Val Prochaska of Hoos Place joins us to answer our questions about the top-ranked Virginia Cavaliers.
Virginia was good last year making the Sweet 16 but the Cavaliers definitely seem improved this year. What have been a couple of keys to the success this year?
I’m having a bit of a roller coaster ride with the team this year. At the start of the season, I firmly expected to win a lot of games, score a lot of goals – since the 2011 season Virginia has scored more goals than any other program, almost 50 more than Stanford in that time period – and make it to the Sweet 16 – we’ve been there 14 consecutive years, the longest streak in the country. At Penn State, we ran the then-#6 Lions in the first half unmercifully. Yet somehow, with five minutes left, they equalized. We scored the game winner 26 seconds later. We had a similar experience at Wake Forest, going down in the 87th minute, only to equalize with 40 seconds left.
I felt at that time that we were College Cup material. Since then we’ve had disappointing draws with Duke and NC State. And it’s left me scratching my head as to how good this team can be, because you are right, at times we have played much better ball.
So to finally get around to your question, Coach Steve Swanson has a team that believes in themselves. They simply do not give up. Ever. The results at Penn State and Wake Forest speak for themselves. And the players believe in each other. Lots of coaches talk about resilience, but Swanson has it.
Secondly, there is the maturation of sophomore winger Becca Jarrett. She’s played centrally most of her life, but upon coming to Virginia has been asked to play as a winger. She possesses elite speed and forces opposing teams to defend deeper than they might otherwise want. And she’s still learning. If her growth curve is linear, she’s going to terrorize the ACC the next two years.
And finally, the defense is good. While the Cavaliers do not possess great team speed, the midfielders have amazing engines, from center midfielder Taryn Torres to sub Sydney Zandi, and for a team that pushes everyone up – all the time – we recover pretty quickly. In 13 games the Cavaliers have given up only four goals – one was a PK and another off a free kick – and more impressively, the two keepers have only had to make a half dozen real saves this year. It is very, very difficult to get a good shot on frame against UVa.
UVA is extremely talented up and down the roster but freshman Diana Ordonez has been a revelation. She is fourth in the nation in goals with 12. What makes her so hard for defenses to handle?
Diana has the predatory instincts of a Gerd Müller, fully capable of scoring the “little goal” inside of the penalty spot. She shoots very quickly and she pounces on defensive mistakes. Interestingly, her best shot, even in the 6 yard box, is to the far post. She’s tall, 5’ 11”, and decent in the air, though she is still learning how to play aerially against strong defenders. What’s most impressive is that she has tallied her 12 goals in 10 games – she missed 3 games with an undisclosed ankle injury. If Jarrett or left midfielder Alexa Spaanstra are able to get to the by line, forcing a central defender to move wide in support, Ordonez will seize the space and simply attack a rolled cross.
As noted above, the Hoos bring more to the table than Ordonez. Who are a couple more players to keep an eye on?
Left back Courtney Petersen possesses the finest cross in the women’s game. Think David Beckham with a ponytail. And like Beckham, she frequently delivers the cross from the midfield third. She is a more offensively minded player, but in this week’s game vs NC State, she effectively nullified Tziarra King. And as you know, that takes some doing.
Alexa Spaanstra is the best attacking player on the team. Her left foot is almost as good as her right, she can turn the ball and accelerate instantly, and her vision is superb. She played last year almost exclusively as a left winger but Swanson seems to be trying to convert her into a true 10, playing in the left channel a la Mesut Ozil. She’s struggling with that a bit; she may not be strong enough to shoulder the burden as it were. She’s been targeted, and fouled repeatedly, and this tactic is also working: the physical game is not her forte.
Making the biggest strides this year is junior Anna Sumpter. She was a reliable sub last year, but she has a nose for goal, never gives up, and can score. She netted the game tying goal vs Wake and had what could have been the winning goal vs Duke called back for offsides. She was off, by just a third of a step mind you, but she was in the right place at the right time.
The Cavaliers are 3rd nationally in points per game. What has made their offense so potent this year?
We were fourth in points/game last year, I think, so it’s not a change really. This is a possession-based team with no prima donnas. (Witness any Castellanos goal celebration and compare with any UVa goal celebration.) While we don’t have a lot of team speed and we don’t have anyone as skilled on the ball as Castellanos or Zhao, every player can turn on the ball, turn away from pressure, and find the open teammate. Virginia plays simple, elegant football.
Virginia is obviously an elite team but they have not played a very tough schedule as the Hoos are ranked only 65th in strength of schedule (FSU is 3rd). Do you have any concerns about whether this schedule has prepared them for the step up in class when they visit Tallahassee?
No. While the Cavalier’s preseason lacked the sexiness of say, yours and Florida’s trip out to California to take on UCLA and USC in a round robin, or even UNC playing Lyon’s reserves, we did play a reasonable schedule. Georgetown was a Final 4 team last year; Penn State was a top 10 team when we played them and West Virginia was top 15.
My bigger pet peeve is that for the second straight year (at least) the scheduling king makers have chosen for UVa and UNC to miss out in the regular season. That seems unconscionable to me. So Sunday’s game really is our marquee matchup of the season.
Finally, what makes you feel good about UVA’s chances in this game and what makes you concerned heading into the game?
My biggest concern is over Coach Swanson’s handling of senior Phoebe McClernon. If Natalia Kuikka was 1A as best defender in the ACC last year, Phoebe was 1B. She is magisterial: she is strong, she reads the game wonderfully, and she sees space like Magic Johnson. And yet, for reasons that are simply unfathomable to me, Swanson is playing her mostly as a right back, where she is simply average at best. I cannot comprehend taking our best player away from the most important position on the pitch, and making her play a position, one that to me, she seems patently unsuited to play.
My other concern is that a play book has evolved on how to play Virginia, and everyone seems to know it. First, do not let Jarrett get baseline. She’ll shred you if you do. But if you can turn her into the pitch and toward support, she lacks the dribbling skills to be a real threat. The same goes for Spaanstra. Secondly, if you have a player with pace, run her at McClernon all game long. Pace ain’t Phoebe’s game.
My confidence comes from knowing that you are just as good as we are, and your players know it. We have faced a lot of teams that have specifically game planned us from the defensive line up. If you don’t do that, or you get over-confident in your own skills, Spaanstra, Jarrett, Ordonez and Meg McCool can make you pay. McCool in particular has to be watched. She’s playing out of position as a winger to accommodate Ordonez in center, but she does move into the box quickly and she’s got an equally quick trigger to her shot. We don’t make many mistakes, and if we get a lead, we can run anybody.
It should be a great game. It’s certainly the marquee matchup in the ACC to date. I hope the Seminoles play well. Just not too well….
Thanks so much Val for your in depth and informative answers. I answered a few of Val’s questions on Florida State and you can find my answers to his questions here on the Hoos Place site.
The top 5 matchup kicks off today at 1pm at the Seminole Soccer Complex. The game will be broadcast on the ACC Network. This one could very well be a College Cup preview so don’t miss it.