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Florida State sports notebook: Soccer burning questions edition

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

Syndication: Tallahassee Democrat Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat via Imagn Content Services, LLC

The Florida State Seminoles are off to another fantastic start. In last year’s abbreviated fall season the Noles started 11-0-0 on the way to the ACC Tournament Championship. This year FSU is off to a 10-0-0 start. That makes the Seminoles the only team in Division One soccer (342 teams) without a loss or a tie. The Noles are also first in the RPI and are at the top of the Coaches Poll earning 33 out of 34 first place votes (one voter had Virginia at #1, more on that later).

Florida State is looking extremely impressive right now but we all know that this program measures success in the tournament and not the regular season. Therefore, there remains work to be done as the most important part of the season is yet to come. Let’s discuss the Seminoles as they continue on what could be a historic season in Tallahassee.

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 the best team in the nation?

Wow, you don’t waste any time getting right to the point.

FSU certainly looks like the best team right now. Obviously the record is the best in the nation as the Noles have yet to lose or be tied. The Seminoles also have wins over two top 10 teams (at the time) as they beat Texas A&M and Auburn. The Texas A&M win doesn’t look as impressive right now at first glance as the Aggies are now 5-5-1. However, a closer look reveals that all of TAMU’s five losses were to teams ranked in the top 13 nationally. A&M has basically played a killer schedule. Auburn has held up well. The Tigers are ranked 13th at 8-2 with the other loss being at #17 Tennessee in double overtime. The Seminoles haven’t played a murderer’s row of opponents but they have handled the schedule the way an elite team should.

As noted, one voter had Virginia as the top team in the Coaches Poll. I don’t agree that UVA (10-1-0) should be ranked over FSU but if I had to make a case for it I would point to the fact that the Cavs have wins over #13 West Virginia, #4 Duke and dealt Wake Forest their only loss. It was also the only goal Wake has conceded all year. However, the Hoos have a 4-2 loss (in Charlottesville) to a 6-4 Penn State team. Of course, this will resolve itself later in the year but right now FSU looks like the better team on paper.

The Noles also look like the better team using the eye test. UVA barely got by NC State in their last outing in a game where their coach Steve Swanson said that they “Lost their way” in the second half. We will talk more about this in a minute but FSU really looks like the best and most talented team right now.

Speaking of talent, how loaded is this roster really?

It is very close to an embarrassment of riches. ESPN soccer analyst Angela Hucles likened the team to an ACC All-Star team. The roster is dripping with talent.

One way to measure the talent on the roster is to consider the draft status of the players. Chris Henderson has just published his NWSL Draft player shortlists where he evaluates upcoming draft classes and grades the top (draftable) players in each class. Today he finished with the 2022 draft class. These are players who are seniors right now. Yesterday he did the 2023 class (Juniors) which we will discuss in a minute. Henderson ranks each player by position according to his algorithm. Each player is given a draft grade and then ranked based on those grades.

In the 2022 class Henderson has Kirsten Pavlisko as the fourth best right back among Power 5 schools. He has Emily Madril as the top center back and in his comments he says that “Madril has been unreal the past year and a half.” He has Jaelin Howell as the top holding midfielder in the class and in his comments he says that “Howell should be the #1 overall pick from this class (regardless of position)”. Yujie Zhao is ranked as the sixth best attacking midfielder in the Power 5.

In the 2023 class Jenna Nighswonger is ranked as the top attacking midfielder in the Power 5. Henderson says, “Nighswonger can play a lot of different roles which is invaluable in the pros.” LeiLanni Nesbeth is ranked as the seventh best attacking midfielder in the Power 5. Heather Payne is listed as the eleventh best center back. She hasn’t played a minute at that position this year. The fact that she is mentioned at all given that she switches positions so often due to her versatility speaks to her talent level. Cristina Roque was ranked as the third best goal keeper in the 2024 class for Power 5 schools. The rankings for the 2021 class will be released tomorrow so expect to see more Noles (ex: Gabby Carle, Clara Robbins) mentioned. That’s eight players recognized (so far) and impressive freshmen like Mia Justus, Maria Alagoa, Emma Bissell and Amelia Horton are too young to be included.

This roster is truly stacked but the most impressive thing is that the team itself is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, this is a supremely talented team with a great amount of chemistry. This team is special.

Does this mean that you think FSU will go undefeated?

Maybe. How’s that for a definitive answer.

This team has the roster for an undefeated run but the ACC is the top conference in the nation and FSU ends the regular season against three teams currently in the top 5 (Virginia, Duke and North Carolina).

I think that FSU is better than all of those teams right now but we will have to see how they are playing in late October. Injuries and of course luck will also play a large factor in determining the winner of those games.

So are those teams FSU’s toughest competitors right now?

They are probably the toughest left on the regular season schedule. However a couple of teams FSU does not play in the regular season deserve mentioning. Notre Dame is currently 9-1-1. The Irish probably have their best team in years. As mentioned previously, Wake Forest is 10-1 and has conceded only one goal all year. FSU misses both ND and Wake in the regular season but keep an eye on them both as they could be opponents in the ACC Tournament.

In terms of teams left on the schedule how do they stack up against FSU?

FSU’s next four games are against Clemson, Syracuse, Miami and Virginia Tech. Miami and especially Syracuse are improved over last year but neither team is anywhere near FSU’s level. It would take a lot for either to have a real chance against the Seminoles although no game is ever guaranteed.

Clemson and Virginia Tech are in the second tier of the league. Clemson (7-3) was ranked last week but lost 3-0 to UNC in a game where the Tigers were simply outclassed. It could have just been a bad game but Clemson didn’t show much of anything that would strike fear in the hearts of Nole fans. Clemson is also missing speedy winger Courtney Jones who is out due to injury. Her absence matters because FSU has been vulnerable to speed on the flanks in the past.

No. 19 Virginia Tech is 7-2-2 and they look improved over last year. The Hokies have an impressive win over South Carolina and they have tied UNC and Duke. VT is a team that could be dangerous if taken lightly but if FSU plays anywhere near the level that they have shown for most of the year they should emerge with a win in Blacksburg.

Now we turn to the three marquee teams. No. 5 North Carolina (8-1-1) has a deep roster (37 players), they have a hall of fame coach and they play a style (high press) that could cause problems for FSU. The game will also be played in Chapel Hill. However, FSU has a more talented roster than the Heels and on top of that the Noles are considerably more experienced than UNC. This is a game that FSU could lose especially if the high press causes the back line to make mistakes. We also saw the Seminoles struggle against the high press in the second half against Auburn. However, that was a switch in tactics made by Auburn and the Seminoles admitted after the game that it took them by surprise and they had trouble adjusting. There will be no surprises with UNC. FSU will be very prepared for the high press and that should make a difference.

No. 4 Duke (7-1-1) has made great strides this season. Previous to this season the Blue Devils were known as a stout defensive team that struggled to score. This combination led to a lot of ties. This year the Devils have corrected that issue. Duke has scored 22 goals on the season while conceding only five. The Blue Devils also have impressive wins over No. 5 UNC, No. 7 Stanford, and No. 8 Arkansas. Duke features several really talented players. Everyone knows about Delaney Graham and Sophie Jones but Ruthie Jones is having a breakout season in goal. However, one of the biggest reasons for the improvement has been the addition of freshman Michelle Cooper to the roster. The forward from IMG has six goals in only seven games played and she is an absolute terror up top for the Blue Devils. Cooper missed the last two games (the only games Duke didn’t win this season) due to health and safety protocols (not injury) so she should be returning soon. Cooper could test the Seminole back line. In the past Duke coach Robbie Church has challenged FSU with a UNC style high press early but has then backed off presumably because he doesn’t trust his roster depth. We will see what strategy he uses this year. The game will be in Durham but as long as FSU is relatively healthy going into the game the Noles will likely be solid favorites.

FSU closes out the regular season against No. 2 Virginia (10-1-0) in Tallahassee. Virginia has the second most talented starting lineup in the ACC behind Florida State. Unfortunately for the Cavs that lineup took a significant hit when winger Rebecca Jarrett went down in practice with a knee injury. She is lost for the season and that is a real shame for a team that has struggled with injuries the past few years. Jarrett is a player who has given FSU fits in the past with her speed on the flanks. She will be missed in this game. However, UVA has a ton of other talented players. Alexa Spaanstra, Samar Guidry, Claire Constant, Taryn Torres, etc. are all capable of causing trouble for Florida State (or anyone else). However, Lia Godfrey and Diana Ordonez deserve special mention. Godfrey is a sophomore who Chris Henderson calls a future #1 overall draft pick. Ordonez is a 5’11 junior who is capable of beasting FSU on set-pieces especially corners. UVA beat FSU the last time the two teams met in Tallahassee and the Hoos are capable of doing it again. However, FSU is deeper and the loss of Jarrett will be felt. I’m not sure that Virginia is the same team without her.

Button this up for us. Everyone wants to know whether the Seminoles will earn the National Championship that they just missed out on earlier this year (technically last year). How is it looking for them?

They are definitely on track. Obviously it doesn’t get better than 10-0-0 but the play on the field has been top notch as well. They look like the best team according to the eye test. Florida State just looks different from other teams. Part of that is the possession style and precision passing that are a hallmark of all FSU teams under Mark Krikorian but this team is also blessed with eight seniors or redshirt seniors. I think that experience will make a huge difference.

The season continues on Friday at Clemson. Kickoff is at 7pm and the game will be broadcast on ACC Network Extra.