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Alberto Camargo | NCAA.com | October 20, 2022

North Carolina vs. Florida State women's soccer, previewed by digging deep into the game film

College soccer storylines and postseason predictions

No. 2 North Carolina and No. 4 Florida State meet in Tallahassee on Thursday in a match that could determine which of the two earns a valuable first-round bye in the ACC tournament. Kick-off is set for 8 p.m. ET and will be broadcast on ACC Network.

We are less than two weeks away from postseason play in DI women’s soccer and each conference matchup means that much more for seeding purposes. Only six of the 14 teams in the ACC earn a spot in the conference tournament. Coincidentally, six of the women’s soccer committee’s top 10 are ACC teams. 

REVEALED: The women's soccer committee's first-ever top 10

Before the ball gets rolling at the Seminole Soccer Complex, let's take a look at how these programs have fared against each other and what those with a keen eye should look for on the pitch.

Florida State, North Carolina series history and recent results

This will be the 46th meeting between the Seminoles and the Tar Heels, a series in which North Carolina leads 29-11-5, though FSU has won nine of the last 17 games. Three of the last five times they have met have come in the postseason, including the 2018 College Cup final. Interestingly, the Noles have not defeated the Heels in the regular season since 2015. However, I’m not sure how much that plays on FSU fans’ minds considering they have five postseason wins over UNC in that timeframe (including the 2018 title game).

In 2021, these teams played to a 2-2 double-overtime tie in Chapel Hill, with UNC’s Isabel Cox and FSU’s Beata Olsson trading goals in that one. Both players return this year, as Olsson has five goals in 13 starts while Cox has scored just once in her 15 appearances (seven starts).

North Carolina and Florida State film breakdown

It should surprise no one that the Heels and Noles, as two of the most dominant teams in this sport, like to control possession and dictate play themselves. Each play in a base 4-3-3 formation, but the creativity and attacking dynamism come from different parts of the field. 

North Carolina in possession

North Carolina tends to focus its attacks in the wide areas, asking its wide players to win one-on-ones and create space for a cross into the central area. Ideally, it's the outside backs — Tessa Dellarose on the left and Emily Moxley on the right — putting in crosses so as many attacking players can get on the end of them. 

This shows in the numbers: the Heels’ top scorers are Avery Patterson (8) and Emily Murphy (5), two players who line up as wide forwards on either side of the center forward. The attack is supported by a midfield made up of workhorses who work to win the ball back on defense and reset the offense.

Here’s where I get to gush about one of my favorite players to watch this season: Sam Meza. The midfielder does a bit of everything on the field: screening for the backline, recycling possession and bursting forward to join the attack. Here you can see her play a 1-2 in midfield, pass it out wide to Patterson and continue running forward to provide an option. Patterson chooses to play in Ally Sentnor making an overlapping run (for those crosses the Heels love so much), but it shows Meza getting involved in all aspects of the buildup.

When Meza does get a chance to show her quality, it shines through. Here Meza puts in an inch-perfect ball from deep on the right side — an outside back’s position — for a Murphy goal.

Just for fun, here’s another moment of magic from Meza’s right foot.

Florida State in possession

Shifting focus to the Noles, one thing I noticed is their attacks are more varied. While they certainly can create chances from wide areas, I was impressed with their ability to play through the middle. Lots of FSU’s creativity in the middle comes from Jenna Nighswonger, who plays the most advanced of its midfield trio. She has plenty of tricks in her bag and it shows with her team-leading 10 assists. For every goal she sets up from a corner kick (and knocks in herself), Nighswonger can pull out threaded balls like this one for Jody Brown, who wins a penalty kick from the resulting chance.

Brown’s ability to get in behind is another huge asset for the Seminoles. She’s a nightmare for any defense playing a high line, breaking forward with impeccable timing. On this play, FSU’s holding midfielder Leilanni Nesbeth wins the ball from Duke’s Michelle Cooper, and just as the ball makes its way to Nighswonger, Brown is already making her run. Nighswonger finds her with a lovely chipped pass and Brown slots home for the opening goal.

One final thing to note about the FSU offense: it’s very patient. The Noles are content to recycle the ball and pass it around the backline. That is until they see even the smallest opening. This next clip shows a goal materializing quickly with a ball through to Brown and a low cross for Maria Alagoa to finish, but what isn’t shown are the 45 seconds the Noles held the ball before this without even crossing the halfway line. 

The Seminoles can attack in a variety of ways and at a variety of speeds, a perfect formula for one of the nation’s most potent offenses.

Potential downfalls

Though neither team has leaked many goals this season, I watched the chances they have conceded and noticed a similarity: direct play can catch them out. Ironically, both teams play with a high line, the exact kind of defense their offenses would love to exploit. So when the opposition counters their possession-heavy play with direct runs and vertical passes, it can cause problems.

Florida State

The Noles were humbled 4-0 by No. 5 Notre Dame on Oct. 9, and all four goals were created with direct play. Here, the Irish’s Olivia Wingate runs straight at a retreating FSU backline, using her one passing option as a threat, but ultimately shoots and scores when the Noles don’t pressure the ball as she approaches the area.

This next chance starts with a great dribble to win a one-on-one, but once again, notice the retreating defenders, so worried about occupying space near the goal that they forget to account for the late-arriving Notre Dame runners.

The Tar Heels have plenty of great dribblers to trouble the Noles if given the chance.

North Carolina

North Carolina’s shocking 2-1 loss to Virginia Tech on Oct. 1 saw both late goals conceded thanks to well-timed runs and passes that beat its high defensive line. The first sees acres of space on the left for VT’s Gabby Johnson, who slips in Taylor Bryan for the equalizer.

Just minutes later, the Heels were caught again, this time over the top. Tech’s Tori Powell starts her run before her teammate has even controlled the ball. Her hand is in the air because she knows the right pass will result in a chance.

That looks like the exact situation FSU’s Jody Brown would love to find herself in.

We’re in for a barnstormer of a soccer match Thursday night. A potential conference decider and postseason preview all in one.

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