And then there were four.Our Game Magazine‘s college editors Rachael Caldwell, JJ Duke, Glenn Crooks, and Ruth Moore preview the 2015 NCAA Women’s College Cup. Penn State, Rutgers, Duke, Florida State… who wins it all? Find out below.
Rutgers vs. Penn State
Rutgers: The Not-So-Cinderella Story
The Scarlet Knights beat the Cavaliers at Virginia in penalties to advance to the semifinals in Cary. Does it get any sweeter for Rutgers? You have to credit Mike O’Neill’s side — they went down to Virginia to face a team that ended its season on two prior occasions in the NCAA Tournament and stayed with the Cavaliers stride for stride for 110 minutes. While penalty kicks often come down to who can hold their nerves in check the best, the Scarlet Knights came through with flying colors and are a deserving team to advance. It can get a whole lot sweeter for Rutgers at this stage because it now has a chance to set the tone for its programs for years to come in New Brunswick. This is the first trip to the College Cup for Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights are playing a Penn State team they have seen this season twice before, and know where the key battles need to be won in order to win this match and advance to the final. By the way, Rutgers’ defense hasn’t given up a goal in this entire tournament and have allowed only five goals in 15 games played since the beginning of October.
Will a Lack of Experience Hurt Rutgers?
No, facing the unknown can help a team, and Penn State hasn’t been to the College Cup since 2012 so the majority of their teams hasn’t been to this stage either. It will be important for Rutgers to take in the experience, because playing in a national semifinal doesn’t happen often, but once the whistle blows, it’s business as usual. This group has gotten to a conference final already this year, losing to Penn State in the Big Ten Championship game at University Park, and will build on that experience. Plus, playing a team for a third time in one season means facing a side you’ve seen before and there won’t be any major surprises, which will only help calm the nerves. Rutgers should be just fine.
What Advantage Does Rutgers Have Over Penn State?
In the past few College Cup semifinals, teams have tended to play a more open style and take more risks than what we’ve seen in the final. Rutgers will need to win the midfield battle in order to play open and freely. The Scarlet Knights’ midfield goes through seniors Samantha Valliant and Hayley Katkowski and if they can dictate the tempo, it will make things a lot easier for the back line as well as build up the attack. Rutgers’ defense has been outstanding, posting 19 clean sheets this season and will no doubt have to step up at times to break up a lethal Penn State attack. If the midfield plays its part — holds the ball and helps alleviate pressure on the back line — Rutgers will be on its way to the final.
— by JJ Duke
Nittany Lions are Headed Back to the Promised Land
Similarly to Florida State, Penn State has held serve at home and has outscored its opponents 17-0 in four games. What is it about having home-field advantage in the NCAA Tournament that can boost a team? Hosting NCAA matches indicates you’ve been dominant throughout the regular year. Seeded teams are always near perfect at home and No. 1 Penn State is no exception. PSU had one defeat in 16 matches on home soil, including seven straight victories in the postseason at Jeffrey Field. Confidence plays a significant role in both an individual and team’s success and the assurances gained by Penn State enhanced with each home match. Penn State players and staff will speak to the motivation that the Park Avenue Army supply and the faithful in Happy Valley have been inspirational this postseason. I often liked to prepare for our matches away from the home base. You had the players sequestered without the distractions of campus life in a hotel, available for meetings at a moment’s notice. You regulated what the players consumed. However, the players will often lament, “There’s no place like home.” And they are correct!
What’s Different about this Penn State Team Versus the One that Reached the College Cup in 2012?
There were two freshmen starting for that 2012 team that lost to North Carolina in the national finals — Mallory Weber and Raquel Rodriguez, while redshirt freshman Britt Eckerstrom made 11 appearances in goal — they’re the lone players on the current roster with College Cup experience, and their path to the College Cup three seasons ago was a bit more arduous. After dispatching LIU-Brooklyn (4-0), Penn State then defeated a very good ACC side, Boston College (5-2), topped Michigan in penalty kicks in the Sweet 16 and eliminated its second ACC foe Duke, 1-0.
What followed was an emotional match against ACC power Florida State in the semifinals. Head coach Erica Walsh was an assistant under Seminoles head coach Mark Krikorian when FSU advanced to the 2005 College Cup (Penn State was there as well), and Walsh defeated her mentor, 2-1 on Christine Nairn’s goal just over a minute into overtime. The Nittany Lions advanced to their first NCAA championship match. In the final they were unable to make it four straight over the ACC as the Tar Heels toppled the Nittany Lions, 4-1.
In this year’s tournament, Penn State has trounced its opponents by a combined 17-0, defeating Albany (5-0), Boston University (6-0), Ohio State (4-0), and West Virginia (2-0). Including three victories en route to the Big Ten Tournament Championship, PSU has outscored its tournament foes, 23-1.
The principal difference between the two recent College Cup appearances is the dominant run through 2015.
What Advantage Does Penn State Have Over Rutgers?
We have the benefit of analyzing two matches between the teams this season. Penn State lost in the regular season at Rutgers, 1-0, playing a two-front. The Nittany Lions had a different look in the B1G title match, giving its true No. 10, Nickolette Driesse, a featured role that gave more space to Emily Ogle and Raquel Rodriguez in creating and attacking. The greatest challenge presented to Rutgers is how they defend the Penn State midfield. The Nittany Lions set up in a 4-5-1 while Rutgers will counter with a 4-3-3. Ohio State had a strong first half against Penn State in the Sweet 16 by playing two defensive midfielders, which is the normal set up for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights may want to study OSU’s defensive tactics and then plan a way to be more decisive on the counter — the Buckeyes didn’t have a shot on goal in the first 45 minutes. The Penn State midfield includes wingers Mallory Weber and Frannie Crouse. Both have pace and are manic about getting to the end line. The normal plan for Penn State is to control the center of the park and set up its wide players to attack the end line for service. The lone striker, Megan Schafer, is a strong finisher and led the Big Ten in goals this season with 13.
— by Glenn Crooks
Duke vs. Florida State
Breaking Down the Trek of the Blue Devils
Duke over Stanford, in Stanford, on penalties? Not to undersell the success of Duke in 2015, but the result wasn’t this tournament’s biggest surprise. Duke has definitely persevered this season, and the tournament’s win-or-go-home setup ensures that perseverance can be rewarded. Stanford outgunned Duke on the pitch, taking 22 shots to the visitors’ 8, but a deadlocked score of 1-1 from the first half brought on Duke’s opportunity to drive home that sometimes, soccer is all about mentality. Stanford missed the first two penalty kicks while Duke converted the first. The match ultimately came down to the goalkeepers: Stanford’s Jane Campbell took the final shot. Duke’s EJ Proctor made the final save. 1-1 and 3-2, Duke advanced.
Road Warrior Mentality: Duke Won Three Straight Away Games. How Much Does This Intangible Help?
The Blue Devils should be getting major points for mentality right about now. After going coast to coast defeating their quadrant’s No. 2 and No. 1, three-seed Duke is the lowest seed to make the Final Four. There are essentially two ways for this North Carolina-based ACC team to approach Cary: either a venue close enough and familiar enough to be considered home, or highly contested neutral ground where the Blue Devils are still the underdog. Those options aren’t mutually exclusive, either. Duke can come in with the confidence that it had the toughest road of the Final Four teams, and that this trip hasn’t ended yet.
What Advantage Does Duke Have Over Florida State?
Youth knows no pain, and Duke has nothing to lose.
Florida State comes into the Final Four as a No. 1 seed, No. 2 overall in the country as of the last NSCAA poll, and essentially veterans of the big stages provided by conference and national tournaments. The Blue Devils, on the other hand, are coming in ranked No. 20 in the poll and making the program’s third appearance in the College Cup — after completely missing the tournament last season. Their last College Cup appearance was in 2011. The underclassmen leading this 2015 squad are fresh on the scene and unafraid to run with their comparatively clean slate.
— by Ruth Moore
Another Year, Another College Cup Appearance for the Seminoles
Fifteen goals scored to none allowed for Florida State in four NCAA matches so far, similar to last year’s College Cup. Coincidence? As the old adage goes, offense sells tickets but defense wins championships. Florida State has certainly proven that defense bit to be true. In an effort to make this passage as cliché as possible, let’s take a look at some stats because as another adage says, the numbers don’t lie. The Seminoles have the eighth best goals against average in the nation, the ninth best shutout percentage, and haven’t allowed a goal in 10 consecutive NCAA Tournament games. All four of the back line’s starters were on last year’s championship team, and have only been scored on 13 times this season. But what makes this back line so important stretches beyond shutouts; most of the players contribute to the offense as well. Irish international Megan Campbell is well known for her long throws, Kirsten Crowley can be a weapon on corners or set pieces, and Carson Pickett has tallied an impressive nine assists on the season for a Seminole team that ranks second in the nation in assists per game.
Mark Krikorian’s Team Comes in as the Defending Champions and Returns Many Players from Last Year. Will Experience Help the Seminoles Cross the Finish Line?
There’s no doubt Coach Kirkorian’s experienced back line has been a huge reason for the Seminoles’ success this season and postseason. However, I think it would be unfair to pin this entire run on experienced upperclassmen. Of the 20 players on the roster, 14 are underclassmen, and three freshmen have had a huge impact on the Seminoles’ offense this season. Let me introduce the midfield trio of Megan Connolly, Elin Jensen, and Kaycie Tillman. Together, these three freshmen have scored 20 goals and have accounted for roughly 35% of their team’s total offense. Of the Seminoles’ 15 goals scored in the NCAA Tournament, these midfielders have accounted for six goals and seven assists.
What Advantage Does Florida State Have Over Duke?
It’s well documented that Duke has plenty of fearless young talent who don’t know they weren’t supposed to make it this far in the tournament. Well, as previously mentioned, Florida State has that too. Florida State also has a plethora of experienced players that know what it takes to make the College Cup final, and then win a College Cup final. What gives Florida State an edge is the unique build of its team. The Seminoles aren’t too reliant on their experienced seniors or too reliant on their young guns. It’s an even balance that has given Florida State a fearless attack and an incredibly stingy defense.
— by Rachael Caldwell
College Cup Predictions
With the College Cup matchups now set, it’s time for the OGM college staff to boldly (or not) predict which team wins its semifinal match and which team will hoist the NCAA Championship trophy on Sunday afternoon. It’s been a long and exciting 2015 season with many twists and turns along the way but it’s time for this group to put all their cards out on the table and pick the winner.
It’s not a prediction so much as a wish, but how about a blue* Christmas this year? Sure, this Final Four brings together two clear favorites and two worthy contenders, but there is no clear-cut leader in the title race. So I’ll gamble. (Not literally, although I hear there is free coffee on the line here at OGM.) Instead of being a homer with Penn State (far too easy), I’m going to take Duke. As this year’s Women’s World Cup demonstrated, taking a young and fresh approach can be rewarding. And is there anything better than watching eager young underdogs jump into the fray week after week and finally emerge victorious? An uplifting storyline does not a championship team make, but the fact is, it’s possible. Duke might have beaten Stanford in penalty kicks to get to Cary, but the win was still legitimate. If the Blue Devils can keep the games close, remembering the lessons learned during the regular season, they might just see this through.
* The only blue is Bruin Blue. Still salty. — brandi
Ah, yes, just like we all had it at the beginning of the season. A College Cup consisting of Florida State, Penn State, Duke, and Rutgers. It’s quite clear that picking a Florida State versus Penn State final is the safe thing, and probably the smart thing, to do here. I’ve been asking, “How does anyone stop Florida State from marching to the final?” since the first game of this NCAA Tournament. Penn State was definitely a popular pick to win the title at the beginning of the season, and perhaps more so now that the U-20 qualifiers have less of an impact than originally expected. But what about Duke and Rutgers? They’ve both outperformed expectations, and certainly didn’t get this far on just pure luck, shootouts disregarded. While it’s so tempting to pick the underdogs here, I’m going with Florida State versus Penn State in the final, with Florida State being the first team to win back-to-back titles not named North Carolina. That being said, don’t be shocked if Rutgers makes its first championship game.
Well, if you read my part in last week’s preview, I’m a big believer in fate and believed it was fate that Virginia would meet Florida State in the final for a second straight year. Well, true to form this season, that prediction was subsequently crumbled and tossed into an already full basket of incorrect predictions. We’ll know one thing for sure: An ACC team will face a team from the Big Ten in the championship game. Cool. Which teams will get there? Who knows. The offensive flow points to seeing Florida State and Penn State, who have scored 15 and 17 goals in the tournament, respectively. It could be a classic rematch of the 2012 semifinals that saw the Nittany Lions win in overtime. But how many times have we seen a classic 1-0 scoreline in these matches? Many times. Add Rutgers into the mix, who like FSU and PSU, have yet to concede in this tournament. You can’t forget about Duke, however, who are riding a wave of emotion after winning three straight games away from home and upsetting Stanford. So that makes things nearly impossible to choose outside of tossing a few coins or going on a hunch. Coin tosses, in my opinion, are useless so here’s my hunch: Both semifinal games go into overtime, Florida State beats Duke, 2-1, and Penn State beats Rutgers, 1-0, and the ’Noles winning their second straight national title with a grind-it-out 1-0 win over the Nittany Lions on Sunday.
I’ve already been asked by a pair of media sources who I’am picking to win the College Cup. The normal preface of their statement goes something like this: “I know your heart lies with Rutgers, but…”
You’re damn right that my heart says Rutgers, but I’m also certain that they possess the proper qualities to win this thing. The Scarlet Knights defend as well as any team in recent memory. They have a national-level keeper with an experienced and talented back line that thoroughly studies the tendencies of each opponent and is prepared to solve whatever is thrown at them. Rutgers is first nationally in shutouts (19) and first in goals against average (0.31). U-20 U.S. Women’s National Team goalkeeper Casey Murphy is already third on the school’s all-time shutout list — and she’s just a sophomore. And I see Rutgers still generating more each game on the attacking side. Rutgers has conceded two goals in the run of play this season (one by Penn State in the B1G final). If they can defend set pieces effectively and finish a couple of their own, then the Scarlet Knights will defeat Penn State and Florida State to win the university’s first national title since the fencing team triumphed in 1949.
Rachael Caldwellwill be graduating from the University of Arkansas in 2015 with a degree in Broadcast Journalism and minors in Spanish and Business Management. Rachael played soccer from when she was three until her senior year of high school, where she was the captain of her state championship winning team. Rachael looks forward to writing more forOur Game Magazineand also writes about women’s soccer on her blog,rachaelfc.wordpress.com.
Glenn Crooksis the former Head Women’s Soccer Coach at Rutgers University. Crooks is currently the color analyst for New York City FC on WFAN and a soccer commentator for the Big Ten Network. Additionally, Crooks is a host on SiriusXM FC 85 for World Cup Now, the Carli Lloyd Town Hall, and Counter Attack. He is also head coach of the Players Development Academy, N.J. Olympic Development Program, and a staff coach at U.S. Soccer National Training Centers, as well as a coach advisor for Polar USA. Follow Crooks on twitter at@GlennCrooks.
JJ Dukegraduated from Rider University in New Jersey with a degree in Digital Media Studies. Although his playing days may have ended back in high school, he still prides himself on being a decent shot-stopper and an all-around fanatic of the beautiful game (fervent supporter of Manchester United and the founder of a Rider supporters group, the 206 Ultras). He was the Student General Manager at 107.7 FM The Bronc while at Rider and contributed to various local newspaper and Web sites in the Trenton, NJ, area of high school and collegiate sports includingTand Fish4Scores.com.
Ruth MooreservesOur Game Magazineas a College Editor and the magazine’s Design Editor. She holds a degree in Professional Writing from Kutztown University, freelances in communication design, and loves coffee.