This Friday, it marks the beginning of the end of the women’s college soccer season, as the 2015 College Cup marks a capstone on the latest campaign. Preview the national semifinals below (kick off times ET).
How They Got Here: The Nittany Lions flourished on both sides of the ball to make it this far, carving up Albany, Boston University and Ohio State in the first three rounds by a combined 15-0 score line. West Virginia kept it close in the quarterfinals, but Penn State pulled out a 2-0 victory at home.
Defense was the cornerstone of Rutgers’ progression, with wins over Fairleigh Dickinson (1-0), Hofstra (2-0) and Connecticut (4-0) setting up the 0-0 draw against Virginia, where the Scarlet Knights triumphed on spot kicks.
Players to Watch: The defensive core for Rutgers – Casey Murphy in goal, plus the central defensive partnership of Erica Skroski and Brianne Reed provided as good of a backbone as any team in the nation. Timely scoring has come from Colby Ciarrocca and Cassie Inacio.
Despite a relatively young defense (anchored by freshman Kaleigh Riehl and sophomore Elizabeth Ball), the Nittany Lions haven’t conceded a goal in the NCAA Tournament yet either. The quality and quantity of offensive weapons they have is significant, from Megan Schafer, Mallory Weber to Hermann Trophy candidate Raquel Rodriguez and Emily Ogle.
Keys to the Game: This marks the third time this season the Penn State and Rutgers line up against each other. They split the first two meetings, with Rutgers winning at home 1-0 in the regular season, and Penn State capturing the Big Ten tournament title in State College on Nov. 8 by a 2-0 score. It may be an obvious sentiment, but whichever team scores first has a huge advantage, as each side is defensively capable of shutting the game down and holding on to a one-goal advantage.
In terms of experience, Penn State holds the slight edge in the tournament, though it’s somewhat negligible. This year’s senior class was freshmen back in 2012 when they reached the title game. Rodriguez and Weber both started the championship game that year, a 4-1 loss against North Carolina.
Prediction: Penn State to get that goal in overtime. 1-0 to the Nittany Lions.
How They Got Here: Seeking a second straight national title, Florida State rolls into the College Cup as the favorites. The Seminoles made it this far without conceding a goal, beating Evansville (3-0), South Alabama (5-0), Auburn (2-0) and Texas A&M (5-0). In those four games, FSU has conceded just three shots on target.
A young and plucky Duke side executed four outstanding game plans, from a 5-0 First Round win over James Madison, shutting down Florida Gulf Coast (2-0) and Florida (2-1), before overcoming Stanford on penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw in Palo Alto.
Players to Watch: The loss of Icelandic Dagny Brynjarsdottir left a gaping hole in the FSU starting lineup after last season. No worries for head coach Mark Krikorian, who reached overseas and picked up another gem in Irish freshman Megan Connolly. The ACC Midfielder and Freshman of the Year, Connolly leads the team in assists, but is just one small piece of the puzzle. The stifling play of holding midfielders Michaela Hahn and Isabella Schmid is key to the team’s defensive excellence, not to mention Kirsten Crowley’s leadership and play at the back and Cassie Miller in goal. Cheyna Williams is also a handful up front, as she’s shown this season with her ability to score and create chances for her teammates. Super sub Berglin Thorvalsdottir ensures that the opposing defenses have no rest, spelling Williams as the lone forward off the bench. Carson Pickett is deadly from either set piece situations or buzzing up and down the left flank.
Duke’s return to the College Cup came on the back of a young yet very talented roster. With just one senior, midfielder Kara Wilson, expected to start, there’s certainly a gulf in experience between the two teams but certainly not in class. Freshmen Kayla McCoy and Taylor Racioppi have been two of the bright spots in their debut seasons, and they’ll need to create problems in the final third if Duke is to have a shot. Toni Payne has scored some big goals, and she’ll be a key in providing attacking width along with Casey Martinez and Imani Dorsey. Defensively, Christina Gibbons, Rebecca Quinn and Lizzie Raben have been extremely effective in front of EJ Proctor’s goal, and should be able to keep this game close.
Keys to the Game: Back on Sept. 20, the two teams played to a 0-0 draw, though Florida State was missing regular starters Megan Campbell, Connolly, Natalia Kuikka and Emma Koivisto on international duty. That result has little bearing on what will take place Friday night, and on paper, FSU looks like the heavy favorite this time around. Of course, Duke head coach Robbie Church has drawn up the right game plan in two straight matches against favored sides Florida and Stanford, so he’ll have his side prepared for a familiar ACC opponent. The battle in the midfield is critical, as Racioppi, Wilson and Ashton Miller will seek to wrest control from the likes of Connolly, Hahn and Schmid in the center of the park. Of course, if Duke neutralizes things in the middle, the flank play of Carson Pickett and Kuikka becomes an option.
Prediction: The Seminoles’ combination of quality and experience eventually overcomes Duke, with FSU advancing by a 1-0 score.