Goliath meets Goliath on Friday night in Westwood as UCLA hosts Virginia in a rematch of last season’s classic College Cup semi-final match. The Bruins have gone from strength to strength since that shootout win and are favorites again to left the national title. UCLA stormed through the first two rounds of the tournament before leaving it very late against Pepperdine. There was no such drama for their opponents, as they destroyed Kentucky, 7-0, in the Sweet Sixteen after easy wins over Rutgers and High Point. While UCLA returns pretty much intact from last season’s encounter, Virginia has changed in some pretty important ways.
Morgan Brian, Sam Mewis, and Sarah Killion among others will naturally get more attention, but it’s ultimately going to be Danielle Colaprico and what role she plays that could have the most impact on Friday night’s match. Colaprico is as versatile as they come at this level and has played in all four midfield spots this year for the Cavs while also having played as a winger in a 4-3-3 in previous years. She started as the club’s deepest midfielder against Kentucky, though UVA didn’t take too long to bring in Campbell Millar to prompt a shift back to the usual setup with Colaprico out wide.
The big question though is where Colaprico’s going to play on Friday, with each possibility bringing advantages and disadvantages. The senior’s not the best defender nor the biggest player, but her technical skill could be invaluable as the club seeks to keep possession in midfield, very likely being 2v3 if it stays with a 4-4-2 diamond that isn’t pinched in. If Colaprico plays out wide, Millar likely gets the role of tracking Sam Mewis. It’s a pretty big mismatch, and UVA may not want to risk Sarah Killion coming forward to overload the zone and overwhelm Millar in the process.
Using Colaprico out wide would help defend against the inevitable forward runs coming from the UCLA full-backs, as well as allow for counters up the pitch. Colaprico’s probably at her best on the wing and looks a better option on paper than Brittany Ratcliffe, who started on the right wing against Kentucky but still very much looks like a center forward playing on the wing. Alexis Shaffer’s a more natural wide option if the club does keep Colaprico deep. Which side Colaprico plays on if she goes wide is also worth watching, as Kaili Torres can play either side of the flank as well.
In short, Colaprico should have a big impact wherever she plays, but Steve Swanson has to judge where that impact is going to come best in handy.
The Middle Ground
4-4-2 vs 4-3-3 usually doesn’t end well for the former if all things are equal, with the latter having a 3v2 numerical edge dead center in the middle of the park. All things aren’t equal at the college level though, and Virginia’s been able to persevere in large part due to the talent of Morgan Brian at the tip of the midfield diamond and with Danielle Colaprico plugging holes where she’s needed most throughout the season. But the Cavs’ usual technical skill edge probably isn’t going to apply here, with two of the nation’s best midfielders opposite of them, along with the promising talents of Annie Alvarado. Again, Colaprico’s role is going to be key. If she’s used out wide, Campbell Millar will probably try to hit her and Kaili Torres with quick balls to the flank to try and exploit the gap between UCLA’s wingers and full-backs. If Colaprico is the deepest midfielder, she’ll probably try to get through UCLA’s midfield triangle as quickly as possible to get the ball to Morgan Brian’s feet, which sounds a hell of a lot easier in concept than in reality.
For their part, UCLA’s midfield triangle has dominated almost every foe they’ve come across. Sarah Killion’s been more offensive than ever in the midfield this year, while Sam Mewis has been playing closer to goal, with the Bruins reaping the benefits. But I expect Killion to sink deeper into midfield on Friday to help Alvarado double Brian and trust that Mewis can do a defensive job on either Colaprico or Millar, 1v1. When in possession, I think Killion will try to break forward rapidly to exploit the space between Brian and Virginia’s deepest midfielder. 3v2 here for Virginia is bad news, so I’d be shocked if Torres and whoever else plays on the wing doesn’t try to pinch in if the ball isn’t on their flank to try and slow the UCLA midfield down. There’s a whole lot of star power here, but Virginia’s probably going to be the more reactive of the teams. If the Bruins can dominate this zone of the pitch though, it’s going to be a bad night for UVA considering their deficiencies out wide.
UCLA’s Dominance on The Flanks
The biggest difference between last year’s Virginia side and this year’s Cavs team may be on the flanks, or specifically at full-back. Molly Menchel and Morgan Stith helped UVA dominate opposing teams by creating overloads deep on the flanks and allowing the ACC side to maintain possession in the final third for an inordinate amount of time, usually leading to scoring opportunities. This year, the Cavs have the rather unflashy duo of Megan Reid and Tina Iordanou, neither of whom are anywhere near as proficient in getting up and down the line. Instead of attacking, the full-backs may be more concerned with cutting out service to the Bruins’ wide forwards in this one.
It’s a much different case for the home side, who pack the best one-two full-back punch in the nation with Caprice Dydasco and Ally Courtnall. The pair will fly forward into the attack with no hesitation and are going to force Virginia’s wide midfielders to stay disciplined and not get sucked up too high on the pitch, leaving their full-backs dealing with a 2v1 situation in their own half. With two center forwards fighting two center-backs though, UCLA will probably only want to send one of their full-backs at a time to keep the spare man at the back.
This is a major zone of worry for the Cavs. If UCLA is allowed to stretch the game and make best use of their full-backs, Virginia is probably going to be dealt a decisive defeat.
Stay The Course or Roll The Dice?
After playing 4-3-3 last season, Virginia’s played 4-4-2 this season, likely to take best advantage of Morgan Brian in a true #10 role to feed two center forwards in front of her. But 4-4-2’s struggle against 4-3-3’s with talent at UCLA’s level. How Virginia is going to win and keep the ball with a numerical disadvantage against the Bruins’ trio is a big, big concern, even if talents the likes of Brian and Colaprico are that “2”.
Which brings up the wild card in Steve Swanson’s pocket. What if UVA makes a bold switch back to 4-3-3 against the Bruins? A look with McKenzie Doniak, Danielle Colaprico, and Brittany Ratcliffe up top with Morgan Brian, Kaili Torres, and Campbell Millar might be suicidal defensively, but it also may well provide just enough of an offensive punch to allow UVA to hit UCLA hard early and be able to go more defensive to guard a lead. 3v3 in midfield certainly sounds a lot more palatable than putting much of that burden on Brian’s shoulders, but who knows how much Virginia has practiced the 4-3-3, if at all this season. It would also put enormous pressure on the wide forwards to defend and pin back UCLA’s full-backs.
It’s almost a case of pick your poison. If Swanson picks right though, he may be able to engineer an upset.
The only team Virginia has lost to this season, Florida State has a few prominent features: big, athletic attacking midfielder; composed center midfielders behind that player; and talented attacking full-backs. The bad news is that UCLA also fits that mold with a better central midfield pair and better full-backs than Florida State. The Cavs are significantly weaker down the flanks this season, and there is the real possibility that the Bruins could gash them out wide if Virginia’s outside midfielders don’t defend excellently. Add in worries about UCLA’s numerical superiority in midfield if Virginia goes 4-4-2, and you wonder how the Cavs win this game.
Well, having Brian helps. And so does having the likes of Colaprico and Doniak in attack and Sonnett in defense. But while UVA can compete with UCLA 1-5, the Bruins have a significant advantage 6-11 and on the bench. The Bruins match up really well with Virginia and have the tools to exploit the Cavs’ weaknesses. For all the hype this match is receiving, I’m expecting a confident win from the Bruins.