only two games GU’s lost this season have coincided with their star not logging a goal or an assist. Truthfully, Corboz has cooled down a bit since a torrid middle of the season, logging an assist in just one of her past eight and goals in just one of her past four. The task isn’t going to be any easier on Friday against Virginia’s midfield stopper, Annie Steinlage. A superlative center-back at Michigan State, Steinlage has made a seamless transition to defensive midfielder in her season with the Cavs. Steinlage’s play is going to be no less important than Corboz’s on Friday. Georgetown has a lot of potent weapons that can cause anyone some problems, and UVA’s going to have to cut off the supply line to minimize chances of a shock in Charlottesville. If Steinlage can effectively silence Corboz, the Hoya offense might wither, allowing the home side a sense of control in their second round matchup.
Michigan’s Nkem Ezurike (CF) vs Illinois State’s Rachel Tejada (CF)
They’ve both got exemplary supporting casts, but the attention is inevitably going to be directed towards the duo leading the line for these clubs on Friday night. Big Ten defenses will be happy to finally see the back of Michigan’s Nkem Ezurike after the Canadian has spent the past four years torturing opposing defenses with her bullish strength and deceptively soft touch up top. It’s led to thirteen goals and nine assists this season, though it’s been a bit hit or miss from the Canadian down the stretch. Enduring a stretch of just one goal in four going into the NCAA Tournament, Ezurike proved that murmurs of her demise were greatly exaggerated with a brace in the dominant 4-0 win against Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the opening round of the Big Dance. Nobody else on the Wolverines has more than five goals, so an off-night by the big Canadian could spell trouble against the Redbirds. Rachel Tejada isn’t actually even ISU’s leading scorer, with Hannah Leinert actually having one more goal on the year with sixteen, but everyone knows Tejada’s the go-to player when the chips are down for the Redbirds. Tejada’s also been very streaky this year though, putting together scoring streaks of six and five games in a row at one point, but she was also held off the board by Louisville last weekend. The pressure to score isn’t as great now that Leinert’s here, but you’ve got to think that a superior performance from Tejada would increase ISU’s upset hopes exponentially. These sides tended to buckle down on defense late this year, but given the firepower, buckle up, it might be an offensive thriller.
Florida’s Savannah Jordan (CF) vs Duke’s Natasha Anasi (CB)
Try to stop the unstoppable. That’s the task ahead of Natasha Anasi on Friday night. OK, not even Savannah Jordan’s unstoppable, but it’s sure seemed that way for much of the season, as the Florida center-forward has bullied opposing defenses into submission time and time again. Staggeringly, Jordan has had at least one shot on goal in all but one of her matches thus far (the loss at Missouri) and at least two in all but three. Jordan’s form was a bit erratic at the beginning of the season as far as scoring goals is concerned, but she settled into a groove late, netting in six straight against league opponents. She hasn’t scored in the past two, but she’s also showing the versatility to her game, adding assists, putting her on an eight game streak with a point going into Friday night. She isn’t going to have an easy go of it though, with veteran pitbull Natasha Anasi waiting to try and mark her out of the game. Duke’s defense hasn’t been at its best this season, dealing with some growing pains as a result of injuries and graduation. Anasi’s been a constant at the heart of the Blue Devil backline though, and the home side’s chances of advancing are largely on the shoulders of their center-back keeping Jordan’s damage to a minimum on Friday. With no Havana Solaun to help orchestrate the attack, Florida figure to be as reliant as ever on their freshman to help see them through. If Anasi can corral the rookie, Duke’s own attack might get their own chances to make an impact and turn the momentum their way. Anasi would also be making a big statement ahead of January’s NWSL Draft. The senior has probably fallen behind Florida State’s Kassey Kallman on many’s draft boards. A strong showing here would certainly help her stock.
South Carolina’s Elizabeth Sinclair (DM) vs Stanford’s Chioma Ubogagu (AMC)
Paul Ratcliffe’s latest tactical shift may be one of the most important in the nation if Stanford rallies to come close to Cary this year. The Card’s play in attack has caused some serious teeth gnashing amongst some very demanding fans, so naturally, the club sought to shake things up a bit going into the NCAA Tournament after back-to-back losses ensured the club would be going into the Big Dance without a national seed for the first time in ages. The polarizing Taylor Uhl came back into the starting frontline, while Chioma Ubogagu came into the attacking midfield role. In a sense, it worked, as despite scoring just once, Uhl netted the winner while Ubogagu had four shots on goal in her new role. Obviously the level of difficulty goes up now, but Ubogagu’s dribbling is unmatched at this level, and Stanford supporters can only hope she can cause chaos with some well-timed thrusts at the heart of opposing defenses this weekend. Likely standing in her way is veteran shutdown artist Elizabeth Sinclair. Sinclair isn’t exactly the flashiest player, but she is one of SC’s most heady and experienced ones. A workhorse protecting the backline, Sinclair’s play has been just as important as the back four and goalkeeper’s this season in turning the Gamecocks back into a mean, uncompromising defensive unit. If she can slow Ubogagu down, Stanford could threaten to become a broken team, with little connection between defense and attack. Then again, that could also prod Ratcliffe into moving Ubogagu back on the wing, which would be the catalyst to a whole different set of tactical battles in this intriguing second round contest.
UCLA’s Caprice Dydasco or Ally Courtnall (RB) vs Kentucky’s Arin Gilliland (LF)
OK, this one has a few variables involved. This is making a pretty big conclusion that Gilliland doesn’t line up centrally to spearhead the Kentucky attack. Then again, gameplans usually don’t involve throwing your best attacking player right at the opposition’s dominant center-back. The big question is who Gilliland lines up against on the left flank. The Bruins went with Caprice Dydasco on the left and Ally Courtnall on the right against San Diego State last week. However, for much of the season, they opted for Dydasco on the right and rookie Gabbi Miranda on the left. Dydasco’s probably the better all-around defender than Courtnall, but the Canadian speedster is on the UCLA track team for a reason and could be lethal on the counter attack in the space behind Gilliland and ahead of Kentucky’s left-back. If Gilliland gets caught too far up the field, the Bruins could try to overload that side of the pitch on the break. Then again, Gilliland’s more than capable as a left-back and probably isn’t going to be shirking her defensive duties. UCLA’s Amanda Cromwell might also opt for a mixed strategy, going conservative with Dydasco and Miranda to start before throwing on Courtnall to run at tired legs later in the half. If Gilliland is able to exert her influence, Cromwell might even consider using Courtnall higher up the pitch as a defensive winger to help double up on Gilliland, using the equivalent of two right-backs against the Kentucky junior. There are a lot of permutations here, but one thing’s for sure: If UK can’t find a way to get Gilliland involved, their odds of victory are going to go from slim to probably none.
Portland 2 – 1 Illinois
Santa Clara 1 – 0 Boston University
Nebraska 3 – 2 Boston College
Texas A&M 0 – 1 Texas Tech
Penn State 2 – 0 Wake Forest
Notre Dame 3 – 0 Western Michigan
Arkansas 2 – 1 Saint John’s (NY)
North Carolina 3 – 0 Indiana
Virginia Tech 2 – 1 West Virginia
Virginia 3 – 1 Georgetown
Michigan 2 – 0 Illinois State
Duke 1 – 0 Florida
South Carolina 0 – 1 Stanford
UCLA 2 – 0 Kentucky