Duke came into town as the ostensible tenth-ranked team in the country, and with the #4 recruiting class to boot. The Blue Devils played the Cavaliers the same way the decidedly mediocre Liberty Flames did: laying in a 5th defender, bunkering in, and hoping for the counter.
The match was not an advertisement for the “beautiful game.”
Duke coach Robbie Church admitted from the get go that his Duke players were likely to be fatigued – they’d played their last three games in 7 days (the Cavs had an entire extra day’s rest for their three games) – and that the long 3-hour drive from Durham could have been just too darn taxing.
Regardless of the excuses, the book has nevertheless been written on how to play Virginia: defend with a five-woman line, put your best athlete on Becca Jarrett (Duke’s Mya Gyau was fabulous), and play Alexa Spaanstra rough. If you have speed up top, you will be able to catch Virginia on the counter. Furthermore, the opposition can mix it up by playing the high line because UVa, to be frank, sucks at the through ball, and is underwhelming on the counter (one woman Becca Jarrett fast breaks notwithstanding.) In this game, Virginia had five decent counters, and four of those times the lead attacker missed the wide open player (usually on the left) for the much harder play to the right.
If Duke and Penn State are going to defend us thusly, it stands to reason that the only team we may face all season that doesn’t do this is Florida State. Countering this defense is a tactical issue and it rests squarely on Coach Steve Swanson’s shoulders to come up with the response. So far this year, Swanson has not tinkered with his lineup except as a response to the injuries to Lizzy Sieracki (season-long in this case) and Diana Ordonez and Claire Constant. Sure, former starter Sydney Zandi got a start over Anna Sumpter, and Ash Serepca got a start on the left wing, but these were like for like exchanges. Swanson may have to something a little more radical.
And that may be operating too far out of his comfort zone. Swanson’s program has been a model of consistency. The women have made the Round of 16 (yeah, it’s the same as basketball’s Sweet 16, but it’s apparently verboten to use March Madness terms for soccer’s very similar bracket) the last 14 years in a row. To compare that to the aforementioned male hoopsters, Duke and UNC have the longest such streaks in basketball at 9 consecutive years and Gonzaga, at five years, has the longest current streak. So for Virginia to have made the Sweet 16 fourteen consecutive times is astounding.
But this team needs to be thinking Final Four. We are one of the very best teams in the country and they need to make the leap past the Sweet 16. And maybe the lineup we’re playing isn’t the best for breaking a bunkering team.
I don’t usually criticize coaches for their lineup choices. I’ve never coached at anything approaching this level and I haven’t seen the players day-in and day-out for practice, but I would certainly consider the following changes.
The first one is pretty simple: keep Phoebe McClernon in the center of defense. Now, even before Constant was felled for three games, Swanson opted to shift McClernon to right back to allow freshman Talia Staude to play centrally. Staude is gonna be a stud – I have no fears that she’ll slip seamlessly into McClernon’s role when we lose ¾ of our back line next year. But Phoebe is the best player on the team, one of the 10 or 12 best players in the country; I simply cannot fathom moving her. McClernon is a decidedly average right back. I would let Staude get a run out in her place. Or, if Swanson has to keep Staude central, maybe move Zoe Morse to RB. I’ve not written much about Morse over the years, but her long ball is much better than McClernon’s and she might provide better service to Jarrett out on the wing.
A second option would be to play Constant as the center midfielder, and this would change the shape of the team because she plays much more as a holding midfielder than does Taryn Torres. If teams are going to play for the counter, I would prefer to have another defensively-minded player in the middle. Freeing Torres from primary midfielder responsibilities might allow her to relieve Spaanstra and give Alexa more of a break. Spaanstra may be hitting the wall – she’s been relatively anonymous in three of her last four halves – and she’s being targeted by defenders. She was fouled 7 times by Tech and horse-collared in the Penn State game. She’s logging unholy minutes and she’s simply slowing down, especially the past three games. She needs more of a break than she’s getting.
The other change I would consider would be moving Jarrett to left wing and McCool to the right. This has very little to do with Jarrett and everything to do with McCool. With the ascent of Ordonez, McCool has had to change her game on the fly. She’s not a winger but she has been quite successful moving quickly into the center, especially when the ball comes in from the right. She allows Ordonez to make the lead run while she makes the trailing run. Our problem, with teams bunkering in, is that the cross has to be perfect. Fortunately, UVa has a player who can make the perfect cross – and does half a dozen times a game – in Courtney Petersen. But as Petersen plays on the left, McCool cannot make the trailing run and we are left with just a single target in Ordonez. Jarrett as the right wing is simply not a target. But if McCool were stationed on the right, she could be that second target which we need when there are three center backs at the penalty spot.
As for the game itself, well the announcer said it all when he said that UVa put on a “clinic in how to come up short.” At one point in the first half, I estimate that UVa had 80% of the possession. We had three corners in the first 6 minutes where we played a short corner and still failed to record a single shot. Think of the football team that marches up and down the field in the first half and fails to score and is subsequently nipped in the fourth quarter. That almost happened to the Cavaliers.
Both McCool and Ordonez missed chances inside the box, the likes of which they have buried this season. Serepca had a header that flashed 2 or 3 inches wide of the post. Jarrett rolled a cross past a largely empty net. And Duke managed nary a shot in the first half. Early in the second half it looked like Anna Sumpter had scored, but she was judged to have been offside. It wasn't by much.
Late in the second half and in overtime, Duke possessed the better chances. They had three counters, and to be frank, should have scored. Keeper Laurel Ivory came out of the box for one, failed to get the ball, and left an empty net that Duke missed. A second breakaway saw a shot fizz as wide of the post as Serepca’s header. And on a third, where Staude was too casual with the ball and had it stripped, Ivory was forced into making her best save on the season. All three could have (should have?) been goals. All three exposed the Cavaliers’ lack of true foot speed on the defensive line.
Both teams had convertible chances that no doubt left each team feeling like they should have won. Except that Duke wanted the tie, and for the second time in three games, Virginia played two full-overtime games. The #1 team in the country currently sits fifth in ACC standings. Soccer, like most sports, is a chess match. The marker has been laid down by successive teams. It’s up to Coach Swanson to figure out how to beat a bunkering team, which as teams as glorious as Arsenal and the Spanish national team will tell you, is no easy feat.
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