NCAA – Elite Eight Preview – (1) Stanford vs (2) Florida

Projected Starting Lineups

These two teams met in a contentious non-conference match that was decided on a golden goal penalty that was more than a little controversial to some. On the evening, Florida was well behind in most offensive categories but also had a glorious chance to win it in the second half through a Savannah Jordan shot from range that was palmed away brilliantly by Jane Campbell. Form is probably not with the Gators, who struggled in stretches in conference play and blew a two goal lead against Texas Tech last week, while Stanford themselves huffed and puffed a bit against Arkansas and Washington. Ultimately, Florida will have to account for the additions of Taylor Uhl, out of form against them earlier, and Lo’eau Labonta, who played just a quarter of an hour earlier in the season but who also netted the goal and who has become crucial in the midfield for the Card.

Dueling #10s

The heart of this matchup is probably going to be dead center between the two clubs’ central attacking midfielders, arguably the most important player in each’s squad. Lo’eau Labonta has been huge since these clubs first met and has shown an ability to make things happen in midfield and is the very definition of a big game player. The frontline gets more attention, but Labonta’s ability to drive into space in the middle of the park is going to be a key for a Stanford victory. Given Florida’s 4-2-3-1 though, the Card are going to have to get either Alex Doll or Andi Sullivan making forward runs as well to avoid Labonta being double teamed the entire match.

On the opposite side, Havana Solaun figures to be the leading figure for the Gators and may have a more dynamic role for the club. While serving as a #10 at times, Solaun has also played out on the wing for the Gators this season and is a serious danger to cut inside of full-backs towards goal and let fly with a dangerous shot. Neither of the Gators’ other central midfielders are big threats going forward, meaning Solaun’s probably got some heavy lifting to do if the club wants to attack down the middle of the pitch. If Doll and Sullivan sit back, Florida could find themselves in much the same situation as Stanford in trying to free up their #10.

Defending From The Front

Anyone hoping to beat Florida has to minimize the effect of their full-backs, traditionally among the most aggressively attacking duos in the nation. Tessa Andujar may be one of the most underrated wide defenders in the nation, and the battle between her and Chioma Ubogagu down the flank promises to be a spectacular one that could ultimately decide how this one swings. Opposite of them, Taylor Uhl’s defensive workrate will be put to the test against Lauren Silver, who is just as willing to barrel up the line for the Gators in the attack. It will be interesting to watch how much the Stanford front three presses the Florida back four when in possession to see how disruptive the group will be in trying to keep the SEC side from building attacks through their defense. Forcing Taylor Burke to hoof it upfield by giving her no easy out balls with the ball at her feet could be a good strategy. Given how often Florida’s defenders have coughed it up in stretches this year, it could also be a way to generate good scoring chances.

Going the other way, neither Laura Liedle nor Hannah Farr (or Stephanie Amack) are quite as aggressive going forward, though both will also make use of space in front of them if it’s there. Watch for Pamela Begic and Annie Speese to cut inside to try and open up space for the full-backs going forward. Begic’s minutes will be worth watching. She’s not the best defender, and given Chioma Ubogagu’s talent on the flank, Florida may ultimately want to put a more defensive minded winger on that side to try and jam the Stanford senior and keep her as far away from goal as possible.

Wide Forward Threats vs Center Forward Threat

The frontline focus of both of these clubs is likely to be very different on Friday night if they come out as they have in their past few matches in the NCAA Tournament. With Taylor Uhl back on-form and into the starting lineup, The Card have general counted on her and Chioma Ubogagu to supply the offensive width, with Lo’eau Labonta the primary attacking threat down the middle. Megan Turner serves as the target forward up front and is a load to handle for any center-back. Stanford does have the wild card of Ryan Walker-Hartshorn on the bench, a mercurial player who has burned hot and cold this season. If she comes into the team, she should slip out wide with Uhl playing in the center. The Card have options, but given how far the Florida full-backs go up the pitch at times, Stanford may want quick, direct passes out to the flank to try and counter into space.

Florida is probably going to go straight down Broadway towards Solaun and Savannah Jordan. Jordan is going to get swarmed by Maddie Bauer and Kendall Romine but has the power and ability to finish with just one touch that can win matches in the blink of an eye. The Gators getting other attackers up the pitch and into the attack is going to be key though, with the inconsistent Begic and Speese especially key in their support. Solaun is really the player to watch, in that it’ll be interesting to see if she plays the playmaker role or the winger role, cutting inside and making room for the full-backs. If Jordan and Solaun aren’t playing well though, it’s going to be an uphill climb to victory for Florida.

Eyes In Goal

There’s a big gap between the teams in goal, where Jane Campbell is a huge strength for Stanford in between the pipes, while Taylor Burke is the latest in a long line of keepers prone to misadventures for the Gators. Campbell showed her worth in the first meeting between these teams on the save against Savannah Jordan. The Stanford netminder has recovered from an up and down freshman season to rightfully take her spot as one of the nation’s best keepers. Burke is the Gators’ undisputed #1 but has been indecisive at times and gets beaten at the near post far more often then she should. Florida’s going to need a good night from their senior stopper to advance. Even then, Stanford’s Campbell may just be able to rob Florida of glory if at the height of her powers.

Conclusion

I think Florida has more of a chance here than most would give them going into the night. Florida more than had their chances to win the game against the Card in the regular season and will be buzzing for getting a second chance in the NCAA Tournament. Jordan and Solaun can cause the Stanford defense some problems up the middle, while the full-backs are more than good enough to give any team problems. But if the Card’s top three options in the attack, Ubogagu, Uhl, and Labonta, are clicking, they might be able to shred a Florida defense that has shown vulnerabilities this season. That’s hardly a given though, and a bad night in front of goal could doom the Card, though I’m still tipping them to win.

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