The Cavaliers have played fantasy football the whole season, while UCLA used pragmatic football to slay a pesky dragon last Saturday. The styles will clash on Friday night in a blockbuster College Cup semi-final with numerous potential pros on both sides of the pitch. Either side lifting the trophy on Sunday would likely be a popular victory, with Virginia’s flowing play getting them here after so many near misses, while the Bruins have so often been the bridesmaid at this competition but have a renewed fire under first-year head coach Amanda Cromwell. Neither side really encountered much resistance until the Elite Eight, where Virginia was able to wear down a resolute and stubborn Michigan side, while the Bruins were able to go on the road and knock out North Carolina in extra time. One of these head coaches could shed the label of being one of the best coaches without a national title with two wins this weekend, while Amanda Cromwell of the Bruins will also be looking to become just the second female head coach to win a national title at this level.
UCLA might have their biggest advantage in between the pipes, with the Bruins able to trot out junior Katelyn Rowland, who has developed into one of the nation’s best netminders. The UCLA #1 has great size for her position and is capable of making the spectacular save, as best evidenced in her efforts earlier in the season against North Carolina, where she nearly single-handedly kept the scoreline respectable against the Tar Heels. She’s almost certainly going to be tested by Virginia’s deadly attack, and Rowland’s probably going to need a big save or two if the Bruins are to still be playing on Sunday.
Rookie Morgan Stearns came into Charlottesville this season tipped to make an impact as one of the nation’s top goalkeeping recruits. She wasn’t an automatic first choice for much of the season though, splitting a chunk of time with senior Danielle DeLisle before taking command of the job full-time as the stakes have gotten higher. Virginia’s style has meant that Stearns hasn’t been bombarded by shots when she’s been in, but she’s still looked capable in her minutes in goal for the Cavs. This competition can rattle the best keepers though, and it’s no guarantee the rookie will flourish on Friday night if the Bruins can put pressure on.
Virginia’s back four haven’t really been put under sustained pressure this NCAA Tournament, such has been their ability to maintain possession and win it high up the park. Neither Emily Sonnett nor Shasta Fisher are elite level center-backs, but the two have excelled so far, doing their job at the heart of the defense with minimal fuss, though the Cavs’ defense as a whole can be undone by quick breaks and blazing pace, though Virginia Tech’s been the only side able to make that work en route to a win. Left-back Molly Menchel has a green light to get forward as much as humanly possible, best evidenced in her scoring Virginia’s eventual winner last Friday against Michigan. With six goals and six assists, underestimate her offensive prowess at your own peril. Right-back Morgan Stith isn’t nearly the threat going forward and actually had the fewest shots of the starting defenders this year. She may be needed more as a third center-back here to keep numbers at the back to cover for Menchel’s flying runs forward.
If Florida State has the nation’s best back four, UCLA probably isn’t far behind. Junior Abby Dahlkemper has been one of the collegiate game’s best center-backs from day one in Westwood and might just work her way into a position as one of the Hermann Trophy finalists should her club walk away with the title this weekend. Center-back partner Megan Oyster has been a pleasant surprise this season, mostly used as a reserve off the bench last season but a starter of sixteen games thus far for the Bruins. The full-back positions are probably where most of the intrigue comes from ahead of this matchup. With Menchel flying up the wing, there could be room to counter-attack for right-back Ally Courtnall, who helped shut down Kealia Ohai last weekend and has more than enough pace to punish Virginia if left unchecked. There will also be the threat of left-back Caprice Dydasco, more than capable of making an impact offensively, with six goals to her name thus far. You also have to wonder if the Bruins would consider using Courtnall and Dydasco on the right side to try and neutralize Menchel’s runs forward and promote the counter down that flank. Dydasco played right-back with Gabbi Miranda on the left earlier in the year. It’s an interesting thought at the very least.
Star power? Yeah, there’s some of that here. Virginia’s a team ruled by likely Hermann Trophy winner Morgan Brian, who has been a marvel as the weather’s gotten colder, now standing on sixteen goals and fourteen assists going into the final weekend of the season. The UVA midfielder has been irrepressible as a junior and would only add to her legend with two more wins this weekend and the program’s first national title. The Cavs are far from a one woman band though, and the play of Danielle Colaprico on the right flank should keep Dydasco from too many irresponsible runs forward. One of the nation’s most underrated players, Colaprico can be magical on her day and is second on the team with thirteen assists to her name. Kate Norbo is much more reserved on the other flank, with Alexis Shaffer a popular option off the bench having turned in nine assists for the team as a top reserve. Annie Steinlage sits at the base of the midfield, and the converted center-back will need to be on her toes to stop Sam Mewis, Jenna Richmond, or both to keep the supply line to the forwards inconsistent.
UCLA would probably walk into this one with the advantage over just about anyone else in the nation, such is the depth and power of their midfield. Sarah Killion’s about as complete a midfielder there is in the nation despite her not being in the goals column that much. She does everything else in spades though, including destroying opposing moves and distributing for teammates. Her playmaking ability has gotten markedly better, as she leads the club with eleven assists. Her duties may be more defensive here though, as Brian needs to be kept in check. Jenna Richmond doesn’t have those numbers but the healthy again midfielder is the veteran leader of the bunch and plays much bigger than her stats would indicate. Junior Samantha Mewis can be a mercurial and frustrating figure, but she can also be this club’s best chance for the spectacular. She’s taken the most shots for the Bruins this year and has six goals and nine assists, but Cromwell will be hoping she can save some of her best for last this year, as the Westwood side could do with some magic against the Cavs. Kodi Lavrusky’s forced her way into the starting lineup late in the year and has been a difference maker with six goals, but her youth means relying on her to deliver the goods could be premature.
Sophomore Makenzy Doniak hasn’t quite captured the headlines as much as Brian, but perhaps she should, as she’s just one goal away from twenty on the year, which would be double her output from her rookie season. The lightning bolt forward was deadly as the mail for the first half of the season before being a bit more inconsistent down the stretch. After a hat trick in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, she’s scored just once in the past three games, a trend Steve Swanson will probably hope doesn’t portend bad things this weekend. Gloria Douglas has pace and energy but little end product and hasn’t scored since mid-October. The real secondary threat from the forward position should be Brittany Ratcliffe, who was lights out until about mid-October. Since then, the power’s gone down on Ratcliffe though, as she has just one goal in her past nine games. If UCLA can contain Doniak, they could have an advantage with the other options misfiring. That’s a big if though.
The young duo of Darian Jenkins and Taylor Smith are going to be counted upon to come up big for UCLA, especially considering the likely midfield tussle between these two clubs on Friday night. Oddly enough, the two have endured almost opposite trajectories this season in the attack. Jenkins couldn’t miss earlier this season, scoring eight goals in the club’s first eleven games. She has just three since though and hasn’t scored in the NCAA Tournament, though Friday would be an opportune time to break that duck. Smith started out the season in ice cold fashion, netting just three goals in the club’s first eighteen games. Since, the sophomore has found a rich vein of for, with five goals in the Bruins’ last six, including goals in three of the club’s four NCAA Tournament games. It doesn’t matter which of the two is scoring, as long one or both can make life miserable for UVA on Friday. The best option off the bench is likely Rosie White, though the New Zealand international has hardly inspired much confidence thus far, with just four goals and has fallen down the pecking order significantly.
Swanson’s looking to get a big monkey off his back and do it by painting his masterpiece. In a sense, he’s already done some of the former by getting back to the College Cup after so many implosions through the years, but there’d still undoubtedly be some pangs of disappointment if the Cavs, so dominant for almost all of the season, fell before the final hurdle. Adding a national title to a U20 World Cup title would seal Swanson’s legacy as one of the best coaches at this level of this generation and could perhaps see him move onto the shortlist of contenders for the USWNT job upon its next opening. He doesn’t have College Cup coaching experience, but he does have U20 World Cup experience and should be used to such pressure.
Speaking of potential USWNT head coaches of the future, Amanda Cromwell’s stature would certainly rise into the conversation with a triumph in Cary. Already a coach with a big reputation, winning a national title at the first time of asking with the Bruins would be a big accomplishment. Cromwell’s never faced this amount of pressure as a head coach at the collegiate level though. It’s doubtful that she’ll be overwhelmed, but the big game experience definitely swings Swanson’s way.
There’s not much to separate the sides here. Both looked utterly dominant through three rounds of the NCAA Tournament. Virginia had the better of Michigan after some nervy moments in the first half, while UCLA had a much tougher fight against North Carolina on the road. Both have a history of hard luck in the NCAA Tournament, though UCLA’s College Cup misery is arguably more affecting. Whichever side can impose their will will likely triumph, as Virginia will want to ping it around as per usual, with the Bruins more likely to try and play a disruptive style. UCLA’s likely the better team defensively, but Virginia has a finer cutting edge. When in doubt, go with the club with the best player, in this case Virginia and Brian. But don’t be shocked if this one needs extra time or penalties.
Prediction – Virginia 2 – 1 UCLA