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Florida State Sports Notebook: Soccer Championship Edition

Just a few thoughts on Seminole sports. As always read at your own risk.

Syndication: Tallahassee Democrat Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat / USA TODAY NETWORK

Last Monday Florida State finished a dominating season with a national title defeating BYU in the Championship game 4-3 in penalty kicks after drawing 0-0 in regulation and overtime. After such an amazing performance (the whole season not just the College Cup) it is time for another edition of the Seminole sports notebook.

These are real questions posed by real people in the sense that they are actual questions (they end in a question mark) and I am a real person. I have written all of the questions.

Is Florida State right now the preeminent women’s soccer program in the nation?

Wow. You waste no time getting to the heart of the matter.

This is obviously an opinion but I believe that the answer is now yes after Monday. I am placing emphasis on the words “right now”.

Obviously, the all-time answer to the question is North Carolina as the Tar Heels have an almost certainly insurmountable lead in NCAA championships with 21. However, the most recent of those titles was in 2012. FSU has won three titles since UNC won their last one. The Heels were also bounced in the first round of this year’s tournament.

Other teams that deserve consideration are Stanford and UCLA. Stanford matches FSU’s three national championships and two of them were quite recent (2017 & 2019). However, the Cardinal has fallen back since then failing to make the tournament in 2020 and losing in the first round this year. UCLA has a pair of recent College Cup appearances (2017 & 2019) but the Bruins lost in the first round this year and in the Sweet 16 last year.

The program with the best case to challenge FSU for this designation is probably Santa Clara. The Broncos made their 12th College Cup this year and of course upset the Seminoles to win the 2020 championship. The last two seasons have obviously been very strong. The issue for the Broncos is that there isn’t much on the resume to speak of in the years before 2020 and 2021. SCU has made the Sweet 16 only three times in the last 10 years (2021, 2020 and 2016). In the last 10 years FSU has made the Sweet 16 every year except 2016.

When looking at resumes it is very hard to find another team with a superior one to FSU based on fairly recent results so I do think that Florida State has staked a very credible claim to be the top program in the nation right now.

The Seminoles were obviously dominant this season going 21-0-1 (if you count the title game as a draw) in games where they were at full strength. However, no team is perfect. What are some issues FSU has to work on for next season?

I have just argued that FSU is the top program in the nation so I obviously think that the program is in great shape. However, like you said no team is perfect so I will engage in a bit of nit-picking.

Florida State obviously has to replace three departing seniors (Gabby Carle, Jaelin Howell and Gianna Mitchell) but we will discuss that in more detail in a bit. There are a couple of other issues that merit attention that we can discuss now.

Assuming the staff will continue to prefer the 4-3-3 formation, FSU needs to find a left winger. For almost the entire regular season Kristina Lynch was entrenched in the role. However, the last game that Lynch started was against Wake Forest in the ACC tournament semi-final. Since then FSU tried many different players (Maria Alagoa, Jenna Nighswonger, Ran Iwai) in the position without really settling on one. The Seminoles even switched formations in the championship game to one (3-5-2) that didn’t require a left winger.

Florida State will have the spring training camp to figure this out. One of the previously mentioned players could get a shot. However, an interesting option may be to try a newcomer. Olivia Smith (Whitby, Ontario, CA) will finally arrive in Tallahassee as a member of the 2022 recruiting class. Smith is a budding superstar who has been hailed as a prototype for the future of Canadian soccer. Smith is good enough to seriously challenge for a starting spot on day one even on a team as loaded as Florida State. She normally plays on the right side but I have seen her go to the left side at times. If she is comfortable there I wouldn’t be surprised if Smith were the answer to this issue.

The other pressing issue is that FSU really needs to get better at finishing chances in the final third. In May against Santa Clara in the championship game the issue was that the Noles had trouble with their first touches. FSU created many more dangerous chances in the title game than the Broncos but that wasn’t apparent from the box score as FSU only had an 8-6 edge in shots. The reason was that the Seminoles struggled so much with their first touches that they couldn’t control the ball well enough to get off shots. On Monday against BYU the issue was passing. The passes in the attacking zone weren’t good enough to generate more dangerous chances even though FSU was applying more consistent pressure to BYU than the Cougars were applying to FSU.

Whether the issue is passing or first touches, the Seminoles need to get more clinical in the final third so that the many chances that this offense continually generates are converted into goals. However, again this is just nit-picking. About 341 other programs would love to have FSU’s “issues”.

You referenced earlier the seniors who are leaving. How will the Seminoles replace them?

It won’t be easy. Gianna Mitchell came in from Boston College and provided depth as well as always needed locker room leadership. However, Gabby Carle and Jaelin Howell were starters who routinely played 90 minutes. Therefore, we will spend more time discussing their replacements.

These predictions are not based on conversations with coaches. I am just offering my opinions based on available evidence. Also, things can (and probably will) change after the spring training camp.

Howell played holding midfielder and she will go down as one of the best ever to lace them up in Tallahassee. Howell’s list of accolades is too long to recite in full here but she is a multiple time United Soccer Coaches First Team All-American, a multiple time All-ACC First Team selection, a multiple time ACC Midfielder of the Year and of course she is the reigning Hermann Trophy winner (and a finalist for the award this year). Howell is also the favorite to be the number one pick in the NWSL draft if she decides to stay stateside rather than go to Europe. Obviously, she won’t be easy to replace. I think that FSU will likely move Clara Robbins to Howell’s old holding midfield spot. Robbins can obviously handle the position as she is a super senior with loads of experience. She has also stepped up in very big spots as she is the two time reigning ACC Tournament MVP. However, the main reason that I think that Robbins is the likely choice is that she replaced Howell this year at holding midfielder on the rare occasions that Howell left the game so the coaches trust her there.

Carle has been called the “Swiss Army Knife” for the team by Head Coach Mark Krikorian. Carle has proven her class by being called up to the Canadian senior national team for practically every important competition for the last four years. Carle was named to the Canadian roster for the 2019 World Cup and of course she is a gold medalist. Her value to FSU can easily be seen by how much the team missed her in the three game stretch she missed due to national team duties. FSU went 0-1-2 in those three games after going 14-0-0 before that three game stretch. Carle plays left back for the Noles and that will be a tough position for Florida State to fill with Carle’s graduation. However, the good news is that there is someone already on the roster who seems almost perfectly suited to replace Carle at left back. However, the bad news is that there is a catch.

Ok. You have us in suspense. Who is this mystery player and what is the catch?

I love a little drama. The player is Heather Payne from Ballinasloe, Ireland and that is the rub. Payne has basically all the qualities that FSU is looking for to replace Carle at left back. She has experience playing on the back line, she has the speed to make runs up the field, she has the skill to be dangerous when she does go up field and she has the ability to defend when necessary. Payne is basically out of central casting for the left back position.

However, she is so good that she has become a fixture for the Ireland senior national team. Payne plays up top for Ireland and she has become a solid starter for them often going the full 90 minutes. It is for this reason that Payne has been in and out of the lineup for Florida State. She has had to leave often due to national team callups. This is the catch that I was referring to earlier. If Payne were a normal player without international commitments I am certain that she would be entrenched in the starting lineup for FSU right now. She is that good. However, Payne was often unavailable for FSU this year and her availability (or lack thereof) will likely be an issue next year.

The reason is that Ireland is currently competing in World Cup qualifying. It is really hard to overstate how important these matches are for Ireland women’s football. For a country like Ireland that has never qualified for a World Cup it can be argued that qualifying matches are more important than actual World Cup games. The point is that these games are massively important and Ireland Head Coach Vera Pauw is going to put her best lineup on the field for every one of these games and (unfortunately for FSU) that lineup will almost certainly include Heather Payne.

Therefore, it is worthwhile to discuss briefly how World Cup qualifying works. From Wikipedia, “Qualifying tournaments are held within the six FIFA continental zones (Africa, Asia, North and Central America and Caribbean, South America, Oceania, Europe), and are organized by their respective confederations. For each tournament, FIFA decides beforehand the number of berths awarded to each of the continental zones, based on the relative strength of the confederations’ teams.”

Almost every confederation in the world has decided to use a qualifying tournament to determine which countries will qualify for the World Cup. For example CONCACAF (the confederation in which the United States is a member) will use the 2022 CONCACAF W Championship as the qualifying tournament. That tournament will be played from July 4-20, 2022. In other words, it doesn’t conflict with the collegiate schedule. Every single other qualifying tournament in the world will be played on dates that don’t conflict with the collegiate schedule with the exception of UEFA (Ireland’s confederation). The reason that UEFA doesn’t use a single tournament for qualification is that there are too many teams competing for a single tournament to be sufficient. There are 51 teams that play women’s football in Europe. That means that UEFA has to use a normal qualifying procedure similar to what the men use. Unfortunately for FSU that means that Payne will miss games that she wouldn’t miss if she weren’t from a European country.

Let’s look at the World Cup qualifying schedule to try to get a feel for how much time Payne may miss from her FSU schedule.

UEFA qualifying schedule.pdf

I have included last year’s schedule as well for comparison purposes.

The good news is that based on the schedule Payne won’t miss as many games in 2022 as she did in 2021. The bad news is that she will still miss games. Without the 2022 schedule we can’t be sure how many games she will miss (and of course we don’t know the opponents) but based on previous years she will probably miss around five or six games next year. Fortunately, those games will be earlier in the season so they won’t impact the postseason like they did this year.

I am assuming that Ireland will need to play playoff games. It is likely that they will but it is not assured. If Ireland doesn’t have to play in the playoff round then Payne will likely miss only two or three games next year.

In any case, I think that Payne is probably the best option at left back since the games that she will miss are earlier in the season and she should be fully integrated back into the team in time for the more important post season games.

Last question. What do you think the team’s prospects are for next season?

I will obviously have more in next year’s season preview but Florida State will likely be squarely in the mix for another national title next year. There is a lot to be determined based on who leaves from teams around the nation but the talent base at FSU remains among the best in the nation. The last couple of years FSU was either the nation’s favorite (2021) or the prohibitive favorite (2020). In 2022 the Noles may not be as highly regarded as they were in the previous two years but they will definitely be in the top tier of contenders.

Mark Krikorian and his staff have assembled a juggernaut in Tallahassee and it seems certain that the Seminoles will remain in the national championship conversation for some time to come.