Fasten Your Seatbelts As Four Very Deserving Teams Have Played Their Way Onto The Biggest Stage In College Soccer.
North Carolina (19-4-1) vs Florida State (17-2-3) – Friday 6 p.m. EST
Let’s begin with four givens.
First, Both North Carolina and Florida State have storied histories.
The Tar Heels have a deeper history that includes an amazing 31 trips to the College Cup with the last being in 2020 and 21 NCAA National Championships with the last coming in 2012. Florida State has had more success of late. The Seminoles have won the ACC Championship in nine out of the past 12 seasons including the last three seasons in a row and is 6-1 in the ACC Tournament against UNC since 2011. FSU has appeared in the College Cup 13 times and won the National Championship in 2014, 2018, 2021.
Second, both programs have plenty of big game experience.
Third, both attract players who expect to win a national championship. This is the type of matchup on the greatest stage in college soccer that the players for both programs relish.
Fourth, they have played twice this year with North Carolina prevailing 2-1 in a regular season matchup in Tallahassee and FSU prevailing 2-1 in the ACC Tournament Title game. Accordingly, both teams know that they have to bring their “A” game to prevail in this third and most important matchup.
North Carolina has been hampered by several injuries throughout the season but has made the necessary adjustments and now looks to be playing their best soccer of the year with a level of confidence and focus that they previously lacked at times. The Tar Heels come into this one off an impressive on the road 2-0 win over Notre Dame.
The Tar Heels will apply pressure. However, their ability to do so effectively for a sustained period of time could be problematic since they do not have the depth that they have had at times in past. That means that the ability of freshmen forward Maddie Dahlien (4g, 3a) and midfielder Tori Dellaperuta (4g, 1a) and senior midfielders Maggie Pierce and Aleigh Gambone (1g, 0a) among others to provide solid minutes is a critical success factor for UNC.
Goal scoring opportunities are usually created as a result of a breakdown that occurs a few plays earlier. This is the type game in which a failed clearance, an errant pass, or poor judgement can prove to be costly. Stamina and focus physically and mentally will come into play in a game in which there is little margin for error.
FSU comes into this contest off a closer than expected 1-0 win over Arkansas. Regardless the Seminoles also look to be playing their best soccer of the year. Any concerns relating to the impact of a transition to a new coach that may have existed were resolved a long time ago.
A very opportunistic FSU has been playing at a pace and with a rhythm that has been taking a cumulative toll on their opponents. The Seminoles have outscored their opponents 11 to 1 in their four NCAA Tournament games with 9 of their 11 goals coming in the second half of play. FSU has been particularly effective out of set pieces and in transition.
It is trite but true that big time players make big time plays in games like this one. Forwards Avery Patterson (11g, 8a) and Ally Sentnor (10g, 2a) are among the keys for the Tar Heels. Forwards Jenna Nighswonger (6g, 16a) and Jody Brown (8g, 9a) and midfielder Onyi Echegini (10g, 5a) are among the likely candidates to come up big for the Seminoles on the offensive side of the ball.
Tar Heel midfielder Talia Dellaperuta (4g, 3a) and defender Tori Hansen (7g, 2a) and Seminole midfielder Clara Robbins (5g, 5a), who has a habit of having an impact in big games, and midfielder Leilanni Nesbeth (6g, 2a) are others who could be a difference maker.
Both teams will attack and seek to gain the upper hand. Both are capable of playing lockdown defense. The margin in this one will likely be a single goal unless a team is forced to play from behind and has to take risks in order to catch up that their opponent is able to exploit. Both teams are very familiar with each other and will likely stick pretty much to the same plan that has gotten them to this point.
Call this one even up-top with both teams having excellent playmakers, give FSU the edge with a midfield that includes Robbins, Echegini, Nesbeth, Ran Iwai, Heather Payne, Kaitlyn Zipay and Emma Bissel, give the North Carolina backline anchored by defenders Hansen and Julia Dorsey among others the edge, and Florida State, based on the big game experience of Cristina Roque, the advantage in goal.
Having said that, games like this always come down to which team is able to put it all together, put in a full 90 minutes of play without costly lapses on the defensive side of the ball, and do a better job of executing their game play.
Fasten your seatbelts this one will be exciting.
Alabama (23-2-1) vs. UCLA (20-2-1) – Friday 8:30 p.m. EST
This one features a UCLA team that returns to the College Cup for the third time in the last six years against an Alabama team that is making its first ever appearance in the College Cup.
Both teams punched their ticket to the 2022 College Cup by topping teams from the ACC in the Elite Eight in overtime. The Bruins advanced past Virginia 2-1 with freshman midfielder Sofia Cook netting the game-winner. The Tide topped Duke 3-2 with midfielder Reyna Reyes contributing the game-winner.
Both these teams will attack. Alabama has the most productive offense in college soccer this year with a multi-dimensional attack powered by forwards Riley Mattingly Parker (17g, 7a), Ashlynn Serepca (10g, 2a), Gianna Paul (8g, 5a) and Riley Tanner (5g, 8a) and midfielder Felicia Knox (7g, 20a).
UCLA led by forwards Sunshine Fontes (11g, 7a), Reilyn Turner (9g, 3a), Lexi Wright (7g, 6a) and freshman midfielders Sofia Cook (7g, 4a) and Ally Lemos (1g, 8a) also has a balanced attack that has scored a total of 62 goals.
UCLA has the advantage of having appeared in the College Cup before but that may not be much of a factor. This is a relatively young Bruin team and only a couple of the players on the current roster were on the team when they last appeared in the 2019 College Cup. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see how Alabama handles the emotion of being in their first College Cup.
Bruin head coach Margueritte Aozasa experienced the College Cup as an assistant coach at Stanford but this is her first appearance in the College Cup as a head coach. Alabama head coach Wes Hart also participated in a College Cup while an assistant coach at Florida State but this is his first appearance in the College Cup as a head coach.
Both teams have players up top who are capable of taking over a contest. Ryan Mattingly Parker is hard to contain when she has the ball at her feet and space that she can exploit in the attacking third. Ditto that for Bruin forwards Sunshine Fontes and Reilyn Turner.
Much will hinge on the ability of the midfielders to get the best of the run of play in the middle third and get the ball to the feet of their finishers in the attacking third. Both teams will want to push the tempo and maintain possession in the attacking third to take advantage of their talent up front. The play of Alabama midfielder Felica Knox will figure into that for the Tide. Ally Lemos and Maricarmen Reyes will play a key role in the middle of the park for the Bruins.
Both teams are solid on the defensive side of the ball. Bruin back Lilly Reale was named the Pac-12 Defender of the Year while Tide midfielder Reyna Reyes was named the SEC Defender of the Year.
Both teams also feature their conference’s Freshman of the Year. Forward Gianna Paul was named the SEC Freshman of the Year while Bruin midfielder Ally Lemos earned that honor from the Pac-12. Both Paul and Lemos are impact players.
In UCLA’s two losses they allowed goals out of set pieces. While it is a stretch to reach conclusions based on those two games, it is likely that UCLA’s effectiveness on both sides of the ball out of set pieces, particularly corner kicks, will be a key factor in the outcome.
The Bruins have a well organized defense anchored in goal by Lauren Brzykcy that will present a challenge for the Tide. Alabama’s ability to place their opponent under pressure has been a contributing factor in the success that they have had this year. Whether the Tide can break the code on a stout UCLA defense that has only allowed a total of 12 goals while posting 13 shutouts will be a key factor in the success that they have in this one.
Both teams have had banner seasons. It will be interesting to see which team does the better job of settling in and doing the things well that have gotten them to this point. Look for the first ten minutes of each half to be revealing in that regard.