The 2020 College Cup kicks off on Thursday from Cary, North Carolina. In the unusual season, there is some familiarity in the participants for the College Cup. North Carolina, Santa Clara, Florida State, and Virginia have all been to this stage of the competition before.
The four head coaches spoke with the members of the media on Tuesday about this unique season, their quest for the historic ending, and the challenges of getting their team to this point.
Santa Clara comes into the College Cup with a ton of confidence even though they are facing the perennial favorites of college soccer, the North Carolina Tar Heels, and making their first appearance in the College Cup in 16 years.
“It feels good to be back here,” Santa Clara head coach Jerry Smith said during the zoom press conference on Tuesday. “It’s our 11th trip. It feels familiar even though it’s been a while. I’ve enjoyed my opportunity to coach in the College Cup and coach against Anson Dorrance and the Tar Heels. Anson Dorrance is in a class by himself. There is nobody close. This is their 30th College Cup. Having said that, we’ve won five of the last seven against the Tar Heels. And we’ve won three of the last four in the NCAA Tournament. We’ve won the last two in the College Cup. We’re looking forward to the challenge. We’re attempting to do something we’ve done before - more than once.”
“We’re meant to be here,” Smith said. “We’ve played these games against Carolina. We won our last matchup against Carolina in 2018. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Santa Clara used a goal from freshman Sally Menti in the Elite Eight to book the spot in the College Cup. Smith spoke about how that game revealed the character of his team.
“The Clemson coach, I think, out-coached us,” Smith said. “We were the surprised team. They came out in something we didn’t expect. Once we scored, they changed it up. And it threw us off again.”
Perhaps some of the challenges of this season helped this group overcome the adversity. Smith spoke about the canceled games and difficulties in scheduling make-up contests this season.
“It’s been a big challenge,” Smith said. “We played zero games in the spring of 2019. Most teams played in the fall, North Carolina played a full schedule, we played zero games in the fall. We tried to get going in January but Santa Clara County didn’t allow us so we didn’t get started until February. We lost our entire non-conference schedule. We loaded up our non-conference but every game was canceled. Our first practice with the majority of our players was on February 10th. Two weeks later, we played our first game against Portland. Going into the tournament, we only played seven games.”
“I’ve never had a team at Santa Clara - certainly not a Final Four caliber team - hit their stride after seven or even 10 games,” Smith said. “We haven’t hit our stride. We haven’t had the luxury of experimenting with a ton of games. Practices are fine, but they don’t really tell you who you are or what you need to work on. You have to play tough teams and they’ll expose you and then you will figure out what to work on. It’s been a very, very unusual year. I give a ton of credit to our players. They’ve been resilient, they’ve been tough. They’ve been coachable.”
The character has shined through during the long stay in Carolina. Santa Clara has battled through the challenges to emerge as one of the four teams left contending for the championship.
“I’m so impressed with the mentality of our student-athletes,” Smith said. “We’ve had to do so much more this year - for example, when we played Ohio State we had to play in a formation for the first time in the seven games this season. Then when we played Arkansas, we had to play in another new formation for the first time all year. Now, we are playing the Tar Heels and contemplating yet another new formation against the Tar Heels. It’s impossible to do that unless your students are trusting, smart, and can integrate new information to make it work under the stress and pressure of that stage. Huge kudos to the student-athletes on the team, what they are accomplishing is unique and special.”
There is plenty of talent on this Santa Clara roster, and historically it has been one of the most successful programs in developing players for the national team and professional level. During the press conference, Smith singled out Alexis Loera as one of those special student-athletes on this season’s roster.
“Alex is just a really amazing player,” Smith said. “She is really a midfielder but we play her at center back. She won Defensive Player of the Year in our conference for the second year in a row. She is a big reason why we are still playing - coming off two shutouts in a row. Her playing partner, the other center back, Sophie Jones, on the morning that we learned that we were seeded team in the NCAA Tournament we went out for a light practice and Sophia had an injury that put her out for the year in a very light practice. We had to put another player in there, Eden White, who didn’t have a start all year. Eden’s been fantastic, but a big part of it has been Alexis Loera’s leadership back there.”
Smith also gave credit to some of the others who have stepped up this season.
“We had the Freshman of the Year in our conference in Sally Menti, who just scored the game-winner against Clemson,” Smith said. “She leads our team in assists, and has been a real bright spot for us. Of course, Kelsey Turnbow was drafted into the NWSL and she will go on and play for the Chicago Red Stars. In the meantime, she is still with us. She is our points leader. Julie Doyle was picked up by the Orlando Pride. She will join the Pride (after the season). She had both assists in our Arkansas game and has been a difference-maker for us.”
“Izzy D’Aquila is second on our team in points and is an out-and-out goal scorer. And the last player I’ll mention is our goalkeeper is Marlee Nicolos. She is coming off two shutouts. She came into our team three years ago, but she was so good that we redshirted her because we didn’t want to waste her year because we had a senior captain goalkeeper. Right before her sophomore year, she suffered an ACL injury and missed the season. We didn’t have a season in the fall because of the pandemic so it’s funny to hear her get introduced as freshman Marlee Nicolos when she’s about to finish her third year at Santa Clara.”
Smith knows his group will need to be special once again on Thursday when they take on the Tar Heels at 5:30 PM (ET). The game is scheduled to be broadcast on ESPN2.
North Carolina is trying to write a story for the history books with basically a brand new roster for the last time the team took the field before the spring season.
“Since August, six players have gone pro or been lost to injury,” North Carolina head coach Anson Dorrance said on Tuesday during the zoom press conference. “We sent three players to the English professional league in August when there wasn’t going to be a championship. They’ve done well - one of them was the Player of the Month for Arsenal. These are great players that we lost. We lost a kid in January as the first player selected in the NWSL draft in Emily Fox who is now playing for Louisville. We also had a player selected by Louisville at No. 11 who was our starting No. 6 in Taylor Otto.”
No other team that advanced to the College Cup had a player selected in the first 17 picks of the NWSL draft. Santa Clara’s Kelsey Turnbow was selected in the 18th spot. Virginia’s Taryn Torres was selected in the third round.
“Then we lost a player to the lacrosse team who was our starting right back (Julia Dorsey),” Dorrance continued citing the overwhelming amount of sports overlapping during this season since everything was pushed to the spring due to the pandemic. “They are going to win a national championship in lacrosse with her.”
Star center back Maycee Bell, who Anson Dorrance called “one of the greatest defenders I’ve ever coached in my life” almost missed out on the season due to ankle surgery. She is slowly making her return but still not cleared to play “maximum minutes.” North Carolina also lost key reserve Maggie Pierce to an ACL tear during the game against Florida State.
“In light of all of the players we’ve lost, I’m ecstatic to be in the Final Four,” Dorrance said. “We’re excited and ready to play. For most of the spring, we’ve had six freshman starting and two sophomores. I’m thrilled we’re still alive in the NCAA Tournament.”
There is still a tall task ahead with Santa Clara looming in the semifinal round of the College Cup, but Dorrance is aware of the historical significance if his young squad can pull off the feat.
“This is extraordinary unique,” Dorrance said when asked about the challenges of this season for his team compared to previous teams. “I’ve told my kids, if they win it all this year, it will be one of the great achievements in college sport of all time. I’ve asked them to write themselves into history. There is no way that a team losing that (many players) - we don't have a senior who is playing. They’re all gone. And they aren’t ordinary seniors. These are All-Americans. They were up for the Player of the Year. In light of who we lost, this could be extraordinary. I am so proud of this team. I’m asking them to write themselves into women’s soccer history.”
North Carolina did manage to keep some talent on the roster as midfielder Brianna Pinto, the No. 3 overall selection in the NWSL draft, decided to play during the spring season and compete for an NCAA National Championship before joining the professional ranks.
“She is an extraordinary talent,” Dorrance said about Pinto. “If she continues to progress, she has a shot at the full women’s national team. We’re excited that she is playing out her spring with us. We cherish every minute she has with us.”
Dorrance, Pinto, and the rest of the Tar Heels are hoping they have at least 180 more minutes together. Santa Clara stands in the way on Thursday in the College Cup.
Virginia is back in the College Cup, but Steve Swanson’s side faces a tall task with a meeting against Florida State on the schedule for the opener on Thursday. Florida State, the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, topped Virginia in the meeting back in fall. Despite the result, Swanson saw a lot of positives from that game to take into the rematch at College Cup.
“At that point, they were the better team on the day for sure,” Swanson said during the zoom press conference on Tuesday. “When I remember the game, we had just had six to seven players coming off being in contact trace for 14 days - and this is no excuse at all. That was their first soccer in that amount of time. We’re certainly in a different place now.”
Swanson spoke about the momentum of his group now. They’ve been tested along the way with a variety of different playing styles from their opponents.
“It’s been a real help for us,” Swanson said when asked about playing against different styles along the way. “ Like I said we were only able to play four games in the spring. You need games. The games we played were good, but there is nothing like the tournament. I like this format. Instead of the Friday-Sunday format, we have enough days to recover and prepare for the next one. We’ve had to adjust and adapt not only to what we needed to do but what our opponent’s strengths are.”
They will need to adjust once again against a Florida State team that has only conceded one goal in three games during the tournament.
“They’re a very complete team,” Swanson said about Florida State. “They attack well, they possess the ball well, but they aren’t just a possession oriented team. They penetrate quite well. I don’t think they get enough credit for how strong they are defensively. They have a lot of good athletes and they press really well.”
Virginia found success in the transition in the earlier meeting this season, and it sounds like they will be looking for opportunities in the rematch to exploit the cracks in Florida State’s armor - a similar plan to how Penn State scored against the top seed in the Third Round matchup.
“The thing about Florida State is they possess the ball a lot in small spaces, but that also means they have to defend a big area,” Swanson said. “I think for us one of the keys is how can we hit them in transition and take advantage of the space we can get. The games we’ve had in the past with them, it always comes down to a play or two.”
Expect another tight battle on Thursday when the ACC foes square off at 6 pm (ET) on ESPN2 in the first game of the 2020 College Cup.
Will experience be the key to success on Thursday?
Florida State is certainly hoping that is the case. Head coach Mark Krikorian’s side won the title in 2018 in Cary, North Carolina and is back at another crack at the apple in this edition.
“I sure hope so,” Krikorian replied when asked about experience mattering at this stage. “I think it does. This is a different year. Our kids have been through it. We’ve played on this field enough over the years. Our kids won’t be bothered by being on the big stage. Having felt this before, they will be pretty confident in the environment.”
Florida State faces a familiar opponent in the semifinal game on Thursday. The Virginia Cavaliers are no strangers to success in the NCAA Tournament, but the current roster has yet to make a College Cup. Krikorian knows not to overlook a Steve Swanson coached side.
“I’m not sure how many coaches out there are better than Steve Swanson, so we know they are going to be extremely organized, prepared, and have a great game plan,” Krikorian said. “I’m sure they will have great execution as well. It is very difficult to play familiar opponents.”
Florida State won the earlier meeting 4-3 back in October, but both teams are very different from that point of the season to now.
“I’m not sure it is as relevant,” Krikorian said. “We’ve lost players. They are different than in the Fall. The principles (of playing) are the same. From a stylistic point of view, you will see some similarities.”
Florida State is expected to control the possession game while Virginia looks to strike in transition. It’s not much of a mystery between these teams considering the regular meetings in conference play. The edge that Florida State has might be the maturity of the squad.
““I’m thankful we have a mature team,” Krikorian said. “This is an older team for us. They are probably more mature than I am. They’ve taken everything in stride.”
Given the unusual situation of the Spring Season (and Florida State already clinching a spot in the NCAA Tournament after winning the ACC Tournament in the Fall), Krikorian elected to challenge his experienced group with a different schedule. Florida State scheduled four games against professional teams (two against Orlando Pride, two against Racing Louisville), two games against men’s teams, and a friendly against in-state rival Florida.
They will find out if the different approach worked on Thursday when they play against Virginia in the 2020 College Cup opener at 6 pm (ET).