As opponents will attest, the Virginia women’s team has played the most attractive style of soccer at the collegiate level this year. Many national observers would contend the Cavaliers are more artistic than anything offered in the men’s game as well.
It’s not just the torrent of goals, although an average of more than three per game while competing in the ACC, the nation’s premier conference, is enough to support the claim. It’s the way the once-beaten Cavaliers perform, with a flair and flow typically lacking on the hustle-and-bustle college circuit.
“Virginia plays the best brand of soccer in the women’s college game I’ve seen in a long time,” Michigan’s Greg Ryan, a former U.S. national team coach, said after a loss in Charlottesville two weeks ago.
“It’s great to see that quality of soccer in the women’s college game,” he added. Ryan also compared Virginia’s methods to the world’s model for chic soccer: FC Barcelona.
Both elegant and unforgiving, the Cavaliers (24-1-0) have arrived at the College Cup in Cary, N.C., as clear favorites to win their first NCAA championship. They will face UCLA, the nation’s top defensive side, in Friday’s 7:30 p.m. semifinal at WakeMed Soccer Park.
In the first match, Virginia Tech, the only team to defeat the Cavaliers, will meet Florida State. The final is Sunday afternoon.
In advancing to the College Cup, Virginia ended years of tournament shortfalls — no semifinal appearances since 1991 — and proved that inventive, graceful soccer can both entertain and conquer.
“We care about the results — we must — but along with it is the type of performance we put out,” said Steve Swanson, in his 14th season at Virginia’s helm. “It’s about moving the ball, the mobility, interchangeable parts and teamwork. My vision is to revolutionize and say, ‘Hey, we can play attractive soccer.’ It’s fun to coach, and it’s fun to watch.”
Turning out in record numbers, fans watched the Cavaliers become the first ACC team in 10 years to win every regular season league match. That’s no simple feat: The ACC furnished the 64-team NCAA tournament with eight participants, including six that advanced to the quarterfinals and three to the College Cup.
Virginia mauled opponents by a 77-15 margin and recorded at least four goals on eight occasions. Junior midfielder Morgan Brian, co-favorite with North Carolina’s Crystal Dunn to win the Hermann Trophy as the nation’s best player, has posted 16 goals and 14 assists, while sophomore forward Makenzy Doniak has contributed 19 goals.
Despite their haughty numbers, the Cavaliers are not invincible. The Hokies, who are making their first College Cup appearance, scored three goals in the first 50 minutes en route to a 4-2 upset in the ACC semifinals in Cary. And Virginia’s past three NCAA opponents have kept the score close by bunkering defensively and counterattacking.
Such tactics test patience and resolve.
“It’s difficult when there are a lot of players behind the ball and concentrating on stopping you from getting any space and chances,” Swanson said. “At that point, possession doesn’t matter. It’s how many solid chances you get and how many you can put away.”
The Cavaliers are preparing for stout resistance by UCLA (21-1-2), which has not lost since early September and hasn’t conceded multiple goals in any game. The Bruins have registered 17 shutouts and permitted seven goals overall.
Bruins Coach Amanda Cromwell knows the Virginia program well. The Annandale native captained the 1991 U-Va. Final Four squad and then served as an assistant coach before moving to head positions at UMBC, Central Florida and UCLA this year.
The Cavaliers’ aim is to implement their free-flowing methods. Speaking in general about his team’s panache, Swanson said: “It’s such an unstructured sport. We have a lot of ideas, and it’s hard to defend ideas. It’s hard to defend creativity.”
In the first match, the Hokies (19-4-3) will seek to avenge a pair of defeats to the Seminoles (22-1-3) — 2-1 in the regular season and 1-0 in the ACC final. Virginia Tech has conceded one goal in four NCAA tournament matches but will face a team that has scored 16 in the same stretch.
College Cup notes: Each semifinal team fields players from McLean Youth Soccer, an elite club program. Under the guidance of technical director Clyde Watson, a fixture for decades on the Washington soccer scene, MYS sent seven players to Virginia, three to Virginia Tech and one apiece to UCLA and Florida State.