Four burning questions for College Cup
College soccer will have a first-time champion -- that much we know. For just the second time, excluding the first NCAA event in 1982, the College Cup will feature four programs that have never won a women's soccer title. Which is not to say the field in Cary, N.C., lacks for proven quality, not with three No. 1 seeds and a No. 2 seed that had a strong case to be on the top seed line.
In preparation for Friday's semifinals pitting No. 1 Florida State against No. 1 Virginia Tech (ESPNU, 5 p.m. ET) and No. 1 Virginia against No. 2 UCLA (ESPNU, 7:30 p.m. ET), which questions remain?
What will it take to stop Virginia?
It's not just the volume of goals that the tournament's No. 1 overall seed scores, although it sure does score a lot of them, being the nation's most prolific team at 3.08 goals per game. Not only is Virginia the only team in the country averaging as many as three goals, but the gap between first and second is almost equal to the gap between second and 10th.
None of the other semifinalists cracks the top 30 in goals per game. And it's not as if Virginia played an easier schedule than ACC rivals Florida State and Virginia Tech or UCLA out of the Pac-12.
Postseason opponents have opted against going toe to toe with the Cavaliers, packing players behind the ball to limit chances, even at the expense of getting chances at the other end. Georgetown finished with just one shot and no corner kicks in a 1-0 second-round loss. Wake Forest also managed one shot in a 2-0 loss in the third round. Michigan's four shots looked like a barrage by comparison, but they weren't enough to avoid a 2-1 quarterfinal loss. To this point, Virginia's opponents have kept it close, but haven't come all that close to winning.
Asked how he would defend a team like the Cavaliers, since no one else has really figured out how to do it, Virginia coach Steve Swanson acknowledged the practicality of packing it in.
"I think you'd have to be aware of the space behind you, there's no question about that," Swanson said. "But I think you have to combine that with you've got to get goals to win games. ... I think a lot of teams, obviously, have been nervous about leaving space behind against us, which I can understand, given our team and what we've been able to do."
Virginia has multiple finishers up front in Makenzy Doniak and super sub Brittany Ratcliffe. It gets terrific service on the flanks from the likes of midfielders Danielle Colaprico and Alexis Shaffer and outside back Molly Menchel. It has defenders who are comfortable with the ball in Shasta Fisher, Emily Sonnett and Morgan Stith. And it has a generational talent tying it together in Morgan Brian.
Solving that riddle probably necessitates playing primarily on the counter without slipping into a bunker mentality. Virginia Tech did that in Virginia's lone loss, striking twice in the first half on counters and pushing forward when opportunity allowed in the second half. Michigan caused similar problems but only in small doses. UCLA showed it had the personnel to play that way against North Carolina, but it comes with a tiny margin for error.
"They're going to keeping coming at you," Michigan coach Greg Ryan said. "They're going to keep pressing, they're going to keep putting balls in behind you. They're going to wear you down a little bit."
Name to know: Morgan Brian
The hamstring and ankle injuries that took their toll on North Carolina All-American Crystal Dunn in the postseason also rendered another long-running debate moot. Virginia's junior midfielder is the best player in the country at the moment, and it hasn't even been close for a few weeks. Brian has 16 goals and 14 assists, making her the only player in Cary with double-digit goals and assists, but the numbers don't do justice to the command she has of the field or of how her vision and movement make every other player on her team better.
Can UCLA come up with one final first?
UCLA is already working on a postseason full of firsts.
Start with reaching the College Cup with a first-year coach in Amanda Cromwell, who is looking to join USC's Ali Khosroshahin as the only coaches to win a national championship in the first season at a school.
Or consider that UCLA had come up empty in nine previous meetings against North Carolina, with no wins and no draws, before a 1-0 double-overtime win in a quarterfinal played at Fetzer Field in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels were the only team the Bruins had played as many as two times without beating.
We're not done yet. UCLA beat Stanford twice this season, once on the road in the regular season and once at home in the Sweet 16. Not only was Stanford the team that eliminated UCLA in three of the past four NCAA tournaments, but the Bruins had never beaten the Cardinal twice in the same season.
But an appearance in the College Cup is far from a first for the Bruins. It's not even their first visit to Cary for the season's final weekend.
This is UCLA's ninth appearance in the College Cup. No program has reached this stage more times since 2000, not even North Carolina. And only that school, Notre Dame and Santa Clara have more all-time appearances. What all of those teams have is least one national championship. UCLA has none. Eight times in the semifinals, three times in the final. No championships.
Still, the idea that UCLA is a program that has everything except the trophy convinced Cromwell to leave UCF despite her East Coast bloodlines (she played at Virginia) to come to Los Angeles this past April.
"I turned down a lot of jobs because of geography," Cromwell said. "UCLA was one school that was always at the top of my list. At the right time, I knew I would definitely go after it -- the talent here, the ability to recruit, the beautiful campus, the strong academics, the whole legacy of John Wooden and all the national championships."
Finally getting one means continuing to defy stereotypes of West Coast soccer. The Bruins have allowed just seven goals this season, as a defense strong down the middle with Abby Dahlkemper, Megan Oyster, midfielders Jenna Richmond and Sarah Killion, and goalkeeper Katelyn Rowland has stuffed opponent after opponent. There is soccer still to play against that potent Virginia attack, but this team stands a good chance of becoming just the second at UCLA to allow fewer than 10 goals in a season. It wouldn't be a first, but it might get them to the one remaining first that matters to them.
Name to know: Samantha Mewis
The last name is familiar, thanks to older sister Kristie, who led Boston College to the 2010 College Cup and now plies her trade for the United States national team and NWSL's Boston Breakers. But Sam doesn't need to borrow her sister's credentials.
Bigger than Kristie, she is a commanding playmaking presence in the middle of the field. Along with Killion, she is the one most likely to slip passes through to speedy forwards Taylor Smith and Darian Jenkins or send the ball to Caprice Dydasco and Ally Courtnall on overlapping runs that catch Virginia out of position.
Will the national championship go international?
It's not like Florida State coach Mark Krikorian can't find talent without breaking out his passport.
The Seminoles return to the College Cup for the third season in a row and the sixth time in nine years under Krikorian thanks to key contributions from places no more far flung than Minnesota (Kassey Kallman), California (Jamia Fields) and, of course, Florida (including Kelsey Wys and Kristin Grubka).
It's just that he rarely seems inclined to stop at water's edge.
Including the United States, there are players from eight countries on the Florida State roster this season. Four international players started in the quarterfinal win against Boston College, and 35 of the team's 56 goals this season have come from international players. This is not a new phenomenon under a coach with ties all over the globe thanks to coaching stops with the WUSA's Philadelphia Charge and the United States under-19 national team, among others.
All told, 21 players from outside the United States have played for Krikorian at Florida State, representing the following sample of global soccer culture: Australia, Belgium, Canada, England, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands and Norway. Some didn't stay long or make major impacts, but names like Selin Kuralay, Viola Odebrecht, Sanna Talonen and Mami Yamaguchi were instrumental in reaching all those College Cups.
Many of the imports arrived when the coach was looking for a more immediate impact than domestic recruiting; six international players debuted in Krikorian's first season in 2005, and two more joined the following season. The influx dissipated in the years immediately after Japanese standout Yamaguchi won the Hermann Trophy in 2007, but it has swelled again the past three years and would make this team a truly international national champion.
Irish defender Megan Campbell is a valuable asset on set pieces, even after an injury late in the season curtailed her long throws. English reserve Marta Bakowska-Mathews scored two goals against Boston College in last week's quarterfinal, as well as both goals in a 2-1 win against Notre Dame on Halloween, and has proved an opportunistic finisher for a team that at times struggles to translate possession dominance into goals.
But the key to getting what all those stars before couldn't is Iceland, specifically the Icelandic duo of forward Berglind Thorvaldsdottir and midfielder Dagny Brynjarsdottir. Typically playing in the hole behind the forward, Brynjarsdottir is a savvy playmaker who had a big role on the senior national team that represented Iceland in the past summer's European Championship.
"Their movement is very good," Virginia Tech coach Chugger Adair said of a tandem he has already lost to twice this season. "They're not the paciest kids, or the most athletic kids, but they're smart, good, physical soccer players who know how to make an impact on the game. They made an impact in the ACC final not just from scoring the goal, Dagny scored the goal, but their movement and their, I guess, intensity -- they stepped up and they were physical and they were a presence. They showed their grit and their experience in that game."
Name to know: Kassey Kallman
As mentioned, Florida State produces international-caliber players with American passports, too. The ACC defender of the year, Kallman has a future in the professional game, and possibly a United States uniform. Part of what makes the Seminoles so difficult to beat is how well they keep the ball, but it's also because it's none too easy to break down a back line with the 5-foot-8 Kallman and 5-foot-10 Grubka at its center and goalkeeper Wys behind it. Strong, athletic, assertive and durable, Kallman is everything you want out of a center back.
How does a team get into this club?
Virginia Tech isn't an outsider in the current tense. It finished fourth in the ACC during the regular season, then reached the final of the conference tournament by handing Virginia its first loss of the season in a semifinal.
It is an outsider in a historical sense. The other programs in Cary have 18 College Cup appearances among them. Even Virginia, which endured a long College Cup drought, has been to the NCAA tournament 26 times.
Before this season, Virginia Tech had just four NCAA tournament wins. Not in one postseason. Ever.
And make no mistake, this is difficult territory to access. There are upsets in the NCAA tournament, as this year proved yet again, but upstarts don't last through four rounds. Virginia Tech is just the 28th school to reach a College Cup. Only eight of those schools, including Virginia Tech, have earned their debut appearance since 2000.
It's hard to argue that the first building block was one that landed rather painfully when the Hokies moved to the ACC in 2004. An assistant at the school since 2006 before taking over as head coach in 2011, Adair described those early days as survival mode. The Hokies went 9-23-7 in conference play between 2004 and 2007. The league tested them. It also opened doors.
"You also get the kids that want to play," Adair said. "You get kids who want to play in that conference against the top dogs, against UNC, against Florida State, against UVa, Wake Forest and Duke. You get those kids who want to play who might have been overlooked by a couple of those programs or not even noticed by those programs. You have to put that in the kids' minds a little bit. We played the underdog role for a number of years. Probably are still, to be honest with you."
The tangible payoff comes with players like Taylor Antolino. A senior from the edge of ACC territory in Pennsylvania, she made just two starts in her first three seasons. Virginia Tech had a lot of talent back this season, but it needed to replace three starting defenders. One of those spots went to Antolino. Only one outfield player saw more minutes this season, and while a potent offense led by Jazmine Reeves and Murielle Tiernan gets the attention, that rebuilt back line helped the Hokies rank No. 24 nationally in fewest goals allowed per game.
"She's put a lot of time in and a lot of effort, and it hasn't always been easy for her," Adair said. "She's had very good games for us this year. She's played tough, created a number of goals as well, going forward."
Name to know: Dayle Colpitts
Busy goalkeepers generally don't make it to the College Cup. Colpitts has been busier to this point in the season than her counterparts in Cary, making 76 saves in 26 games (Florida State's Wys is next with 63 saves), but that is not a heavy workload. What championship goalkeepers must be able to produce, if not quantity, is quality saves. And Colpitts, a senior who played for Canada in last year's under-20 Women's World Cup, has those covered. She came up big in a Sweet 16 draw against Santa Clara and then turned away three shots in the subsequent penalty shootout.