(1) North Carolina vs (2) UCLA – Saturday, 5:00 PM
1. Will Crystal Dunn Play?
It’s the $64,000 Question that means much more than that for a North Carolina side desperately hoping their talisman is able to go on Saturday afternoon. Dunn had missed the ACC Tournament semi-final and the opening round of the NCAA Tournament with a hamstring injury before coming back with a vengeance in a cameo role against Indiana last Friday. She started against Texas A&M a few days later but didn’t make it thirty minutes before being felled again, this time with what’s being called a high ankle sprain. That’s a pretty worrying diagnosis for the USWNT’er, as such injuries aren’t normally healed in less than a week’s time, putting her participation in Saturday’s contest in severe doubt. Even if Dunn is able to go, it would appear that her minutes are going to be severely limited or that she may even be used only if the Heels are chasing the game late. In any event, Dunn’s absence would shift offensive responsibilities further forward, as well as perhaps goading Anson Dorrance into going with the 4-2-3-1 right from the off. But more on those considerations later…
2. Can Summer Green’s Form Continue?
Green’s enjoyed a meteoric rise into the WoSo consciousness after her deadly performance for the U.S. U17s in CONCACAF U17 World Cup Qualifying last year. Her unbelievable goal scoring pace raised the bar on expectations to an absurd degree, and Green’s rookie year was an uneven one, with some moments of brilliance couple with stretches of anonymity as she acclimated to the college game. In many ways, it was more of the same for much of this year, as Green continued to be overshadowed by expectations and her more seasoned teammates in Chapel Hill. Despite a run of three straight games with a point to close out the regular season, Green was held without a point in the club’s two ACC Tournament games, perhaps lowering expectations going int the Big Dance. It’s all turned around for the sophomore since though, as she assisted on two goals against Liberty, one against Indiana, and scored both goals against Texas A&M. Green’s likely going to be counted on to spearhead the offense next year when Dunn and Kealia Ohai depart, but the second-year player’s form over the past few weeks has been encouraging to say the least. Green keeping it up and giving UNC another offensive weapon in this one would be a big boost to the club’s hopes of making it to Cary next weekend.
3. Will UCLA’s Young Forwards Answer The Bell?
Given the proven talent in midfield, on the backline, and in goal, it’s only natural that a still very young frontline sometimes gets lost in the headlines for the Bruins. Amanda Cromwell seems to have settled on the duo of Taylor Smith and Darian Jenkins down the stretch after some experimentation earlier, and the pair have served the Bruins well most of the time, though some of their youth and inexperience is still apparent at times. Smith has seemingly been the better of the two in the NCAA Tournament thus far, with eight shots on goal and goals against San Diego State and Stanford. Jenkins has just two shots on goal in the NCAA Tournament thus far, and you might be wondering if she’s hitting the rookie wall late for the Bruins. Fatigue could be killer for Cromwell’s side considering they’re facing a side that stonewalled them for almost all of their initial meeting in September. On that night, Jenkins put up a bagel on the stat sheet, while Smith was held to a single shot on goal. Obviously, North Carolina has to deal with the loss of Caitlin Ball and the potential absence of Crystal Dunn’s workrate in midfield, but the Carolina defense has still been solid in response thus far in the Big Dance. The Bruins have plenty of options behind the frontline for goals if it comes to that, but getting a big night from either Smith or Jenkins (or both) would increase their odds for victory considerably.
4. How Will North Carolina Approach Things Tactically?
Dunn’s potential absence might have a knock-on effect on how Anson Dorrance sets his team out tactically on Saturday afternoon. The Tar Heels have usually begun in their customary 3-4-3 before switching to the 4-2-3-1 as the subs hit the pitch. It’s worked a treat for much of the season, with the flexibility providing just enough defensive solidity to go along with the brute force offensively in the 3-4-3 to cause opponents no end of headaches. Most of that’s been with Dunn in the lineup though, as her workrate and defensive ability has helped protect the midfielders and defenders behind her from quick breaks from the opposition as UNC pushes towards goal. If Dunn can’t go or is limited in her minutes and effectiveness, the Tar Heels may have to go with a more conservative approach right off the bat. It probably isn’t what UNC fans would like to hear given their love/hate relationship with the 4-2-3-1, but it might just have to be the order of the day until things get settled. Regardless, if UNC’s chasing the game late, it’ll be 3-4-3 full stop, while by the same token, the club is almost assured of sticking in the 4-2-3-1 if they’re defending a lead, perhaps as soon as half-time.
5. Adjustments, Adjustments…
Saturday might be a rematch between these two teams, but it’s safe to say the paradigm has changed significantly for both coming into the Elite Eight. The Tar Heels will definitely be without Caitlin Ball in defense and Alexa Newfield in attack, while Crystal Dunn is also potentially out or limited due to her high ankle sprain. While Carolina has sufficient depth to at least plug the gaps, being without that trio would probably push the club’s depth to close to its breaking point. UCLA also comes in having shaken things up a bit, with Rosie White moving to the bench in favor of midfielder Kodi Lavrusky. Amanda Cromwell’s also shaken up her full-backs, moving Caprice Dydasco back to left-back and Ally Courtnall, who was short of full match fitness in the clubs’ first meeting, back to right-back. Dunn’s potential absence or limitation hangs over this one more than any other change from September to now though, and you wonder if North Carolina is going to be able to approach anything close to their earlier dominance of the Bruins with Dunn out or limited. There are worries about the UCLA attack though. It wasn’t necessarily the most convincing showing last weekend against Stanford, though they got the job done. The Bruins have fallen a bit flat going forward sometimes this year though, creating much but finishing little in draws against Utah and Washington earlier in the season. There’s no guarantee there’ll be more of the same here, but UCLA’s really going to be depending on their veteran laden midfield to help the club keep their nerve in the most pressure packed match of most of these players’ lives. Inevitably, North Carolina is a program that rises to the occasion. The defense has acquitted itself well since the odd ACC Tournament loss to Florida State, while the frontline featuring Ohai and Green has been humming in the past few games. I don’t think it’ll be anywhere near as one-sided as their earlier meeting, but I think Carolina will triumph again and punch their ticket to Cary.
Prediction – North Carolina 2 – 1 UCLA