I am pleased to welcome Prince Akeem Joffer to Hoos Place to preview the marquee matchup in the ACC thus far: Virginia at Florida State. Prince covers women's sports for Tomahawk Nation, SB Nation's FSU afiliate.
Let me take a moment to congratulate the Florida State Seminoles, last year's College Cup (what soccer calls the Final Four) champions. It was a great accomplishment, and yet another accolade for the ACC, which is the best soccer conference in the country. As you are no doubt aware, Prince, Virginia were national champions in hoops last year, famously coming back after having the been first #1 seed to be eliminated by a #16 seed. That redemption narrative wrote itself. So, Prince, what was the narrative for the women last year?
Interesting question. The narrative could have been “the return”. FSU had made the College Cup in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015 but had missed out in 2016 and 2017. With last year’s success the team made it back and the program is hoping to put together another run in the College Cup like they had in 2011-2015.
Phoebe McClernon is my favorite player for UVa, and I think she is a stunningly great defensive center back. But, if there was a defender better than her last year, it surely must have been Natalia Kuikka. How has the team responded in the back to her departure?
One of the big reasons for FSU’s success last year was that the defense improved drastically. In last year’s championship year the Seminoles only conceded 13 goals in 27 games (.481 gaa) while in 2017 the Noles conceded 21 goals in 21 games (1.0 gaa). That is obviously a huge improvement and was probably the major key to the winning the championship. Kuikka had a lot to do with the defensive success last year especially considering that FSU was replacing former All-American goalkeeper Cassie Miller.
This year the Seminoles have allowed 15 goals in 12 games (1.25 gaa). That is a huge regression from last year and is even worse than 2017. The issues in the back are the biggest achilles heel for this team and if they don’t get better at stopping goals it is tough to see how they will return to the College Cup, much less defend the title.
This isn’t all due to Kuikka’s absence obviously but to answer your question of how well they have responded to losing her; not great.
Yujie Zhao has received multiple accolades, both last year and this year in pre-season. She hasn't impressed me in the games I've seen of her. In my kickoff column this year, I did write that fellow sophomore Jaelin Howell was going to be ACC Player of the Year her senior year, so that should give you an idea of who I think is more important. Am I right? Who is better?
They are really different players and the question of who is better is slightly different than the question of who is more important. Howell right now is probably more important because FSU does not have another player who can do what she does for the team from her holding midfield spot. She is really good at tackling and getting the ball back for her team. The defensive issues I discussed above would likely be far worse without her on the field.
Zhao is a creator and she is very good. She has gotten off to a bit of a slow start this year but don’t sleep on her as she is really talented. However, FSU has other creators (Deyna Castellanos, Jenna Nighswonger) but they don’t have a anyone who can get the ball back as decisively has Howell. Therefore, for roster construction reasons Howell is probably more important to the team.
Both Duke and Penn State, ostensible top 10 teams, have both come out and parked the bus against UVa. I suspect you've seen your share of bunkering as well. What has been coach Mark Krikorian's strategy for defeating a five-in-the-back defensive tactic?
His strategy is to keep things the same. He basically plays the same possession strategy against any defense (with rare exceptions like the Stanford game in 2017) and challenges the opponent to deal with it.
You won’t have to worry about this top 10 team parking the bus against you. This will be a real game.
I am sure Virginia keeper, Laurel Ivory, still has nightmares about Deyna Castellanos. I, for one, thought she was going to get drafted and she would have departed the ACC by now. We're both disappointed. Just how good is Castellanos, and what does she bring to her team?
Very good and everything. Next question.
She is a former finalist for FIFA’s best women’s player award and while that honor was controversial she remains one of the best players in the nation. She has also matured into one of the team leaders in the locker room. She has worked to improve her game. She was always very talented offensively and a wizard on the ball. However, she has now added a bit of toughness to her game. It is not uncommon for her to track back and tackle opposing attackers. She is not afraid to do the dirty work now and that makes her a much more rounded player.
Her strengths are still her sublime ball striking which shows up in her set-pieces as well as her creativity for herself and her teammates. She is 7th nationally in assists per game. She is a much more complete player now than when she arrived in Tallahassee.
In summary, both of these teams are really good and are clearly 2/3 of the top tier in the ACC along with UNC. This should be a great matchup and could very well be a preview of a College Cup matchup like in 2014 when these two teams met for all the marbles.
And that's a wrap. Gametime is 1:00pm on Sunday. I know where I'll be. Thanks again to Prince Akeem Joffer. I returned the favor at Tomahawk Nation. You can read my take on the state of UVa here.
This was fun. Let's do it again.