(1) Virginia vs (3) Michigan – 7:00 PM
1. What Will Michigan’s Mindset Be?
Last weekend, talented Georgetown and Wake Forest teams chose pragmatism instead of playing an expansive game against a Virginia side with lethal offensive ability. It didn’t really work for either. The Hoyas seemed better equipped on paper to make the strategy work given their offensive talent, but they never got going and barely made a peep offensively. Wake Forest held out for a little longer with their better defense, but the Demon Deacons have been drained offensively by injuries, with it essentially being game over when Virginia scored a couple of goals in quick succession. I suspect Michigan could use a similar strategy away from home given their personnel. The Wolverines have a big, skilled target forward in Nkem Ezurike, meaning they’ve got a signpost for flick-ons from long, direct balls if they need it, though they’ve also got enough offensive talent behind Ezurike to keep it on the turf on the break if Virginia opens itself up for a few chances that way. The Wolverines also generally seem to have the defensive discipline to not be sucked out of position by UVA, and Michigan maintaining their defensive shape in front of a rookie goalkeeper is going to be big if they hope to spring the upset. The longer they’re able to frustrate the Cavs, the better their odds of victory obviously. An early Virginia goal would obviously change things in a hurry, and I’m not sure Michigan’s going to be able to come out on top if offense decides the day, even with Ezurike.
2. Can Virginia Handle The Power Of Ezurike Up Top?
It’s actually a little shocking that Virginia hasn’t faced that many big, talented forwards this season. The Cavs have handled a ton of swift, pacey forwards like Jazmine Reeves, Hayley Brock, and Kealia Ohai, but the number of elite towering behemoths they’ve conquered this season is a rather short one. In fact, it’s a little hard to argue that they’ve faced any besides Morgan Marlborough at the beginning of the season. Of course, they did a pretty good job on Marlborough and the lethargic Santa Clara side in a dominating win. If it’s just Ezurike against the Virginia defense, then UVA’s probably going to just swarm her with numbers and make someone else beat them. The danger is if Ezurike is able to fight through the defense and help create opportunities for her Michigan teammates. She’s not plodding and has a nice touch for a big forward, but Ezurike’s strength and ability to hold up the ball are probably going to be vital in Michigan’s gameplan. If Virginia’s able to take her out of the equation, it’s difficult seeing the Wolverines coming out of Charlottesville with the win.
3. A Tale of Rookie Goalkeepers
It’s not particularly common to see freshman netminders at this stage of the competition or beyond, as experience in goal is a priceless asset that most contenders share. Not so with these two clubs, who are trotting out freshmen come Friday’s Elite Eight matchup. Michigan had arguably the tougher task after last season, replacing the very talented Haley Kopmeyer, who had become a leading figure in the club’s charge towards being one of the Big Ten’s top clubs over the past few years. In her place is Taylor Bucklin, a Canadian youth international who was widely tipped to make a big impact as a rookie and who has done so this season for the Wolverines. Virginia’s been absent a standout keeper since Chantel Jones graduated a few years back, and while veteran Danielle DeLisle has featured in a handful of starts, most of the time, the Cavs have rolled with Morgan Stearns. Stearns also came into Charlottesville with a lot of plaudits and has mostly lived up to expectations in net for the Cavs, though she also hasn’t been tested as much as some of her rivals on other clubs thanks to the team’s strong defense. Regardless, she’s still been impressive and actually could be staring down Bucklin on the opposite side of the pitch during U20 World Cup qualifiers. With this one potentially being a nail biter, both could be called upon to play beyond their years as their clubs pursue a spot in Cary.
4. Will Brian Continue To Run Riot?
Everyone knew that Morgan Brian was going to have to make “The Leap” if Virginia was going to contend for honors this season, such was the depth of their losses after last season. It’s safe to she’s made it, coming into this one with a brilliant fifteen goals and fourteen assists for the Cavs, pulling the strings from the midfield. Tellingly, Brian’s gotten better as the weather’s gotten colder, putting together a fantastic postseason thus far. Brian comes into this one with five goals and two assists in the Cavs’ five postseason games thus far, including having scored in all three rounds of the NCAA Tournament thus far. She’s sure to get plenty of attention from the Michigan defense, who will aim to keep her as far away from goal as possible while also trying to cut off service to the forwards. It’ll be up to Brian to find a way through to help her club to the College Cup. Given Brian’s postseason form thus far, it’s hard to bet against her succeeding.
5. Can Virginia Finally Get Over The Hump?
We’ve been here before. We’ve been here before a lot with Virginia. The Cavs have been odds on so many times to get to the College Cup from a position of strength that some may have wondered if UVA’s ever going to be able to finally break through. Take into account last season when Virginia looked like a terror after winning the ACC Tournament, only to come out flat in the Sweet Sixteen in a shock defeat to postseason nemesis Duke. This season, Virginia’s shown the type of consistency that’s been the hallmark of champions, rolling through everyone in their path before a big speedbump in state rivals Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament semi-finals. UVA’s gotten right back up to dominate teams in the NCAA Tournament though and will probably be favored to walk away with the national title if they make it to Cary next weekend. That’s far from a guarantee though, as we’re about to find out how Virginia plays when the heat is really on, with a spot in the Final Four on the line. Michigan are no mugs, and the Wolverines have the capacity to frustrate the Cavs defensively and deliver a hammer blow or two offensively. But I think Virginia’s finally going to bury their demons on Friday night, though it may be a more stressful ride than hoped.
Prediction – Virginia 1 – 0 Michigan