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…while professionals concentrate on logistics.

This military aphorism, which predates Sun Tzu, has been very much on my mind as we approach the beginning of a fall season with the 2020 pandemic still roaring merrily along.

The biggest challenge for head coach Steve Swanson this year will not be figuring out to add highly rated freshman forward Lia Godfrey into the front three, nor will it be finding out just who is going to step up and replace the departed trio of Courtney Petersen, Zoe Morse and Phoebe McClernon in the back. No, Swanson’s tallest order is going to be the planning to keep his players safely ensconced in the bubble at home and to ensure that the bubble travels when the team is on the road.

Last week the NC Wolfpack announced that they would not compete in women’s soccer for the fall season because at least three players were caught overseas when the lockdowns hit and have been unable (or perhaps are unwilling) to return for the fall.  The day that I am writing this, England announced that two young debutants for the national team playing in the UEFA Nation’s League were suspended from the team and sent home for violating Iceland’s coronavirus safety measures. Colleges and universities across the country have lurched from opening with in-person instruction to going all on-line. Several schools have suspended students for violating COVID-19 protocols, with Northeastern actually refusing to grant refunds.

Health always matters in sport – the teams that feature every player available during crunch time usually do the most winning – but this season, the coach who best maintains the team bubble will most likely to grab the brass ring.

And like everything else in 2020, it’s going to be a strange brass ring. The NCAA has announced, for now, that championships for fall sports will be played in the spring. The ACC will hold their conference championship, as always, at WakeMed Park in Cary, North Carolina in mid-November.  The NCAA has allowed each team to play 20 games between the fall season and the still-hypothetical spring season, with schools allowed to schedule games as they see fit.  Pittsburgh, for instance, is playing 15 games this fall while Florida State is playing just 8.  The 8 is significant here because the ACC slate is just 8 games.  Virginia’s schedule is 11 games, all of them versus ACC teams, presumably because all ACC teams will have very similar quarantine procedures. Virginia will play Virginia Tech twice, though both games are non-conference. Virginia’s 3rd non-conference game will feature the Cavaliers traveling to North Carolina as ACC schedulers for the 3rd consecutive year have chosen not to pit UVa vs UNC. Maybe Anson Dorrance is afraid of us? I am grateful that we will be able to play them this season – they have much to atone for…

Last season was surely one of Swanson’s most rewarding seasons of the 19 he has spent in Charlottesville. Coming off a wildly successful Women’s World Cup, Swanson, and his defense, engineered an 8-week stay at #1. Over the past decade Virginia has scored more goals than any team in the country but the defense caught up last season to the extent that I dubbed it a Pack Line. Basketball fans will get the reference. And the compliment.

Three underwhelming mid-season ties and the aforementioned scheduling failure, which meant we couldn’t take UNC down a notch, rendered Virginia a bridesmaid for the regular season title, but the ACC tournament beckoned and maybe Swanson’s ladies would secure him a third ACC tournament. We dispatched a pesky Duke and beat Florida State for a second time on the season (even if the Seminoles weren’t reigning national champs, this would still be a marker of a successful season.)  Then, in the ACC final, Brianna Pinto happened. Late in the game with the score knotted at 1 – 1, Pinto launched into UVa keeper Laurel Ivory and crushed her jaw.  It seemed a pretty egregious foul to me, but no card was given and Virginia fell in overtime to the Tar Heels. 

(Swanson was a guest on our podcast and was more sanguine than I was about the foul, and Ivory herself proved to be a better man than me in this interview.)

Virginia didn’t recover well and were knocked out of the NCAAs by upset-minded Washington State, who completed a successful season of their own by advancing to the College Cup. And just like that, a season that saw Virginia reside at #1 for 8 weeks and put themselves squarely in the national championship conversation, was over. Virginia’s streak of reaching the Sweet Sixteen was over at 14 and three fourths of the backline were drafted to the NWSL.

Thus, a new season beckons and there are new streaks to begin, and Swanson has a loaded team.  This team is going to feature offense as Alexa Spaanstra, Diana Ordonez and Rebecca Jarrett offer wildly complementing skill sets. Spaanstra and Jarrett are both third year, and both were teammates at the CONCACAF U20 women’s world cup qualifiers.  They share their experiences here. Jarrett is on the short list of fastest players in the NCAA and she’s spent the past two years learning how to play the wing. She is devastating on the counter, she can get to the end line, and her delivery is improving. She doesn’t dribble as well as I would like, but it is her speed that opposing coaches are going to game plan first.

Spaanstra is the best player on the team with superior vision and good speed of her own. She has a quick trigger and can make the killer pass two beats before the defense is ready. Opposing teams know this and an often-effective approach to defending Spaanstra was to play Hack-a-Shaq against her. While she possesses all the skills you would want in a central attacker, pulling the strings and controlling the run of play, she is slight and will probably stay on the left wing.

That brings us to Ordonez, who blazed across the college landscape, scoring 9 goals in her first seven games. Ordonez is a predatory finisher in that she shoots quickly and can score with both feet. She is tall and she is a competent aerial target. She sets up like a traditional center forward, often with her back to the goal. She needs to get stronger if she wants to post up ACC-caliber defenders, but if she can hold the ball and lay it off to Jarrett and Spaanstra, it will give the Cavaliers just another facet to their offense. 

Third year forward Ashlynn Serepca will probably be the first forward off the bench. By her own standards, Serepca’s career at UVa started slowly as she fell immediately behind Jarrett and Spaanstra in the pecking order, but she had a successful season last year and she started to let the game come to her. The other forward of note should be freshman Lia Godfrey, part of TopDrawer’s #2 incoming recruiting class. She has played on many of the same national teams as Spaanstra and Jarrett, so hopefully her familiarity with the duo will speed her development.

The midfield starts with senior Taryn Torres in the middle. Torres began her career playing on the left, first at wing and then as a midfielder. After Montana Sutton left, the central role fell to Torres, who was always a central player for both her club teams and the national teams. Torres has a first-class engine, she reads the game well, and she turns away from pressure well. (I’m sure that playing alongside Phoebe McClernon for three years helped in that regard.)  While central midfielder is largely a defensive position under Swanson, she possesses a fine shot and she is a threat to score. Torres simply doesn’t quit and is probably my favorite player to watch.

The other two midfield spots will most likely be helmed by seniors Sydney Zandi and Anna Sumpter. Zandi is emblematic of Swanson’s preference for players who can play across the field. As a sophomore she mostly played on the right but I thought she was most effective coming in from the left. Sumpter was probably last season’s most improved player and she is probably the player on the team with the best nose for goal. She attacks straight-line all the time, and at this level that’s still a good thing.  Four star incoming freshmen Peyton Goldthwaite and Alexis Theoret may feature as well.

It is on defense that the question marks start popping up. The biggie is, of course, just how well Laurel Ivory is going to respond to contact. Will she hear footsteps? For now, she is saying all the right things. Ivory may be the most respected player on the team and it was easy to see her growth last year. In a way, it’s hard to develop when you play on a team as great as Virginia was last year. She may have only had to make a dozen true saves on the year, but make them she did.  I was not impressed with her as a sophomore; I’ve come full circle as she enters her senior season.

This year’s back four won’t look anything like the defense of the past two years. Generational change is in the very DNA of collegiate sports and that change will be evident this year. Red-shirt senior Lizzie Sieracki is back after tearing her ACL in spring training last year and missing the entire season. I would presume Sieracki will slot in at left back.  She is good in the air and she possesses a throw-in that is a weapon.

Sophomore Talia Staude will be one of the two central backs for the next three years. She had a very successful freshman season, one in which she ultimately displaced McClernon, and that takes some doing. Her distribution is fine and she played with a poise that belied her youth.

Our third defender is junior Claire Constant and I admit that I have no idea where she will play.  She is a strong ball winner and she is decent in the air, which is a plus, because if there is a weakness in these latest iterations of Swanson’s Cavaliers, it is that we’re weak in the air. Constant might be injury prone, missing games last year from a pair of injuries, and she picked up at least one knock her freshman year. This time last year I was speculating that she might be a candidate for central midfield.  I don’t know what her best position is, but she will be in the mix.

And then we have a trio of newcomers. First off is redshirt junior Sarah Clark who transferred from Purdue. A North Carolina native, she may have wanted to be closer to home. Clark had a productive first two years at Purdue, starting immediately and being named a captain as a junior before her injury. She is eligible to play this season and has two seasons of eligibility remaining. The other two are fast-raising four-star Laney Rouse, and the #8 recruit in the country, Samar Guidry (keeping the Texas streak going for Swanson) both members of the soon (hopefully) to be fabled class of 2020

The season opener is this Saturday, September 12th, as the Cavs host the Hokies at Klockner Stadium in a non-conference game. If you’re not going to have a pre-season, then starting off with your in-state rival prior to opening ACC play is probably the best matchup we could hope for.  Especially at home.