Pittsburgh came to Klockner Stadium with a 6 – 0 record and riding their best start ever, along with a program high #14 ranking. Esteemed coach Randy Waldrum, who won a pair of national titles with Notre Dame, had the women clicking, but how would the Panthers fare in the first test of the pandemic season?
Not well. It turns out playing both Appalachian State and The Citadel twice is as fluffy an out-of-conference slate as those John Thompson used to schedule for Georgetown. It wasn’t enough to prepare them for Virginia, but Waldrum is still in the baby-steps phase for his program. Virginia outshot Pitt 30 – 4 and had a 13 – 1 advantage in corner kicks. As the halftime stats were flashed on the scoreboard, Pitt was listed as having had two, and I remember thinking: 2? That many?
The word has gotten out on freshman Lia Godfrey and every time she got the ball in midfield, Pitt’s midfield immediately dropped back, ceding acres of space and making her look like the second coming of Leo Messi. It rained heavily most of the night, and Virginia, a quick, skilled passing team, struggled at times to play as quickly as they would have preferred, but they still kept the Panthers on their back heel for most of the half.
Virginia broke through in the 17th minute as defender Sarah Clark (more on her later) delivered a perfect cross to the edge of the 6 yard box that Diana Ordonez struck first time from point-blank range for a beautiful striker’s goal. The remainder of the first half went according to plan. Head coach Steve Swanson was able to bring in Anna Sumpter for the first time in two games, and she would end up staying on for the remainder of the game, logging over 70 minutes in her return. (Sumpter appears to be just as cagey as her coach when talking about her injury. I asked her via Facebook at the team’s virtual Meet-the-Team event about her return, and she said she hoped she’d be able to gradually work into the team throughout the weekend’s two games. And here she is playing 71 minutes!) Thinking the game was firmly in control, Swanson used the end of the half to blood Kira McGuire, Sarah Brunner, Jansen Eichenlaub, and Lauren Hinton, the last two getting their first ever minutes on the pitch for UVa.
The second half did not go according to plan, because the games actually have to be played after all. Virginia was playing without Talia Staude, whom I can only surmise picked up a knock sometime in the Virginia Tech game. The injuries through five games are extreme. Taryn Torres has not played at all; Anna Sumpter missed two games, Samar Guidry missed her second game (though she was not wearing a boot, so that is progress), Alexa Spaanstra is out, Cam Lexow didn’t play after hobbling off the field versus Tech, and Ashlynn Serepca, usually the first forward off the bench, didn’t play either.
Playing without Staude, the backline was a little shaky when trying to play out of the back. Lizzie Sieracki deputised for Staude in the center of defense (she’s usually a left back) and freshman Laney Rouse lined up left in place of Guidry. What success Pitt had offensively usually started with heavy pressure on the back four, and just 5 minutes into the half, Rouse lost possession of the ball and Sieracki tripped a Panther inside the penalty box for a Pitt freekick. It was a soft foul, but the ref got the call right. Amanda West, who had already converted two PKs on the season collected her third as she easily beat keeper Laurel Ivory. And just like that, we had a ball game.
Virginia roared back — we were the better team on the night — and 10 minutes later, Virginia was awarded a PK. Funny thing about a tiny, pandemic-restricted crowd; in some ways the crowd can play a larger role in creating the home field advantage. 5 guys on the bank side had really gone to work on the ref since the handball, and since there was no other noise to drown these five fans out, the ref heard every complaint. The handball was very obvious, but the ref was particularly quick on the call and moving to the spot. Ordonez stepped up to the spot and forgot the most basic rule of taking penalties: strike the ball well and don’t worry about the keeper. The goal is 8 feet high and 8 yards wide. It’s huge. Instead, on her run up, Orodonez shimmied her hips as she danced up to the ball — ostensibly to confuse the keeper as to her intentions — but she didn’t get set and she skied the ball wide right. She botched the kick on both axes.
The game was still tied, but the worst was yet to come for Virginia. Ten minutes later, midfielder Sydney Zandi fell in a heap, in what I can only call a wet-field slip. She was in extreme pain and it was only after several minutes that she was carried off the field. Zandi had upped her game the past week, staying at home when she was the base of the midfield and attacking creatively when she slotted out wide. I would suspect it will be a while before we see Zandi again.
Virginia would keep pressing, and the women controlled the closing minutes of the game. With seven minutes left in the game, Swanson pulled a defender to add a fourth forward. This is the gamble of going for the win. The Pitt defense held up well and they must have recorded a dozen blocks on the night. When a team logs that many blocks, it indicates one of two things. First, that the defense hasn’t given up, so full marks to Pitt. But secondly, it can signify that attacking players get locked into getting to a space where they want to shoot and that that space isn’t there any more. It’s a lack of recognition. If Pitt had a dozen blocks, well over half of them were outside the box and it speaks to a lack of creativity for Virginia.
The game went into overtime and the Cavs came out on fire. In the 2.5 minutes of OT, the Panthers completed just three total passes. Virginia won the game when Clark — her again — picked out Ordonez at the back of the goal. Ordonez headed the ball back toward the center where Emma Dawson was waiting, and she looped her header into the top right of the goal. 2 – 1 Virginia, both courtesy of perfect crosses from Sarah Clark. It took Clark a couple of games to figure out how to integrate herself into the offensive flow, but she has done so well these past two games, albeit against weaker teams. I think that facing upgraded competition won’t hinder Clark maybe as much as others because she is setting up to cross the ball from what I call the David Beckham sweet spot: right channel, maybe 30 yards from the end line. Typically this is a soft space against any zonal defense precisely because it takes a perfect cross to be a danger from there. Well, Clark showed she is capable of delivering that cross and Swanson may have found his answer to the departure of Courtney Petersen. Clark is a converted midfielder after all. And her on-ball defense has been superb. Clark is going to go down as one of Swanson’s best transfer pickups. It’s been a lot of fun to watch her development just over the past four games.
With Torres still out and Sumpter missing two games, Swanson’s personnel in midfield have shifted more than normal, and with the loss of Spaanstra, Jarret has played more left wing than she did all of last season. I think this is a good thing and I would hope it could continue more in the future. Look at this through ball from Lizzie Sieracki as the game was winding down:
Jarrett NEEDS to see more balls like this and she rarely gets them on the right. If Jarrett is on the left, and the ball comes from a right footed player, the ball is more likely to slice (to borrow a golfing analogy) into Jarrett’s path. The same ball played from a right footer to Jarrett on the right is more likely to tail away. This allows Jarrett to run onto the ball, where her oh-so-dangerous speed is better utilized. And she can have her head up. I have had the niggling suspicion that we’re not getting the best of Rebecca Jarrett. Plus, if she chooses to turn the ball in, which she is doing far more this season, a la Leo Messi or Arjen Robben, the ball will be on her right foot.
And while I am being prescriptive, I would hope that Swanson would find someone else to take scoring-chance free kicks. Ordonez has taken maybe 10 such chances in her UVa career. Her first two or three sailed into the backstop netting and she’s over-compensated since by driving her last 5 or 6 right into the wall. This team is struggling to score goals — just 7 in five games — and we need a better alternative than just hitting the ball into the wall.
And lastly I would hope that we see more, much more, of Kira McGuire. To be frank, she showed as much off-the-ball movement in 35 minutes as Orodonez did in 80. I think Swanson was aware of her performance because she was that fourth attacker for the games last 11 minutes. McGuire red-shirted last season, but on this day, she looked like she belonged.
Virginia’s next game is Sunday as the Cavs host a poor Miami team. Gametime is 3pm.