CARY, N.C. – Storylines? You want storylines? Friday's late College Cup semi-final matchup pitting Virginia against UCLA has plenty.
There’s UCLA head coach Amanda Cromwell going up against Virginia, her alma mater. The last time the Cavaliers made it to the national semifinals back in 1991, Cromwell scored the team’s only goal in a 5-1 loss to North Carolina.Virginia boasts the nation’s best offense, and it’ll be matched up with the top-ranked defense of UCLA. Virginia is the NCAA tournament’s top seed, UCLA its second. Each team has one loss this season – Virginia to Virginia Tech 4-2 in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinals on Nov. 8, and UCLA to North Carolina 1-0 on Sept. 6. UCLA also has two ties.
“On paper, you’re getting in my opinion a great matchup,” Steve Swanson, Virginia’s head coach said. “I think it should be a great advertisement for college women’s soccer. Our team has shown that we can score goals, and their team has shown that they can do the same. Our team has shown that we can prevent goals, and their team has shown that they can do the same.”
The way Swanson seems to put it, his Cavaliers and Cromwell’s Bruins are just about as evenly matched as it is possible to be.
“Both teams have good attacks,” he said. “Both teams have good midfields. Both teams have good defenses. Both teams have good quality goalkeepers. Both teams play soccer. I think that’s one thing hopefully fans will get, is the chance to see some quality soccer.”
Cromwell has maintained a good relationship with her former school, and so for her, it’s a marquee contest in more ways than just offense and defense, goals and blocked shots.
“Everyone has wanted to see this game, I felt like, throughout the season,” she said. “I’ve been following Virginia, and I said, ‘Wow. That’d be a great game to play.’”
In the end, Cromwell feels that the game will come down to opposites.
“I think it comes down to our attack against their defense, and how they’re going to adjust to some of our dynamic players and different threats we can bring from different areas of the field,” she said.
Later, she added, “Their best defense is their possession. They have a lot of the ball. The other teams don’t have that many chances to really create a lot of shots. Virginia in that ACC tournament, they had some speed going forward. They’re dynamic in their attack. They kind of went after it a little bit. We have to force the issue a little bit.”
Leading the way for the Virginia offense are junior midfielder Morgan Brian and sophomore forward Makenzy Doniak. Not since 2009 has a Division I team had two players with 40 points to their credit. Both young women have been named as semifinalists for the MAC Hermann Trophy, the top individual honor in the sport.“This year, we’ve been playing a lot of good soccer,” said Brian, who also made three appearances for the United States Women’s National Team this summer and fall. “We have 25 players, whether they’re starting or on the bench, that can come in and play soccer.
“This year, I think most of my teammates have set me up pretty well. I’ve fortunately been at the right place at the right time with some of them. My first year I probably had, I don’t know, half as many goals. But I think maybe it’s just because I’m coming into more of my role with the team.”
Stopping that kind of scoring threat will be key for the Bruins, and midfielders Jenna Richmond, Sarah Killion and Sam Mewis will be a crucial part of trying to keep Brian in check.
“When you have a player like Morgan Brian in there, you always have to keep an eye on her,” Cromwell said. “She’s so dynamic. She makes these great runs out of the midfield. I think if we can bottle down Morgan Brian, and then our attack does what they’ve been doing, we should be in good shape.”
“If we just focus on our game and focus on the midfield, me, Sarah and Sam together working, I think that it’ll be a really tough battle,” Richmond added.
Virginia has been ranked first in the nation for most of the year, and is the sixth consecutive top seed in the NCAA tournament to make it to the College Cup. Important to note, though, is the fact that Stanford’s 2011 squad was the only one of those top seeds to break through and win it all.
The Cavaliers’ only loss in 2013, to Virginia Tech, came right here in Cary in the ACC semifinals.
“I think we were a focused team that takes one game at a time,” Brian said. “A lot of teams at that point, if you’re ranked number one for such a long time, they feel pressured or feel like they have a target on their back. We never felt that way, and were just playing the game we can play. We focused on that, and I think that got us some wins down the road.”
For UCLA, it took overcoming the past two national champions in the NCAA tournament to make it here this week. As tough as it was to get past Stanford in the third round, the quarterfinal game against North Carolina was a 1-0, double-overtime doozy.
That’s the way it works in big-time college women’s soccer. Sometimes, there are easy wins and sometimes, teams have to just slug it out. Friday’s game between Virginia and UCLA should not be one of those easy ones.
“You look at the names on our roster, and there’s not a doubt how talented we are,” Cromwell said. “But we know it’s going to be a battle. Tony DiCicco [head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team] actually sent me an e-mail, and he was like, ‘Congrats for outlasting UNC.’ Sometimes, you’ve got to outlast somebody. That’s the game of soccer.”