NCAA Tournament – Elite Eight Review

-First of all, it goes without saying that we’re hoping for a swift and complete recovery for UNC’s Katie Bowen. Bowen went down at the end of the first half of extra time and was hospitalized (and released later) with a concussion. The scene was as scary as anything I’ve seen in almost a decade of following college soccer, so it’s good to hear that Bowen’s been released from hospital while it was also heartwarming to see such an outpouring of support for the Tar Heel and New Zealand youth international.

-Well, you certainly can’t argue that Boston College head coach Alison Foley was riding the coattails of stars like Kristie Mewis, Victoria DiMartino, and Jillian Mastroianni any more. Yes, the Eagles were beaten resoundingly by Florida State on Friday, but honestly, FSU was going to do that to a lot of teams not half as good as BC proved to be during the past few weeks. A lot of the questions surrounding the Eagles going into the season centered on how the club was going to do with its golden generation having departed after last season. The answer was often a hodge podge of results, with BC showing very well at times while also continuing their trend of being maddeningly inconsistent at other times. The good BC showed up in the first three rounds with decisive wins over Northeastern, Nebraska, and Illinois. The bad Boston College showed up after they conceded against Florida State on Friday. The Eagles were never going to win a game where they weren’t going to score multiple goals, and seeing their offense held in check by Florida State was basically the death knell for their season, as the defense just couldn’t hold the Noles back. BC probably isn’t going anywhere though. The dynamic duo of McKenzie Meehan and Stephanie McCaffrey return next season and should give the Eagles a shot against anyone.

-As Boston College finds life after the departure of a golden generation, Duke will hope for more of the same as the generation that put them back on the map graduates. The Blue Devils looked to be building a juggernaut when a young side came within one game of a shock national title in 2011 but found out that nothing is written in stone, as the club fell short at the Elite Eight the past two seasons. In 2014, Duke will have to do without key defender Natasha Anasi and Mollie Pathman, midfielders Kaitlyn Kerr and Kim DeCesare, and forward Laura Weinberg. It’s a quintet that provided no shortage of excitement and big wins for the Blue Devils, and they’ll be desperately disappointed to have not been able to get back into the College Cup for the second time in their careers after falling to Virginia Tech. Duke had looked to be right in it, hitting the woodwork twice in the first half but then conceded in the final minute of the opening stanza. It was all downhill from there, as the Hokies came out of the locker room roaring, with the Blue Devils never able to recover before slipping to a heavy defeat. There’s a nice core of returning talent with one of the nation’s most promising freshman classes this season coming back, while Duke also gets Cassie Pecht and Gilda Doria back from injuries that cost them the whole season. At the same time, there are sizable holes to fill, meaning 2014 might be a transition season in Durham.

-Give Michigan credit. They came in with a gameplan against Virginia and probably put it into action better than just about anyone the Cavs have faced this season outside of Virginia Tech. Defending with five on the backline and looking to quickly counter with Nkem Ezurike spearheading and bullying the Virginia defense, Michigan sought to play to their strengths and solve the Cavalier puzzle. For a while, the Wolverines appeared to be right in it, striking back through a counter right after they had gone down 1-0 to a Morgan Brian strike. But maintaining such a gameplan is an odious task for ninety or more minutes, and the Big Ten side couldn’t quite do it over the course of the entire game. Michigan invited far too much pressure from Virginia’s full-backs, with Cavalier left-back Molly Menchel at times the player furthest forward, underscoring the problems the Wolverines had in being pinned in in their defensive third of the pitch. Michigan tried to stay compact and succeeded in forcing many long-range and wayward shot attempts from Virginia, but they also struggled to win the ball back and break forward purposefully in the second half. Which was a shame, as the Wolverines did look dangerous on the counter, but they just couldn’t make it work often enough to get in a position to win the match. While Michigan does return a fair amount of talent and has tapped into a big Canadian pipeline, the losses are heavy for next year, with Ezurike and center-back pairing Shelina Zadorsky and Holly Hein both departing, meaning 2014 might be a season of consolidation in Ann Arbor.

-It’s probably too simplistic to a point, but North Carolina and the nation saw firsthand the crushing effect of the lack of a healthy Crystal Dunn, as the Heels slumped to an extra time defeat against UCLA. The Bruins have certainly grown by leaps and bounds as a team since the team’s initial defeat to UNC at Fetzer Field earlier in the season, but you can’t really discount how much of an effect having Dunn at only a fraction of her powers had on the ACC side. Dunn was able to make a go of it off the bench, but the high ankle sprain she suffered against Texas A&M clearly limited her on the evening. It only added to the pressure on Kealia Ohai to help make the offense go, but the senior was essentially bottled up by Ally Courtnall on the flank while the Tar Heels as a whole found UCLA’s million dollar midfield tough to play through. Already absent Alexa Newfield through injury, the offense stuttered, with only four shots on goal in over a hundred minutes of play. The defense held firm in the wake of UCLA’s pressure but fell victim to a counter attack and a bad bounce after Anna Sieloff had initially seemed to stop Taylor Smith’s shot. It’s a disappointing ending to a season in which so much, perhaps too much, was expected. The question for Carolina is where to now? Gone are Dunn Ohai, Megan Brigman, Meg Morris, and Anna Sieloff among others, leaving an enormous set of holes that Anson Dorrance will have to fill. You sense he will, as he seemingly always does, but next year might be fraught with uncertainty as the Heels get comfortable without players who have dominated the narrative for the past four seasons. You have to wonder who UNC’s alpha dog is going to be next season with Dunn and Ohai departing. With Satara Murray and Hanna Gardner returning on the backline, it might be a UNC team that has to grind wins out with defense, something atypical of the norm in Chapel Hill.

-Another NCAA Tournament game, another whitewash for Florida State, who made Boston College their latest victim in an utterly dominant tournament run thus far. FSU has outscored opponents by a 16-1 margin, staggering considering the club hasn’t skipped a beat as the opposition has ramped up in ability as the field has been pared down. There was the feeling that Boston College may have been able to give the Noles some problems considering their first matchup in the regular season, where BC had taken FSU to the limit. It wasn’t so. As had been the case last season, Florida State punished the Eagles in their second meeting. The defensive frailties on display in the regular season meeting were not evident as Boston College was held to just two shots on goal, with the deadly duo of Stephanie McCaffrey and McKenzie Meehan both held without a shot on goal. BC looked like holding their own until conceding the opener in the thirty-sixth minute to Kassey Kallman. The Eagles had to take risks to grab an equalizer from that point on, and FSU took advantage with three more goals to make it a laugher come full-time. When you consider that FSU scored four goals without any of their starting front four netting one of their tallies, you can perhaps get a taste of how devastating the Seminoles can be going forward when they’re dialed in like they were on Friday. There’s probably not going to be a fifth straight blowout. FSU’s beaten Virginia Tech twice already this season, but their latest encounter was a bruising affair in which Virginia Tech had more than once chance to equalize after the Noles had opened the scoring. Mark Krikorian will be hoping the third time is the charm for his side after two straight exits at the semi-final stage in the two seasons before 2013, and you wouldn’t doubt his side given their current form.

-Then again, looking past Virginia Tech would be a pretty big mistake considering how well the Hokies responded to their Sweet Sixteen scare against Santa Clara. After looking second best for a chunk of that match against the Broncos, VT left no doubt at full-time last Friday that they were worthy of a spot in Cary after putting the heat on Duke in a 3-0 win. Not that the Hokies were dominant all match. Virginia Tech had to survive some close shaves with the woodwork to get the chance to take a 1-0 lead right before the break through Katie Yensen. It was the Hokies who’d take the initiative after the break as well, netting a goal twenty minutes after the restart to put them in a safe position before making it academic through Jazmine Reeves late. It was an impressive showing of grit and resolve from a Hokies side that made the big breakthrough to earn a third shot at Florida State on Friday. How that goes is anybody’s guess, but you’d have to say VT are going into the match as clear underdogs after their two earlier losses to the Noles. In many ways, FSU beat Tech at their own game in the ACC Tournament final, outmuscling the physical Hokies and keeping Jazmine Reeves wrapped up for most of the match. And yet for all that, Tech did have a few gilded opportunities to put the ball in the back of the net that they spurned. In many ways, the first semi-final could be the antithesis of the second in Cary, as the matchup between the Hokies and the Noles could be another bruising affair with a place in the final on the line.

-It wasn’t quite a flawless victory, but it was convincing one nonetheless for Virginia, who moved past Michigan and into their first College Cup in a generation last Friday night. The victory was typical of almost every Cavalier performance this season thus far, with territorial dominance and relentless waves of pressure ruling the day for the ACC champions. The Wolverines were perhaps as best equipped as anyone to combat UVA’s style but ultimately couldn’t be incisive enough on their rare forays forward on the counter. These opportunities presented themselves most often in the first half, most tellingly on the goal from Nkem Ezurike right after UVA had scored themselves. But where other Virginia teams of the past crumbled after setbacks, this one pressed on, with the Cavs unleashing torrents of attacking pressure towards the Michigan goal for almost the entire second half. The dogged pursuit of a winner would pay off when Molly Menchel would score in scrappy fashion to make it 2-1, a hole a tired Michigan side just couldn’t dig themselves out of. In a sense, the Wolverines engineered their own demise by not being able to pin Virginia’s full-backs back, making it hard to break out on the flanks on the rare occasions they did win the ball back. At the same time though, you’ve got to credit the club’s full-backs, specifically Menchel, for their marauding runs down the wing that helped to pin the Big Ten side in their own end for extended periods of time. At the same time though, Virginia has to know UCLA isn’t going just sit deep with their wide defenders. Caprice Dydasco and Ally Courtnall are lethal going forward from their full-back position, meaning Friday could be a thrilling battle on the flanks. That’s just one possibility though, as Virginia’s midfield made it nearly impossible to take the ball off them against Michigan. They’ll be facing a much sterner challenge against UCLA’s midfield though, and there’s no doubting this one could very well be won or lost in the heart of the pitch on Friday night.

-UCLA’s win over North Carolina wasn’t a thing of aesthetic beauty, but it was an example of how much the Bruins have grown as a team in the past few months. The Westwood side looked out of their depth in the clubs’ first meeting, with only a stunning goalkeeping performance from Katelyn Rowland keeping them from a heavy defeat. A North Carolina side sapped by injuries to key players looked ripe for the picking last Saturday though, it was just a matter of UCLA keeping their nerve against a program that had historically had their number. The attack without a healthy Crystal Dunn pulling the strings looked a shell of the unit that tormented the Bruins a few months ago, while UCLA’s own attack looked a lot more effective than the group that had few answers for the Tar Heels in their first meeting. It was somewhat fitting that Taylor Smith scored the winner in extra time, the sophomore having been the standout on the stat sheet with her four shots on goal as much as the entire Tar Heel squad managed combined in a little over a hundred minutes of action. Amanda Cromwell becomes just the third head coach to eliminate North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament more than once. She’ll try to become the first woman to win a national title from the touchline since Becky Burleigh did it with Florida, as well as being just the second woman to win it at DI level as a coach. Virginia stands in the Bruins’ way and matches up as well as anyone has this season against UCLA. Marauding full-backs? Check. Dominant center-backs? Check. Brilliant midfield? Check. Dangerous forwards? Check. UCLA has the experienced Rowland in goal as opposed to Virginia freshman Morgan Stearns, which might be their trump card Friday. At the same time, to try and exploit some of that youth, UCLA actually has to hold onto the ball against the Cavs, something that hasn’t proven to be easy thus far for UVA’s postseason opponents.

One thought on “NCAA Tournament – Elite Eight Review

  1. William Morrison

    BC FSU game as you mentioned was a good one for the first half. BC moved to a 3-5-2 in the second half to try to get forward momentum moving Casey Morrison to center midfield as they have done on other occasions this season.

    One thing I noticed is Florida State is great on headballs and using the entire field to get the ball to the six in a variety of ways. They have a very team oriented attack which I think explains the multiple scorers in this game.

    For next year it will be interesting to see if and how the acc reorganizes womens soccer and the effect this reorganization will have on the best soccer conference.

    Reply

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