Florida State earns first trip to championship game with defeat of Notre Dame
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Stare out across the flat expanse of Texas real estate that surrounds College Station long enough, and it feels like if you can't quite see forever from here, its suburbs are at least peeking out over the horizon. But in Friday's College Cup semifinal at Aggie Soccer Stadium, it didn't take nearly that much effort to catch a glimpse of Tokyo, Japan and Tampere, Finland.
Instead of west and east, they were front and center.
Behind first-half goals from Japanese junior Mami Yamaguchi and Finnish freshman Sanna Talonen and a second-half winner by freshman Amanda DaCosta (she of Katonah, N.Y., rather than Italy) set up by Talonen's perfectly-threaded pass and Yamaguchi's decoy run, Florida State defeated Notre Dame 3-2 and advanced to play for the national championship for the first time in four College Cup appearances.
Yamaguchi, Talonen and DaCosta speak three completely distinct first languages off the field, but even if some nuances of casual conversation are lost in the translation to English for Yamaguci and Talonen, the trio understands each other perfectly on the field.
"I think they do speak the same language; it's the soccer language," Florida State coach Mark Krikorian said. "They can all read the play pretty well; they all have good technique, their movement without the ball is all pretty good. So I think all of those aspects allow them to be successful. It's one of those things where you look and you kind of appreciate them as soccer players and their willingness to recognize that each of them has different qualities. And hopefully we take advantage of those qualities and find our way to results."
But as much as the pairing of Yamaguchi and Talonen at the top of Krikorian's offense, with DaCosta behind them in the midfield, offers an intriguing tale of international athletic relations, it's equally representative of how the Seminoles have merged the less tangible distinctions of experience and position. And it's as much the evolution of the latter two as the international diversity of the roster that allowed Florida State to get past the final weekend's opening game for the first time in a physical game that easily could have gone the way of a Fighting Irish team that controlled possession for long stretches.
The first goal came from Yamaguchi, who wasted little time staking the Seminoles to a lead 15 seconds into the match on a through ball from DaCosta during a season in which she wasted little time staking her claim as one of the nation's best finishers. A key playmaker in the midfield in each of her first two seasons in Tallahassee, Yamaguchi moved forward to fill a void left by the graduations of India Trotter and Selin Kuralay and met with instant success. She netted a hat trick in Florida State's second game and had matched her goal total from her first two seasons by the time she netted another hat trick in Florida State's fourth game.
"We've known all along that Mami has the quality to score goals, but as you know, the composition of a team often depends on the other personnel as well," Krikorian said before Friday's game. "So the last couple of years, we needed her more in the midfield than we needed her up front, because we had other players that were able to score some goals and we didn't have as many players in the midfield, we didn't have the players to be able to set the table for those players."
Yamaguchi led the nation in goals entering the NCAA Tournament, ranking fourth in goals per game, but she has been equally valuable in the postseason in reestablishing a playmaking role while Talonen went on a goal-scoring tear -- her goal against Notre Dame was her eighth of the NCAA Tournament, tying the freshman with Trotter for the program's career record before she even completes her first postseason.
"The contribution she's made -- it was equally significant each of her three years," Krikorian said of Yamaguchi. "It was just a different role that she took. And her selflessness is shown now, because she probably could have been a 20-goal scorer each of the years but the needs of the team came first."
That's the way it works in Krikorian's system, where natural midfielder Becky Edwards emerged as a key central defender in a back line that withstood set piece after set piece in the second half of Friday's game. Katrin Schmidt has moved from her midfield origins to outside back to replace Edwards and nobody complains about playing out of position.
In the minutes immediately after Yamaguchi stunned Notre Dame with her opening goal, the Fighting Irish missed an opportunity to equalize when Kerri Hanks, after dribbling past two Seminoles, couldn't get past the final defender in front of goal. Only instead of center back Libby Gianeskis, momentarily felled by an injury up the field, midfielder Kirsten van de Ven was the one shielding Hanks as the ball rolled toward the end line.
"I think that's the spirit we have on the team," Krikorian said.
It doesn't hurt to have three players with as much touch as Yamaguchi, Talonen and DaCosta, who teamed up in one form or another on three goals that looked remarkably similar, with the eventual scorer exploiting a seam in the defense just as one of the others made a deft pass to put the cutting player on goal all by herself.
Perhaps even more remarkable than the chemistry between three players who may have a tough time understanding each other at times is the chemistry between three players who hadn't played together before this season. Along with keeper Erin McNulty and midfielders Rachel Lim and Marissa Kazbour, Talonen and DaCosta played through Notre Dame's pressure Friday as freshmen.
"I think we're very satisfied," Krikorian said. "We have a lot of young players, and those young players have come in as good players and helped us through the entire season. Those players have played a lot of minutes -- they've played a lot of minutes and they've responded."
Florida State overcame a lot of obstacles to finally reach a championship game, and a language barrier was hardly even a blip on the radar in the big picture. After all, all you need to do is look to the horizon on a clear day in Texas to realize the world isn't that big.Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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