Here’s a stat I wish I could unsee: Virginia boasts a winning record against every team in the ACC. Except UNC. The record: 4 – 37 – 4. Ouch.
We feature a senior-laden team and thanks to asymmetric scheduling, we avoid UNC. Could this be Virginia’s year?
Any discussion of the year the women will have begins, as it does with all college programs, with the coach, Steve Swanson, who is entering his 20th year on Grounds. Swanson had to have had one of the best summers of any American, as he was, once again, an assistant coach for the Women’s World Cup champions. He has over 400 career Division I wins, one of only 11 coaches to do so; 28 consecutive winning seasons, and the longest active streak of reaching the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament.
Swanson’s teams control the ball and build deliberately from the back, and feature players who could play multiple positions. So while it is not Dutch Total Football, Swanson’s players are technically and tactically flexible. And Swanson utilizes a very deep bench, playing 18-19 players regularly. We open the season playing 7 games in 28 days and close out the regular season playing 6 games in 24 days. This is waaaay too much, but Swanson teams regularly have fewer games lost to injury because of his rotations.
If I’d had one criticism of the team in recent years, it would be that Swanson does not seem to value speed. While there is only one player that I would describe as slow-ish, it is equally true that only 2nd year striker Becca Jarrett possesses jets. Maybe that is changing. Of the eight incoming freshmen, five ran track or cross-country in high school. We don’t utilize a system that fully utilizes Jarrett’s speed; perhaps having a bit more team speed will allow her to take flight.
The team is built around senior defender Phoebe McClernon, one of the very best defenders in the entire country. Last year a game announcer mentioned that Coach Swanson said that McClernon “solves the puzzle of pressure” and this may be the most apt compliment I’ve ever heard a coach pay his player. In the modern game, possession is Priority One and the ability to turn away from pressure, into space, is the bedrock skill. McClernon sees pressure on the pitch better than I can see it from the stands.
McClernon’s partner in the center of defense is senior Zoe Morse, a converted midfielder and possibly the most vocal player on the pitch. If I had to take a guess, I would say that Morse is the team captain.
Our left back is senior Courtney Petersen, who is, after McClernon, our best player on the pitch. In the modern game, width is provided by the outside defenders and Petersen possesses probably the best crossing ability in the ACC. Last year, before Petersen got injured, we were a left-dominant team, largely because of Petersen’s presence and she worked intuitively with Taryn Torres. The other reason we were left-dominant was because McClernon lines up to the left of Morse and she is usually keeper Ivory’s first target for distribution. Start the ball on the left with your two best players and it’s no wonder why we built from the left.
When Petersen went down, junior Lizzy Sieracki ably deputized in her place. While she couldn’t replace Petersen, because, who can, she does bring her own skill set: she is relatively strong in the air (and may be our strongest aerial defender now that Brianna Westrup has graduated) and she’s got a long throw in. The hole in our back line is on the right, where Westrup and Hana Kerner (also graduated) manned the position. I’ve tried to figure out who played right back during spring games and in our two exhibition games, being told in essence, to wait until the season begins. So I will guess that Sieracki begins the year as the primary right back, a position she played a couple of times when it seemed that Westrup entered Coach Swanson’s dog house.
Filling in for either Petersen or Sieracki, or both, will be sophomore Claire Constant, who is a better ball winner than either Petersen or Sieracki. According to Coach Swanson, Constant did feature at center mid in the spring session, and she did play there some in her first dozen games last season. Constant plays a true, 4-4-2 style, defensive mid, so she will change the shape of the team if she gets a run in the center. This would be one heck of a rotation.
I am going to presume that junior Taryn Torres will be the first choice at center mid. Torres is a gifted player who reads the game well, and as someone who started out on the left wing, she is a willing and able defender. Her work rate is top notch.
Last year’s starter, Montana Sutton, displayed wonderful lateral movement and was a great shield for Morse and McClernon in the center. Torres may not be as good at this as Sutton, but she’s a far better offensive threat, having made the All Freshman team as a striker.
On the right side will be junior midfielder Sidney Zandi. Zandi is a runner and she may possess the greatest stamina on the team. As I said, we’re not Clockwork Orange, but Zandi’s finest moments last year came when she had overloaded to the left side. Zandi also featured in the two best designed free-kicks we had last year.
The left midfield position is up for grabs if Torres moves into the center. Junior Alyssa Gorzak, who featured primarily on the left wing, or Anna Sumpter, who was Zandi’s rotation-mate last season, may be the answer. Gorzak is a particularly interesting option. As a freshman she was 3rd team All ACC and and an All Freshman selection, but then was lost for most of the season her second year due to injury. She showed some flashes last year, but not at the level she produced her freshman year. Maybe it takes that long to shake off the rust. Sumpter possesses the nicest turn on the ball of any Wahoo and she has a nose for goal, being more direct than most of her midfield mates.
Up top, the trio seems set. Sophomore Alexa Spaanstra is the real deal as she can play any of the forward positions. She was the leading scorer on the team and she was a consistent threat all season. She scored a pair of game winners and assisted on four others, so she also can capture the moment. Once McClernon leaves, this will be Spaanstra’s team.
Joining her at center forward is senior Megan McCool who I initially described, somewhat dismissively, as a runner. She is that, and she is the spearhead of the defense on the forward line. While UVa may not orchestrate a German gegenpress, we do defend up top immediately, and with complete buy-in from all the players. McCool was just starting for the first time last year so it may have taken a while for McCool to find her niche, but she does score striker’s goals and has a very quick first shot. Remember, it almost always better to shoot quickly.
Rounding out the forward line is sophomore Becca Jarrett, the fastest player on the team. Jarrett reads the game well. (Note how many players I’ve said that about.) I think she’s going to be better suited to replacing McCool at center forward next year as she’s just not a winger. Even now though, with McCool and Spaanstra having been our most prolific scorers last year, I imagine that the player opposing defenses are going to find first will be Jarrett.
Manning the goal is junior Laurel Ivory who has started every game in her UVa career and may be UVa’s most experienced international player as she has starred on the women’s national U17, U20 and U23 teams. She clearly has the respect of her teammates and her coach, and the ability to inspire confidence is THE intangible for a keeper. But I’m not sold on her as an elite keeper. She is poor at punching the ball and she doesn’t command the middle on crosses and corners. If we had a true weakness last season, it was on corners, and we lost a pair of games – to Virginia Tech and to Clemson, two teams we were clearly better than – on corners that Ivory should have been able to clear. To make it worse, just two games after the Clemson loss, we thrashed Wake Forest 5 – 1, but their goal, as you might have guessed, was off a corner. I missed the game and there are no highlights, so the Wake goal could very easily not have been Ivory’s fault, but it was a problem last year and we have lost our strongest aerial player in Westrup.
So as I was wrapping this preview up, I noticed that Virginia now lists Courtney Petersen as a midfielder. Which is as good a segue to freshman Talia Staude as I could hope. She is the most lauded of Virginia’s incoming freshman and she is a defender, which is important because we lose Morse, McClernon and Petersen after this season. She is also a 5-star player. If it seems like there is an almost unending supply of 5 star players in prep hoops, it is because there are several basketball sources handing out stars, while in soccer, the only source that matters is TopDrawer. They typically only hand out 6 or 7 5-star ratings per year, and Staude is one of them. Swanson will start freshmen and if Staude can handle the left back duties to the level that Swanson requires, unleashing Petersen as a midfielder could be terrifying for opposing defenses. The other freshman who might be best positioned to succeed is 4-star forward Diana Ordonez who is listed at 5’ 11”. A little bit of height could be a good thing.
A couple of housecleaning notes: This is, as many are aware, the first year of the ESPN ACC Network. Virginia has five games on the network this year, and the roll out of the network will suck for thousands of ACC fans. There are very limited cable and streaming options for the ACC Network. I watched UVa games last year via Sling, but for now they are not carrying ACCN. I recommend Hulu. In addition to the five ACCN games, UVa does have 11 games carried on the ESPN digital streaming ACCNX (the X standing for Extra). This is a little simpler. If you have any access to you ESPN you can watch the games using the ESPN Watch app on your mobile device or by clicking Watch on the ESPN menu bar.
There have been a couple of number changes: Spaanstra has taken Westrup’s #7 and Zandi has taken Betsy Brandon’s #2.
In conclusion, UVa is a strong team that is tactically astute and technically proficient. We’re going to win a lot of games this year and Hoos Place will be here for the entire season. I hope you’ll join me as we enjoy the ride. Wahoowa!