CARY, NORTH CAROLINA — The 2022 DI women’s national championship will be decided Monday when the UCLA Bruins and North Carolina Tar Heels battle at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina.
Monday's championship game between the Tar Heels and Bruins is at 6 p.m. ET on ESPNU and streams on ESPN+ (subscription required).
Before sitting down for the match though, let's get an idea of how each team will attack the other. If all of these intricacies in each team’s game plan seem a bit nuanced and marginal, it’s because that’s almost certainly what this match will come down to. A national champion will be crowned, and here are some of the defining patterns and moments you should look for on the pitch.
After a dominant 5-0 win over Old Dominion in the first round of the tournament, North Carolina introduced a new wrinkle to its offense in the second round: the 3-5-2 formation. North Carolina coach Anson Dorrance said the change was intentional and meant to get more bodies involved in the attack than the previous 4-3-3 look. In the four games since the change, the Tar Heels have averaged nearly three goals per game against increasingly difficult opposition.
In case the numbers don’t convince you of the formation’s attacking prowess, perhaps the personnel will. Avery Patterson, the Heels’ leading scorer, has been shifted from her left-sided forward spot to left wingback. The extra defensive workload hasn’t impacted her offense much, with four assists since the switch. And judging by the runs and attacking intent she still shows even from deep, she may be due for her 12th goal of the season on Monday.
Avery Patterson, the (")left wingback(") that leads her team in scoring and does not care for seeing out the lead by passing it around the back. pic.twitter.com/Jt7xZbzQDQ— Alberto Camargo (@albaretoe) December 5, 2022
So where have the goals come, if not from Patterson? Step up Ally Sentnor. The redshirt freshman entered the tournament with five goals in 19 games and has doubled her tally in the five games since, including back-to-back braces in the first two rounds. Her confidence is at a high right now, and it shows in her play. This is not a shot that an out-of-form striker even thinks about.
Allow Ally Sentnor space to shoot if you wish but I would not advise. pic.twitter.com/ygZYbL5YJ1— Alberto Camargo (@albaretoe) December 5, 2022
In the attacking half, the Tar Heels still look to play a lot of the same kinds of cutbacks and low crosses in wide areas as we’ve come to expect from them. Here you see Patterson waiting patiently for service out wide, controlling with one touch and sending in the low ball with the next. The pass is cut out but it forces the defense to make a play — simple but effective soccer.
Back to basics, 2+2=4 soccer. but if it ain't broke? pic.twitter.com/dHevFeyF9j— Alberto Camargo (@albaretoe) December 5, 2022
Later in the first half against Florida State, another ball is sent in from the left. This comes shortly after a corner kick, so it wasn’t exactly within the offense, but the idea is the same: Swing it in or around the six-yard box. This time, it whizzes past several defenders and reaches right wingback Emily Moxley at the back post. Her touch goes wide, but this is exactly what Carolina wants.
North Carolina and the Corridor of Uncertainty pic.twitter.com/eeK7MJcoT3— Alberto Camargo (@albaretoe) December 5, 2022
Because eventually one of those chances will be converted or the defense will make a mistake. This next clip includes some smart movement by UNC to open up that precious wide space near the penalty area. Moxley receives the ball on the endline and runs inside to link with the forwards. The ball is then worked wide and flashed across goal for what should be an easy clearance, but the attempt is scuffed and falls perfectly for UNC’s Aleigh Gambone. 1-0 Tar Heels.
The box score lists this goal as unassisted, but video don't lie. pic.twitter.com/aWEh1dkqrl— Alberto Camargo (@albaretoe) December 5, 2022
One other thing to note about that play: it starts when right-center back Julia Dorsey dribbles forward freely and lays it off to Moxley. That kind of run is encouraged in the three-back system because defenses typically will not have a player devoted to marking center backs, allowing them space to push forward with the ball.
The Bruins will line up in a base 4-3-3 formation with a starting XI that has gone mostly unchanged throughout the tournament. You may be surprised to know that UCLA has not won the possession battle in most of its tournament games so far given the team’s quality, but that’s how coach Margueritte Aozasa gets the best of her team — by playing direct and with speed.
If there were a heat map for how UCLA attacks, it would show it favors the wide spaces on either side of the penalty area. The left-sided duo of Quincy McMahon and Lexi Wright has combined for four goals and two assists in five tournament games. They’re most effective when McMahon overlaps Wright to open a passing option or draw attention away from the forwards. Even when Sofia Cook subs in for Wright, McMahon’s ability to overlap serves essentially as another forward, seen here in the Bruins’ second goal in the third round against Northwestern.
Whether this pass was meant for her or not, Quincy McMahon's (19) overlapping run was rewarded. pic.twitter.com/10Te9jclBu— Alberto Camargo (@albaretoe) December 5, 2022
The threat of McMahon is mirrored on the opposite side with right back Madelyn Desiano. She is just as capable of driving forward with the ball and progressing the Bruins up the field with almost brutal efficiency. But even when a midfielder like Maricarmen Reyes rotates to play on the right temporarily, like the play below, Wright makes a diagonal run to drag a center back with her and open space for Turner, who Reyes finds with a picture-perfect through ball.
The decoy run, the pass, the first touch. Nearly the perfect goal 😮💨 pic.twitter.com/Hrp5Vs5ghW— Alberto Camargo (@albaretoe) December 5, 2022
UCLA created several chances like this against Alabama. The majority of them were initiated with passes sprayed wide to stretch the Crimson Tide’s three center backs. On this next play, midfielder Ally Lemos finds McMahon all alone on the left. She takes on the defender and reaches the byline, where a well-placed cutback finds a stalking Turner for the easy finish.
El pase de la muerte. pic.twitter.com/9Qejnp2tT6— Alberto Camargo (@albaretoe) December 5, 2022
While a three-back formation does provide some extra solidity with an additional center back, it can be exposed if it doesn’t receive enough support out wide. This makes for an interesting battle between North Carolina’s relatively-fresh three-back look and UCLA’s insistence on working play into those wide areas.
Also, should the Bruins have trouble breaking down the Tar Heels, there’s always Sunshine Fontes. UCLA’s leading scorer is usually the most advanced of the midfield three, and though this next play includes a goalkeeping error, it’s a great example of Fontes’ game-breaking ability.
Sunshine Fontes— Alberto Camargo (@albaretoe) December 5, 2022
& Lexi Wright 🤝 Ciara
It's safe to say the national title could be decided by any combination of these patterns or abilities. But one thing is certain: we will be crowning a new women's soccer champion on Monday night.