The 1st ACC game is in the books – UVa salvaged a tie vs Wake Forest – and retained the #1 spot in both the United Soccer Coaches poll and the TopDrawer Soccer power rankings for the second consecutive week. Looking ahead, where are the major story lines as the Cavaliers try to make a serious run towards the College Cup, soccer’s equivalent of the Final Four?
These Women Never. Give. Up.
It had to have been a monumentally deflating moment to have run a good Penn State side so thoroughly, only to have them equalize with 6 minutes left in the game. Yet the Cavaliers scored just 26 later to win the game. Much the same happened in the Wake game. Wake had a better game plan and saw more possession than any opponent has seen all year, and they took the lead with 3 minutes left in the game. Yet again, Virginia scored in the waning seconds and remained undefeated, and purely for prestige purposes only, remained the #1 team in the country. This is a mentally strong team, and this self – belief is not created instantly but rather is forged in countless hours of practice and it results from a true belief in your teammates. Every coach wants this. Coach Swanson has created it.
A second aspect to this self – belief is the buy-in from every player to play defense. As in all sports where the players play two-ways, it is much more tiring and mentally fatiguing to play defense. And yet if you look at how hard forward Meg McCool and midfielder Taryn Torres play, you know that they would literally run through brick walls to slow the opposing attack. Every player on the team attacks on defense, so even if we possess less raw footspeed than many teams, we play faster than almost every team in the country.
We have a lot of weapons.
The attack is increasingly flowing through sophomore left midfielder, Alexa Spaanstra, who is extremely quick, and plays even faster. Raw speed is nice. As the adage goes, “you can’t teach speed,” but Spaanstra’s explosion on the ball once she turns is simply elite. She can separate from any defender at any time.
On the opposite side of the field is Becca Jarrett who simply has jets. She is among the very fastest players in Division I soccer. I’ve written critically of her poor dribbling skills and marginal buy in to Swanson’s defense, but Jarrett is getting better. For most of her life she’s played the central striker role and she’s having to learn a new role. Her crossing is getting better and she possesses the ability to roll the ball on the deck or play it in the air. If her progression is linear, she is going to be a terror next year. For now, she is always one good turn away from being her own one-man counter. Her defense is getting better and I think it’s just a matter of how much she wants to defend.
In the center of the pitch, the Cavaliers are fortunate to have discovered freshman Diana Ordonez who blazed across the college landscape scoring nine goals in her first six games. She is tall and she appears to know how to take advantage of her height, but she is also a predatory striker, fully capable of scoring many of what Gerd Mueller would call “little goals.” Senior Meg McCool has lost her starting center forward position to Ordonez, but she has filled in wonderfully in Ordonez’ absence. Last year McCool scored 9 goals in approximately 20 games: through 9 games this year she has 7. Now, when Ordonez returns, McCool will most likely be shuffled out to left wing, and she’s not a wing, but she runs hard, covers a lot of ground, and quickly moves into a more central position when Jarrett comes down the right.
Lastly, in left back Courtney Petersen, UVa has one of the very best crossers in the women’s game. Think of her as David Beckham with a pony tail. She serves the ball beautifully into the box, right at that sweet spot, the penalty spot. Furthermore, she can go to the end line almost at will, but especially like Beckham, she will serve the ball from the midfield, often before the defenders are set. McCool and Ordonez are decent in the air, but they are also comfortable playing back-to-the-basket soccer and can lay off to advancing teammates.
If that’s not enough, everyone else gets into the act. Ashlynn Serepca has already hit a game winner and Sydney Zandi and Anna Sumpter scored the aforementioned winning and tying goals in the waning minutes of regulation.
Virginia’s got a lot of weapons.
Virginia presses aggressively and Courtney Petersen has the green light to advance on the left. With Phoebe McClernon playing at the right back position, she has similar latitude, and this would leave any team vulnerable to a counter. If we do have one systemic weakness, it is that we lack footspeed, especially on defense. I’m not saying that we are slow, but we’re not going to win any races. We were knocked out of the NCAAs last year in the Round of 16 by a perfect Baylor counter, one that Sydney Zandi diagnosed immediately. She’s got a great engine, but she barely gained any ground on the eventual goal-scorer.
One small concern I have is that Petersen seems to have become especially one-footed this year. It would make a decent drinking game for those reading this: drink a beer every time she plays the ball with her right foot. Petersen got hurt last year – I think it was her right ankle – and maybe I didn’t notice it last year, but she is so left-footed this year that any team that looks at game footage is going to realize that she has become predictable when she receives the ball. Our wide players station themselves really wide. Like right on the touchline. If Petersen in on the line, her body angled 45 degrees, and with the ball on her left foot, she cannot advance the ball forward. She’s going to play the ball back to McClernon or Talia Staude, or maybe even sidewise to Torres. I have to think that if a team was coached to look for this, if a defender gets a good break on the ball, a la a corner back breaking on a quarterback’s throw, the result would be the soccer equivalent of the pick-6.
Which brings me to another concern: I don’t know how good keeper Laurel Ivory is. One of the complications for playing on such a great team like this current iteration is that Ivory faces very few shots. In nine games, Ivory and backup keeper Michaela Moran, have only had to make 8 saves. 8! And only one of them required much effort. Ivory simply doesn’t get tested in games and that can lead to rust, a lack of development, or her concentration to waver. Ivory seems to have the trust of her teammates, and that is Requirement #1 for a keeper, and she also seems to be coming off her line quicker, but I’m not sure how well she could snuff out that hypothetical pick-6.
A Lack of Depth
Recent Steve Swanson teams featured him utilizing 18 – 19 players with defined roles and good minutes. The recent injuries to starters Claire Constant and Ordonez, have greatly compounded this year’s lack of depth to the point in the Wake Forest game, we really only had two substitutes play meaningful minutes: midfielder Zandi and forward Alissa Gorzak. Winger Cam Lexow and midfielder Emma Dawson both some time, but they are spot relief only at this point. Other than injuries forcing Swanson’s hand, he has pretty much started the same lineup all season, which is a change from last year. Spaanstra, Torres and McCool are logging major minutes, and given the compression of the Division I soccer schedule, it could lead to further injuries.
This is a very good Virginia team. Spaanstra and Jarrett are making huge strides in this, their second season, Petersen can deliver a game-winning cross from anywhere in the final third. Seniors Zoe Morse and McClernon, along with Torres just in front of them, are a trio of hard working, tough nosed, ball winning central defenders. The team has proved that they are never out of the game. And in the duo of Ordonez and McCool we have a pair of strikers who can pounce on any defensive error.
At the start of the season, I was prepared for a Sweet 16 berth. I have adjusted my expectations upwards. This is a quality team that can win it all. The next step is knocking off Virginia Tech tonight at Klöckner.