NCAA – Elite Eight Preview – (1) Texas A&M vs (2) Penn State

Projected Starting Lineups

Texas A&M gets another chance to end the hurt and finally get to the College Cup after falling at this stage many a time in the past few decades. Standing across from them is a Penn State side aiming to return to the College Cup after getting to the final in 2012. They’ll also be trying to salvage a little pride for the Big Ten, who hardly set this competition alight this year. PSU will be walking into a cauldron of emotion, but they still have more than one campaigner who knows how to get beyond this stage.

Slowing Down Texas A&M’s Twin Lances in Midfield

Part of what has made Texas A&M so deadly in attack has been the ability of attacking midfielders Shea Groom and Kelley Monogue to pierce the heart of opposing defenses with their marauding runs forward. At their best, they’re damn near unstoppable running forward in tandem and combining with the front three. Penn State is going to have to keep that duo as far away from goal as humanly possible. PSU’s operated with a pretty fluid triangle in midfield thus far this season, and the trio of Raquel Rodriguez, Salina Williford, and Emily Ogle are going to have to defend as a unit if they don’t want to see the A&M duo breaking past them with regularity on Saturday night.

Containing Rodriguez

As important as Texas A&M’s attacking midfield twosome is to their offense, there are few more important to their team than Penn State’s Raquel Rodriguez. Anyone needing evidence of that need only look at PSU’s performances without her in the lineup when Rodriguez was with Costa Rica on international duty. Rodriguez functions as the all-action heartbeat of the Nittany Lions, and if Texas A&M can put the brakes on her, they stand a good chance of winning on Saturday. It’s a task easier said than done though, and Rodriguez’s positioning will certainly be worth watching. The deeper she drops, the more interesting it’ll be to see who, if anyone, drops in with her for Texas A&M. The Aggies also know that if Groom and Monogue get sucked too far up the field in the attack, Penn State could counter at pace through the middle with Rodriguez leading the charge.

Dueling Frontlines

The star power for each of these sides is pretty much in the midfield, with Groom and Monogue for A&M and Rodriguez for Penn State, but there’s still plenty to talk about on the frontline. The Aggies probably have the better options up front. Annie Kunz has been a mercurial talent for the SEC side but can be an absolute handful up top given her size. Penn State’s center-backs are 5’5″ and 5’6″, meaning they may have some serious issues in corralling Kunz, though they’re probably used to rough and tumble forwards from life in the Big Ten. Allie Bailey on the left may use her experience to beguile Maddie Elliston on one flank, while the whippet quick Bianca Brinson’s showdown with Kori Chapic on the opposite flank may be the game’s secretly important 1v1 matchup.

For Penn State, experienced wingers flank a raw center forward option in the form of Frannie Crouse. Replacing Maya Hayes has been a thankless task, but Crouse has done well as a rookie with ten goals to lead the team in goals, including five in league play. Emily Hurd’s less a direct threat on goal on the left flank and more of a provider and may be more interested in stopping Karlie Mueller’s forays forward up the wing. Mallory Weber might be PSU’s ace in the hole, a player with game breaking talent, but one who doesn’t flash that talent consistently. If she can deliver a big game, PSU might just have a chance to pull off the upset.

The Pressure of the Moment

On paper, Texas A&M has more talent than the Big Ten champs, though the gap isn’t exactly a huge one. But the Aggies also have a metric ton of pressure on their shoulders going into this one. This match has been, correctly, touted as the biggest in the history of the Aggie program, one which could finally see them through to the College Cup at long last after so many seasons of getting to this point and falling short. With Groom, Monogue, Meghan Streight, and Jordan Day among others graduating after this season, the College Station faithful know that the window to the College Cup shuts for a few years in all likelihood after this year. While nobody’s going to claim that the season was a disappointment if A&M can’t seal the deal on Saturday night, it’ll definitely be a case of opportunity lost given the talent assembled and home advantage. For G Guerrieri, it’s a shining chance to silence the critics who have claimed he can’t win the big one. But only if he and his Aggies don’t bow to the pressure on Saturday night.

Conclusion

There’s no time like the present for Texas A&M, who would win this match almost all of the time if it were played on paper. Outside of Rodriguez and Weber, PSU doesn’t have the offensive star power in terms of talent or experience to run with the Aggies. But this step is always the hardest. Clubs like Oklahoma State and Michigan to just name a few have been able to get this far and no further despite possessing a ton of top line talent but not enough to push them to the final weekend. You suspect A&M has enough to avoid a similar fate, but Penn State is more than a live underdog and could pull off a shock if the home side come out flat.

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