Editor's Note: HOOS Place is excited to welcome Valentine to the writing team. Valentine is a passionate and deeply knowledgeable promoter of women's soccer, as well as other interests, and has agreed to bring those talents to HOOS Place. This post sets the stage for what will be continuing coverage of the UVA Women's Soccer program. HOOS Place is proud to enter the field of women's sports, and this is just the beginning. Please welcome Valentine and enjoy this first of many thoughtful posts by our newest writer.
If the ACC is the best men’s basketball conference in the NCAA, the case can also be made that the ACC has long been the best soccer conference for both the men and the women. On the men’s side, the ACC has claimed 18 national titles while the PAC 10 has won 7. Seven different schools have contributed to the ACC’s 18 titles, which speaks to the conference’s overall strength. Two early national powers, St Louis and San Francisco (yes, the same San Francisco that Bill Russell powered to a pair of national basketball championships) have long since faded into obscurity. Indiana has a remarkable history, but long has been the one-trick pony of an otherwise weak B1G Ten.
On the women’s side, the ACC has been the most dominant conference, largely on the strength of Coach Anson Dorrance’s UNC program. Dorrance is arguably the greatest coach in NCAA history, having won 22 (!) women’s NCAA titles. Currently, six ACC teams are in the Top 25.
Virginia’s women have been strong through the years and have made the NCAA tournament every year since 1993 – 25 years and counting – which is the second longest streak in the country. Since the 2011 season, UVa has scored more goals than any team in the country, though Stanford, currently in third place, has a trio of young forwards who must surely give PAC 10 defenders nightmares. When the Women's national team seeks to defend their World Cup championship next summer in France, two Virginia players will feature prominently for the US: midfielder Morgan Brian and longtime defensive stalwart Becky Sauerbrunn.
The current iteration of the team is quite strong: we only lost two starters last year and we’re looking at only losing a pair of starters this year. This year’s freshman class was the #4 ranked class in the country as Coach Swanson nabbed the 7th, 10th, 23rd and 37th ranked players in country. Our four best players thus far this season should all be back for the 2019 season.
The team is coached by Steve Swanson, now in his 19th season at UVa. Swanson is a skilled coach who is the only coach in the women’s game to have won multiple conference titles at three different schools. He’s built a tactically flexible team, even if we play a vanilla 4-3-3 formation. In soccer nomenclature, a 4-3-3 refers to having four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards. This is basically the default formation in modern soccer, but several players are capable of playing across the formation. Lead forward, sophomore Taryn Torres, can play both wings and both outside midfielder positions. Betsy Brandon and Courtney Peterson both play on the left side, and I think are both nominally left-footed, but both have taken corners with their right foot. Senior reserve defender Brianna Westrup has played three of four defensive positions. Sydney Zandi occupies right midfield most of the time, but both of her assists have come when she’s been stationed on the left. In short, most of the team is technically proficient, tactically flexible, and positionally creative.
Coach Swanson also has a deep bench, which he utilizes, even as ACC play has begun. He regularly plays 19–20 players a game, whereas most other teams we’ve played have featured 14–18 players per game. This is important because the NCAA soccer seasons, for both men and women, are quite compressed. Before the Hurricane Florence-induced postponement of our game with Virginia Tech, we opened the season playing seven games in 22 days. Our ACC slate will see the women play 10 games in 35 days. This is too much. Women suffer ACL tears and concussions at greater rates than men and we’re doing a disservice to our female student athletes by playing such a schedule. Should the inevitable injury occur, though, we should have the depth to withstand most injuries.
If we do have a weakness, it is that our team speed is not great. Freshman Rebecca Jarrett, currently our leading scorer with 5 goals, has jets. Senior defender Hana Kerner is quick, and she’s raced in the Penn Relays. And that’s it, as far as I can tell. While we have only one player who I would describe as slowish, redshirt sophomore Lizzi Sieracki, central defenders Phoebe McClernon (our most important player to date) and Zoe Morse do not have the pace to cover long balls played deep behind Sieracki.
The other concern that I have, and one that has grown over the past 4 games, is that we do not defend corners at all well. We have conceded corners in three of the past four games, including the only goals in losses to mid-table teams Virginia Tech and Clemson. One of my favorite aspects to soccer is that you do not have to be particularly tall to play soccer - the ball is played on the deck, after all. The best player of this century, Barcelona’s Leo Messi, is only 5’7”, and he took human growth hormone as an 11-year-old to get to this size. The most important player of this century, Spain’s Xavi Hernandez, is only 5’8”. Pele is 5’8”, Diego Maradona is 5’4”. The one position that does require size is goalkeeper and our keeper, Laurel Ivory, plays smaller than the 5’9” she’s listed at. I don’t think she can punch the ball. Against Virginia Tech and a taller player, she tried to catch the ball off a corner when she should have punched it. The result: goal to Tech. Against Clemson, the ball came to their striker inside the 6-yard box. One of the worst things a keeper can do is come off the line, and not get the ball, but plenty of keepers would have been able to make this play. Ivory stayed on her line: goal to Clemson. This past Sunday, we thrashed Wake Forest 5–1, but again, we gave up a goal on a corner.
I missed this game, and there are no highlights of the goal, but I would have supposed after losses to Clemson and Virginia Tech, Coach Swanson would have spent much of practice working on defending corners. And yet we surrendered a goal to a dispirited Wake Forest. This is absolutely unforgivable for a team with ACC title aspirations. And make no mistake, we are good enough to win the ACC, though because of losses to Clemson and Tech, we’re going to have to wait until the ACC tourney.
Next up: On Thursday, we travel to Louisville, a team that had started well and was hovering just outside the Top 25. That is, until they were thrashed by UNC this weekend. We may get a humiliated team that is now doubting themselves. Or we may get a wounded tiger seeking to make amends. We’ll have to wait and see.