Virginia kicked off their final road trip with a win over Louisville. Central defender Phoebe McClernon played a flawless game as the Wahoos sought to narrow the gap behind league-leading UNC.
The women opened up their final road trip of the season last night vs a Louisville team that may have been playing for pride after a beat down at the hands of the UNC Tar Heels. For Virginia, we got the win, and a win away is always good. For the Cardinals, it may lead to some more soul searching because, to be frank, I thought Louisville was the better team on the pitch, and yet, they suffered a second consecutive loss.
This was the first game that I've seen where the Cavs weren't the best team. We scored an early goal off the nifty interplay between Tarryn Torres, Alexa Spaanstra and finished coolly by Megan McCool. I've been critical of McCool, as her spot seems the one most easily upgraded, but she took this goal like a center forward should, and she has now scored three goals in two games. The on-air announcers quoted Coach Swanson a couple times saying how much he loved McCool's workrate. Workrate does matter, of course, but if you want to win at the higher levels of your sport, you need to bring more to the table than workrate. Every team needs a high work rate guy. In soccer terms, they're called runners. You know, because they run as opposed to having the skills to play soccer. Runners are valuable, they just don't typically take up the crucial center forward position.
Regardless of my thinking, McCool converted her chance last night and we're walking away with the win.
Virginia is a ball control team: we take our time building our possession out of the back, working the ball through the midfield, and typically advancing with poise. This is one style of playing. The other is more direct: more long balls played behind the defense allowing for a foot race between their defenders and our forwards.
We changed gears last night. Lots of long balls. It must have been something that Coach Swanson had noticed on film because it was out of character for our team and we didn't execute this plan very well. I think every long ball we attempted was effectively a turnover. It might have made sense when Rebecca "Jet" Jarrett was playing up top, but every long ball we played to the left, it seemed that Torres had overlapped and was the lead forward. I was pleased to see the change in tactics, but mostly in an academic sense. Trying something new is good. But the execution was off.
Actually, most of the team was "off". I'm not sure why. Louisville did not press us as aggressively as Virginia Tech or Duke, for instance, and unlike the downpours we played in vs Tech and Penn State, the rain that came down last night was more of a misting and it started late in the game. Louisville's scored a lot of goals this season, but unlike Virginia, which has spread the goals amongst the entire roster, Louisville's two forwards have accounted for almost 60% of their goals. Other than one misplay by defender Zoe Morse, we kept the Cardinal forwards pretty much at bay. I didn't see anything that would concern me, I cannot tell you why Louisville was better, but they just were. Our outside defenders, Courtney Peterson (who I think is fabulous) and Brianna Westrup (who slots across our entire back line and is our most versatile defender) played rather poorly. Montana Sutton, the central midfielder who is the piston in our engine, had her worst game of the season, as did normally impactful subs Anna Sumpter and Ashlynn Serepca.
It was a collaborative, team wide, fail.
Except for central defender Phoebe McClernon. This girl is good. TopDrawer Soccer, the soccer equivalent of Rivals, ranks McClernon as the 38th best player in the country, and after this season she's going to be top 20. The announcer had a great quote from Coach Swanson on Phoebe: “she solves the puzzle of pressure.” This is perfect. It's a great quote -- I'm going to use it as more than just the title of this post -- but it also captures the central problem of soccer. How do you handle pressure? Soccer is more of a 360 degree kind of sport than any other. Pressure comes at you from all over, and you have the full field available to turn away from pressure into space. Watching McClernon, you see that she ALWAYS turns into the correct space. Sometimes she makes me nervous because it looks like she's chosen the wrong turn or taken the wrong angle or made the pass to the better-covered player, and yet she never makes the wrong pass. I’ve coached for 35 years, I diagnose how players turn. It's what I do. And yet McClernon's vision on the pitch is better than mine off of it. She is clearly the MVP of this team.
Next: A weaker-than-expected Notre Dame in South Bend on Sunday. Six of our last seven games have been on the road. After Sunday, we'll be home for the last four games of the regular season. Let's hope the women don't look too far ahead.