Virginia was one of seven ACC teams to advance to the Sweet 16 with a penalty kick win over Texas Tech on the neutral field of Baylor. It was a ragged performance as UVa was the only team to advance without having scored a goal in regulation. **Plus the only highlights of the game on the Internet! **
While the Mid-Atlantic was shivering in our first winter-like weather, the women got to play in relatively balmy 72 degree weather in a parklike setting adjoining a picturesque lake. Maybe we were too distracted by the pretty setting because for the third straight game, the women seemed off. I think this team peaked too early, and our schedule didn’t help matters. We were gifted with consecutive games against ACC bottom-feeders Pitt and Syracuse late in the regular season and it’s like the team expects every game to be a similar cakewalk.
After the game, Coach Steve Swanson said all the honorable things that sportsmanship demands about the vanquished Red Raiders: "It was a very hard-fought game and I'm impressed with Texas Tech. We're happy to be moving on, but it's a tough spot for any team. We've been there before on their end. Our players really gutted it out well and we accounted for ourselves very well if you look at it from a statistical perspective. It wasn't an unfair result in that sense. Texas Tech was very good and challenged us for sure."
Don’t be deceived. This was NOT a good Texas Tech team, and while we might have gutted out the win, we did not impress. And I surmise that Swanson knows this as well because for the first time, I think, all season, midfield reserves Anna Sumpter, Ayan Adu and Betsy Brandon logged more minutes than did starters Taryn Torres, Montana Sutton and Sydney Zandi. (The only stats currently available come from the NCAA and they may be wrong because they list total game time as 120 minutes. In women’s NCAA soccer, overtime is only a pair of 10-minute periods.)
On three occasions, central defenders Zoe Morse and Phoebe McClernon abdicated their strong safety responsibilities of staying back on corners and one deep free kick allowing Texas Tech to start breakaways. Once, McClernon, rushing back, clipped a Tech attacker on the heels just outside the penalty box. If that attacker had fallen, it would surely have been a free kick. On a second breakaway, McClernon pulled down the striker from behind which the referee inexplicably allowed. It should have been a foul, and it should have been a yellow card to McClernon for cynically denying a goal scoring opportunity.
There was lots of what I call “bad communication” on the pitch. By that I mean players who spend more time pointing at other teammates to cover their opponents, even while the player doing all the pointing was merely marking space. Too many players doing that, and the opposition is left uncovered. Also problematic is the defending of winger Becca Jarrett. Swanson has the team pressing high – it’s a great tactic with the speed and tenacity of Alexa Spaanstra and Meghan McCool – but Jarrett is sitting too far back which means there is always an outlet for a pressed defender. Now, if she was playing like a fourth midfielder, that would be acceptable too, but she’s not. For all her speed, Jarrett’s too easily bypassed and we’re spending more time on our back foot than we are pressing and wreaking havoc.
The good news for the Cavaliers on the day was the return of keeper Laurel Ivory who apparently was hurt for the Monmouth game. Even more significant was the return of left back Courtney Petersen who has been out for half a dozen games. She is an incisive player with a fine cross and she had two of the best shots on the game. Petersen did not look any the worse for wear though she was often an island on the left. Heretofore this Virginia team has been a left-side dominant team with most of our attacks starting with Petersen, left midfielder Torres, and recently left winger Spaanstra. Even with Petersen out, we were more likely to advance on the left with Lizzy Sieracki. Today we settled on lumping lots of long balls forward and we couldn’t control possession. I wrote in my notebook that our first possession with more than five consecutive passes happened at the 15 minute mark. Maybe Petersen just needs more game time to fully find her feet and for the team to consciously look to her.
The disquieting news is that senior defender Brianna Westrup did not play. She sat out the entire second half vs Monmouth, and while she was dressed out and with the team along the sideline, she did not enter the game. She’s our best attacking player in the air, and one of the reasons Tech got its three breakaways was that Morse had moved up to take over her target role in the center of the penalty box. I’m not sure we’ve fully conquered our corner-defending bugaboos, and we’re going to need Westrup for us to advance much farther in this tournament.
Ultimately the game was decided by penalty kicks after a scoreless 110 minutes of soccer. Torres calmly made the first one and then Ivory made her most important save of the season, denying Ally Griffen the first opportunity. The second taker for Tech, Demi Koulizakis, knew she had to take a perfect shot (and this pressure is death for a PK taker) and she subsequently slotted her shot wide. Lizzy Sieracki took a perfect third penalty and the quality takes by Sumpter and Morse were almost a formality. We’re staying in Waco to take on Baylor this Sunday while Texas Tech is going back to Lubbock.
Game Notes: Maybe it was just the location of the camera, but the traveling UVa supporters were far more vocal and supportive than were the Tech fans. We’re going to need all those fans to show up on Sunday because this will be a home game for Baylor, one of the perks of picking up the region’s second seed.
NCAA Notes: The most intriguing Sweet 16 matchup would appear to be Stanford, everyone’s choice to win it all, who beat a surprisingly plucky Ole Miss without all-world freshman Sophia Smith or even Madison Haley. They are matched up against a Wisconsin team that has scored 3 and 6 goals in their two games thus far. Certainly, the Badgers won’t be lacking for confidence going up against the Cardinal.