Florida State does not have fond memories of Stanford in the College Cup. FSU has played the Card just twice in their history, both times in the NCAA Tournament and were swept aside both times with plaintive ease by the Pac-12 powerhouse. A smattering of players on each side were participants in these clubs’ last meeting in 2011, where Stanford eased past FSU en route to the national title. The Card will be clear underdogs going into Friday though, having shown some real signs of vulnerability on their run to the Final Four. They won a tense shootout with Florida after a 2-2 draw and will be hoping to grind out another win against the ACC double winners on Friday.
The Present and The Future
The matchup that most eyes will be focused upon on Friday in this matchup will be the clash between one of the nation’s best seniors and one of its best freshmen when Dagny Brynjarsdottir goes head-to-head with Andi Sullivan in the middle of the park. Brynjarsdottir has turned into a nigh-unstoppable force as a senior, devastating in the air and almost as proficient with the ball at her feet. Clearly, any gameplan from a team facing FSU has to start with neutralizing the Icelandic midfielder’s impact on the match.
Luckily for Stanford, they’ve got a great countermeasure in rookie Sullivan. Widely considered the top recruit in the country going into this season, Sullivan has more the lived up to the hype as a freshman. The Card have needed a calming presence in midfield for a few seasons now, and Sullivan has done more than enough to raise hopes that she could be one of the best ever to suit up in Palo Alto. Sullivan’s reputation has already been surging after her bravura freshman season, but leading the Card to the national title this weekend would surely set the hype machine on overdrive for the three remaining seasons she has with Stanford.
Sullivan will likely get some help defensively from central midfielder Alex Doll, but the onus is probably going to be on the rookie to be the solution to the problem Brynjarsdottir presents.
Florida State doesn’t have a superstar defensive midfielder like the Card does, but they have two pretty good ones in Isabella Schmid and Michaela Hahn. While the duo keep things cycling through offensively, they also have important defensive duties against clubs with deadly central attacking midfielders. The partnership has excelled as the backline behind them gelled with time and experience together, helping form a near impenetrable defensive shell for the Noles. FSU hasn’t conceded in their last five matches and just once in their last eight matches, and the work of Schmid and Hahn in the middle of the park has been a big reason why.
The duo’s impressive form will have to continue on Friday if FSU are to win, because Stanford’s Lo’eau LaBonta is plenty good enough to make the Noles pay if afforded the opportunity. LaBonta was around for the Card’s national title in 2011, including the dominant win over FSU in the semi-final. From bit part player early in her Stanford career, LaBonta has turned into one of Stanford’s most influential players, especially in big matches. Seven match winning goals speaks volumes, and LaBonta is the club’s leading scorer, though three of her thirteen strikes are from the penalty spot. Sullivan and Doll aren’t totally inert offensively, but given the depth of their defensive duties against Brynjarsdottir, Stanford’s really going to need LaBonta’s best to maintain an offensive spark in midfield against FSU.
While much of the focus will be on the middle of the park, with good reason, there is plenty of intrigue out wide as well. Stanford’s wide forwards are much more direct threats on goal, while Florida State’s two wingers are more likely to provide supporting balls towards the Noles’ two central attackers. The one thing both sides have in common is that they’ll have a whale of a time in minimizing the threat from their opposite numbers’ wide forwards in this one.
Florida State’s Carson Pickett has experienced a major breakthrough as the club’s starting left-winger in 2014. Pickett leads the team with thirteen assists, and has combined with Megan Campbell to fuel an assist machine down the left side of pitch this season. Pickett goes up against Hannah Farr, who unexpectedly displaced Stephanie Amack from the starting lineup and has become a constant at right-back for the Card late in the season. On the opposite flank, Jamia Fields isn’t as big an assist threat but is coming off one of her best games of the season, having scored twice against South Carolina in the Elite Eight. Fields gets the tougher matchup though, going against Laura Liedle, who continues to be a gem for Stanford on the backline. Fields will also have to defend from the front to keep Liedle from charging up field on offense.
Stanford’s wide forwards are the main scoring threat for the club besides LaBonta. Chioma Ubogagu, as ever, has run hot and cold as a senior but has looked like the player most thought she could become as a rookie at times this season. With FSU right-back Emma Koivisto eager to get up the line as much as possible, there figures to be room to operate for the senior, who’ll likely spend as much time cutting in towards goal as getting to the endline in this one. Taylor Uhl matches up with Campbell on the other flank and will be confident of increasing her tally here after scoring the opener against Florida last week. Campbell’s a fine defender, of course, but the FSU full-back will probably draw more attention for her long throws, by now, a well publicized danger.
Uhl will likely move centrally when Ryan Walker-Hartshorn comes into the game to play on the wing. The sophomore’s an explosive presence off the bench but is devilishly inconsistent.
Different Threats Up Top
Perhaps the most interesting tactical touch in this one is the contrasting set of center forwards on display. Stanford’s Megan Turner is almost purely a facilitator for her offensive teammates. Turner has started eighteen matches this season but has just twelve shots and two goals this year. As a target forward up front, Turner’s helped the offense tick, but there has to be some worry that she could be defended 1v1 by one of FSU’s center-backs, causing constant 2v1s against Stanford’s much more dangerous wide forwards. In that respect, it will be interesting to see how long Stanford sticks with Turner if she’s marked out of the match, with Walker-Hartshorn an appealing option off the bench.
It’s an entirely different story with Florida State and Cheyna Williams. Williams took a little time to warm up after joining FSU this season but has rounded into the field stretching weapon they thought she’d be after her transfer from Vanderbilt. She also scored twice against South Carolina, and keeping her hot run of form going could lead FSU to glory this weekend. Berglind Thorvaldsdottir spells Williams and has scored twelve goals on forty-four shots from the bench for most of the year. Stanford’s center-back duo of Maddie Bauer and Kendall Romine are going to have to be lights out to keep the Noles in check, but if they are, FSU may struggle to get goals from out wide.
Strength in Depth
Barring an unexpected blowout, neither of these clubs figures to dip too deeply into their bench. The only sure things for Stanford seem to be Walker-Hartshorn as a frontline sub and Stephanie Amack as an option in defense or in midfield. Amack is a hell of an option to be able to bring off the bench and could be key to keeping the defense on song if this one turns into a trench war. As mentioned above, Walker-Hartshorn figures to see plenty of time on the frontline depending on how attacking the Card went to get. If they’re chasing the game, you can bet she’ll be on the pitch for the Pac-12 side.
For Florida State, Marta Bakowska-Mathews and Berglind Thorvaldsdottir are top options off the bench and are explosive ones, having combined for twenty-one goals and ten assists. It’s clear that there’s not going to be a respite just because the starters come off for FSU, and they’re depth on offense might be their ace in the hole as they seek their elusive first national title. Hikaru Murakami is the other likely bench option, coming on for Isabella Schmid as one of the deeper central midfielders. The Noles have the best bench at the College Cup and will probably make great use of it this weekend in their pursuit of glory.
There’s seemingly been a sense that this is going to be a walkover for Florida State after they dismantled South Carolina in the Elite Eight, while Stanford’s grinded their way to this point. I’m not particularly in agreement. The Card have only been felled once this season, by UCLA, and they were leading that one late down the stretch before breaking down. They may have only gotten to this point on penalties against Florida, but there’s something to be said for being able to get by with one-goal wins and comebacks at this point.
Granted, I still think they’re underdogs. Florida State have been a machine in the NCAA Tournament, and there’s every chance that Brynjarsdottir will keep forging a glorious legacy on Friday by cutting the Card down. But anyone counting the Pac-12 side out is a fool. They’re very live underdogs, and it’d hardly be a shock to see them still playing on Sunday.