BOCA RATON, Florida — At any level of soccer, teams don't reach the semifinal of a major knockout tournament by accident.
It shouldn't come as any surprise that the 2014 College Cup field serves up a pair of semifinal matchups between programs that share a lot of similarities. In some ways, when each team takes the field at FAU Stadium on Friday night, they'll be facing a mirror image of one another.
Virginia and Texas A&M have shown a consistent ability to find the back of the net, scoring 85 and 70 goals respectively this season. On the other side of the bracket, stout defenses have anchored the success of Stanford and Florida State, with 12 and 9 goals allowed this year.
Coaches and players alike know that in order to survive and advance to Sunday's game, it's going to take more than just relying on what got you to this point.
“We have to play well in every phase," Virginia head coach Steve Swanson said. "We will have to defend very well. [Texas A&M] have a lot of weapons, a lot of ways to score. We have to move the ball well and try to keep possession. And, we have to convert on our chances. That is something we did last week against UCLA. We didn’t get a lot of chances but the chances we did get we finished. At this stage, that is very important."
The goals could come in bunches in the first semifinal if the Aggie attack, bolstered by the quartet of Kelley Monogue, Shea Groom, Bianca Brinson and Allie Bailey, hits the ground running. Virginia can counter with U.S. international Morgan Brian, who will look to setup scoring chances for her speedy teammates up front, Makenzy Doniak and Brittany Ratcliffe.
A&M head coach G Guerrieri expects a lot of offense, especially from his side.
"This is a free form attacking team to where we have a lot of players who have different types of skill sets, some things that are big advantages for us and the way we play," he said. "You can throw Liz Keester into the mix too as someone who can turn a game around immediately. I think you will see from Virginia, but especially from us that we believe in playing a good brand of defense but it is a lot more fun to attack. It is a lot more fun to get goals and get goals going. That gets the crowd going and gets our energy up. If we can hold onto the ball, our motto is that if we can hold onto the ball then you can’t score."
When Florida State and Stanford square off in the other semifinal, one goal might be enough. The two teams are likely to both play 4-2-3-1 formations, relying on senior attacking midfielders (Lo'eau LaBonta for Stanford and Dagny Brynjarsdottir for Florida State), stiflying back lines and young but tremendously talented goalkeepers in Jane Campbell and Cassie Miller. Both teams try and dominate possession and in turn, limit the opposition's chances.
Florida State head coach Mark Krikorian, whose defense has conceded once in the past eight games, cited consistency as the key to getting to this point.
“Earlier in the season, I think we were giving up too many chances and giving up more goals than we wanted to, but as the season has gone on, I think the continuity of the defenders, starting with our front players, through the midfield and backline, right to the goalkeeper has been very good," Florida State head coach Mark Krikorian said. "Up to this point, we’ve limited opponents’ chances at our goal and I think, at the end of the day, that’s important for us tomorrow and going forward.”
There’s also an abundance of quality running through all four sides, both from an individual and team perspective.
Full internationals Brian and Brynjarsdottir return to the College Cup stage. 2011 champions Stanford are back in the College Cup for the third time in three years. And Texas A&M, while debuting at this stage of the NCAA tournament, have been one of the most consistent programs over the past decade.
“In our game, it is hard to be consistent as [A&M head coach G Guerrieri] and his program have been over the years,” Swanson said. “They have changed conferences and they still win conference championships. They have been among the elite for a long, long time and I think that is very difficult to do – full credit to him. Not only that I think he has built a program where a lot of the community is involved, they have great attendance figures every year.”
From an experience perspective, Stanford head coach Paul Ratcliffe downplayed the fact his side is the only one to have been at this stage of the season and actually won.
"I’m not a big believer in that," he said. "I think it comes down to this team. We’ve got to stay focused and have that drive and desire and keep our composure and play good soccer and get a good result. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together, they’re all good teams. It’s about who can execute on the field and make things happen on the day."
Of course, not all teams are exactly alike, and whichever ones can make the plays that separates from the other on Friday, will get a chance at a national title on Sunday.