Keeper Laurel Ivory made her finest save of the season 3 minutes into the game to deny a Phoebe McClernon own goal. This was not a good omen.
The first 10 minutes of the semifinal game between FSU and UVa began in a torrential downpour, which should not have affected the Cavs unduly: we played in heavy rains vs Penn State and on both ends of a thunderstorm that delayed the game (and wrecked the pitch) at Virginia Tech. But UVa came out flat and playing on the back foot from the get-go and McClernon’s horrible miskick in the third minute was emblematic of how poorly the team would play over the course of the game.
Florida State came out on fire and dominated the first 10 minutes, but eventually we played our way back into the game. Overall, the first half was a chippy affair: it might have been the rain which lasted long enough to soak the players; it might have been the ref who called a lot of niggling fouls; it might have been the knowledge that UNC was awaiting the winner and they had looked decidedly mortal (and were missing three crucial starters) against a very poor Clemson team.
Virginia took the lead late in the first half off another well-choreographed Steve Swanson free-kick: deep in the FSU half, two short passes left the ball at the feet of Ayun Adu wo drilled a low ball that skipped through the FSU wall. Their keeper muffed the ball and Zoe Morse’s late run left her with an open net in which to bury the goal. Morse became the 16th player to score for the Cavaliers this season, though that would be just about the last positive play for the Wahoos in the game.
The lead lasted for just three minutes into the 2nd half as a UVa non-clearance left the ball at the feet of Dayna Castellanos who slotted the ball home. Florida State was fully awoke and their pressure was unrelenting: Castellanos had a breakaway which forced Ivory into maybe her second best save of the season, but that proved a short respite for within five minutes, Castellanos netted her second goal. She’s a brilliant player and she’s going to have a glorious professional and national career but it’s especially galling to see her score at the collegiate level. After a goal she preens like a man. And I don’t mean that as a compliment.
By now the wheels had come off the UVa gameplan and if I were Dr Z I would have written “Game Over” in my notebook. All that was left was damage control and we didn’t do that very well either as Florida State grabbed a third goal: a cheeky little chip shot over the flailing Ivory.
For those of us who are fans of both the women and the men’s basketball team, this was UMBC déjà vu. We were never really in the game, despite taking the 1 – 0 lead into halftime. While FSU’s talent far exceeds that of the UMBC, it was eerie how similarly we were outclassed and how poorly we responded. It is hard to overstate how poor we were. I’ve been reflecting on this for a day now, but I think every field player Swanson used (and he plays 18 players in the field a game) had her worst game of the season. This was a total collective team failure. It is rare to see a team as good as this one underperform so dramatically so I’m left with considering conspiracy-class explanations for this systematic collapse: maybe the team bus broke down and team didn’t arrive at WakeMed Field until five minutes before game time. Maybe the team had the mother of all cat-fights in the locker room. Obviously, there was bad juju in wearing orange shorts for the first time all year – maybe they were cursed!
Coach Bennett, when asked for maybe the hundred thousandth time about the loss to UMBC, said, “UMBC is part of our story. But if we can use it in the right way, it can be powerful for you.” Bennett’s had seven months now to try to find the silver linings in the UMBC debacle; Coach Swanson is going to have less than seven days to do the same for the women.
Thankfully I won’t have to watch this game ever again, but Swanson has no doubt watched it half a dozen times by now and what I suspect he’ll find is that Florida State baited us. Normally, everything begins for us with play of McClernon and Morse who play the ball out of the back and start our offense. As I’ve written before, McClernon is immune to pressure, and when someone is on her, she turns the player and with her first pass has effectively by-passed two opponents. Morse is better facing the opponent but she almost always dummies her opponent and races forward with the ball at her feet. Someone else comes to defend her and Morse makes the right pass: but the end result is the same – two defenders passed with our first pass to midfield. FSU, as a rule, didn’t look to pressure McClernon and Morse deep, and instead they played a high zone with 5 to 7 players lining up along the field to deny the entry pass to the midfield. From there, everything else broke down: our triangle passing between the wings and the outside mids was almost non-existent and as we started playing more, and poorer-quality long balls, our forward trio couldn’t exert anything of a press themselves.
We chased the game and Florida State shredded us. To salvage this season with a strong run in the NCAA tournament, we’re going to have to embrace the game as part of “our story”. Coach Swanson and his staff have a lot of work to do. Hopefully they’ll be able to lead the way and give our men’s basketball team the inspiration they’ll need to erase UMBC from the memory banks.
At the very least… let’s not wear the orange shorts again.
Next Up: NCAA Tournament selection is on Monday. Before this game, we were probably a 2 Seed and had we won the ACC tourney, we’d have been a 1 Seed. I don’t have a lot of experience predicting how the women’s soccer seeding is accomplished, but if this were men’s basketball, a loss like this would knock us down to a 4 Seed.
Brianna Westrup sat out the entire second half, though she didn’t look to be in any pain in the couple of sideline shots I saw. Courtney Peterson was absent yet again. I don’t expect we’ll see her again this season.