After a troubling mid-season lull during which the UVA women’s soccer team dropped three games from five by one-goal margins, Coach Steve Swanson’s Cavaliers have gone on a tear, outscoring opponents 19-3 over a five game run.
Virginia claimed the ACC Tournament championship with a 4-0 demolition of Maryland this past Sunday and begins its quest for an NCAA title against Atlantic 10 champion LaSalle 6pm tomorrow night at Klockner Stadium.
“It’s nice to be back at home,” Swanson said. “We played the ACC tournament with a hunger to win it and a little bit of a chip on our shoulder to win it and I think that’s how we have to approach the NCAA Tournament.”
Virginia was given a #2 seed in a northeastern regional bracket topped by Penn State after finishing its season at 16-4-1 and ranked #3 in the nation. The draw sets up a potential round of 16 clash with ACC rival Duke and a quarterfinal date with the Nittany Lions, who handed UVA its first loss of the season in Charlottesville back in August.
“It’s not like men’s basketball where you don’t have to worry about money where you can just put the number one team against the number sixteen team without worrying about the geography,” Swanson said. “It’s not going to make sense to many people if you’re looking at it purely from a ‘who’s done what during the season’ perspective.”
Swanson credited his team with sticking together during a difficult transition after both he and star center midfielder Morgan Brian missed the first part of the season for the FIFA U-20 World Cup, which the U.S. won in fantastic fashion in Tokyo.
“It’s always tough to have a transition like we had in the middle of a season,” Swanson said. “Morgan hadn’t played with the team and we had to get her back into the lineup and we had a few key injuries in there too. We just had to get it sorted out again. It was almost like a preseason.”
UVA struggled to find its top form as Swanson tinkered with lineup combinations, formations, and player rotations. But the signs were good all season that the team had a huge upside. Senior Caroline Miller has had a magic year, racking up 14 goals en route to being named ACC Offensive Player of the Year. Miller’s cool head around goal and flair for the dramatic are just one of many crowd-pleasing aspects of this UVA team, which employs a 4-1-3-2 formation that emphasizes ball possession and changing the point of attack.
Senior holding midfielder Julia Roberts has been a firm and consistent presence, providing cover for a back four that has experienced a slew of injuries and position changes. Freshmen Mackenzy Doniak and Emily Sonnett, both of whom made the ACC All-Freshman team, have added pace and depth. Wide players Danielle Colaprico and Erica Holleberg have controlled the team’s offensive rhythm, making good decisions about when to initiate the attack and when to retain possession.
Virginia ran powerhouse Florida State, a team that’s gifted technically and physically, out of the park in the ACC tournament semifinal before routing Maryland in the final. Brian was named MVP of the tournament as she found her best form and notched three goals and three assists over three games, but Swanson was quick to spread the praise around.
“They’re recognizing where the space is, they’re making good decisions, and they’re unselfish. And I think that’s the biggest thing. They’re moving well off the ball and they’re looking for one another,” Swanson said.
So is the coach afraid of a let-down or glad to see his team finally hitting on all cylinders?
“We’ve got momentum and we’re playing at a good level right now, so there’s a lot of reasons to feel confident, but we also know it’s a whole different season. It doesn’t matter what we did last week,” Swanson said. “We’re just excited to get going again and excited to be at home.”
To read about Steve Swanson and Morgan Brian’s triumph in Tokyo at the FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup, click here.