The lone remaining team out of the top two seeds to qualify for the Elite Eight, South Carolina will try to make history as they aim for the program’s first College Cup appearance. Opponents Florida State are Elite Eight regulars and have mostly breezed through the opening rounds and haven’t conceded in their first three NCAA Tournament matches.
4-2-3-1 vs 4-2-3-1
As you might expect from two sides that have conceded one combined goal in the NCAA Tournament thus far, both clubs like to keep it tight at the back with just one true forward operating in front of five midfielders. 4-2-3-1 vs 4-2-3-1 doesn’t really translate into great entertainment much of the time, with each #10 facing off against two midfield counterparts, each center forward being flanked by center-backs, and 1v1 matchups on the flanks.
Away, and as underdogs, South Carolina figures to be the far more conservative of the two sides, and it’d be a surprise to see either Christa Neary or Caroline Gray roam forward too much. Organization and discipline in keeping shape are going to be key, as it’s highly likely that Megan Campbell and Emma Koivisto are going to be blasting forward to try and create overloads down the flank. South Carolina are going to have to try and defend from the front as well, with Sophie Groff and Raina Johnson jamming the full-backs to prevent runs forward.
Crider In Goal
South Carolina took what most probably felt was a fatal blow after the shootout win over Clemson when Sabrina D’Angelo suffered an arm injury that will likely rule her out for the rest of the NCAA Tournament. Enter freshman Abbey Crider, an understudy who had barely played as a rookie, with D’Angelo, unsurprisingly dominating the minutes in goal. Suddenly thrust into action, Crider was solid against Seattle and made some big stops in the shootout against the Redhawks, while she was mostly faultless against North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen.
Florida State’s another kettle of fish entirely though. The biggest concern may be how Crider organizes the defense in front of her, especially given the threat of long throws from Megan Campbell. Campbell’s throws are designed to create chaos in the box, and if Crider hesitates in directing traffic or in coming off her line to claim or punch what she can, it could spell disaster. Replacing D’Angelo’s shot stopping helps, but it’s going to be Crider’s ability to do the other little things in goal that will likely determine how much of a chance SC has on Friday.
The biggest obstacle facing South Carolina on Friday afternoon is putting the clamps on Dagny Brynjarsdottir. The Icelandic midfielder is likely to be a Hermann Trophy finalist given her tremendous senior season and has a great chance of bringing home the crystal ball if FSU wins the national title. Despite playing as a #10, Brynjarsdottir is more of a second striker type of player, and her proficiency in the air will make her a tempting target for crosses from Carson Pickett and Jamia Fields on the flank or either of FSU’s full-backs for that matter. Instead of one of the center-backs stepping up to confront Brynjarsdottir, SC will probably want Lindsey Lane and Stevi Parker to track back to keep Cheyna Williams from having a 1v1 against a single center-back. But Lane and Parker are both severely undersized at 5’3″ and 5’2″ respectively and will probably struggle with the physicality of Brynjarsdottir. Additionally, if they drop too much, SC could be at risk of turning into a broken team, with little connecting defense and attack.
South Carolina Attacking Down The Flanks
How exactly SC is going to generate offense against Florida State is the pressing question. Savannah McCaskill has enjoyed a quality rookie season but is not a huge goalscoring threat on her own leading the line and does her best work in getting others involved in the attack. With Chelsea Drennan likely to get a large dose of Isabella Schmid and Michaela Hahn in the center of the park, it’s likely going to come down to the wingers to provide the impetus in attack for Carolina. Given Megan Campbell and Emma Koivisto’s proclivity to get forward and overload the flank in the opposing third of the pitch, the surest route to dangerous chances for SC may be quick, direct balls out to the flank to try and catch the full-backs out. The problem is neither Sophie Groff nor Raina Johnson are the most consistent operators, with the latter probably providing more of a reliable threat in front of goal.
To put it bluntly, there’s not much of it for the Gamecocks. In their three matches thus far in the NCAA Tournament, the reserves have combined for one shot on goal, combined. That stands in stark contrast to Florida State, who won’t go too deeply into their bench but who have two of the best weapons remaining in the NCAA Tournament in reserve. Cheyna Williams is usually spelled by Icelandic forward Berglind Thorvaldsdottir, who has scored eleven goals this season despite starting just two games for the club. Out wide, Carson Pickett usually makes way for Marta Bakowska-Mathews. The Brit is exceedingly dangerous on set pieces and has exploded for nine goals and six assists this season. The extra options in attack could mean all the difference in the end for FSU on Friday.
South Carolina doesn’t seem to have too many paths to victory in this one. Abbey Crider’s played well in lieu of D’Angelo in goal, but the quality of opposition and level of threat faced takes a massive step up against FSU and Campbell’s long throws, which cause havoc for even the most experienced goalkeepers. How exactly SC plans on defending juggernaut Brynjarsdottir with 5’2″ and 5’3″ midfielders isn’t exactly clear either. The defense getting Taylor Leach back certainly helps, but can anybody see the Gamecocks winning by any other margin than 1-0 or in a shootout? If they go behind, they’re probably sunk, given the anemic offense and lack of depth in attack. South Carolina’s probably too good defensively to get shown up, but it’s difficult envision anyone keeping FSU off the board for ninety minutes. Ultimately, I think Florida State will punch their College Cup ticket in relatively comfortable fashion.