It has been about two weeks since Florida State fell to North Carolina in the first national semifinal game. Therefore enough time has passed to allow us to evaluate the season a bit more dispassionately. We will also discuss the (very) early prospects for next season.
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.
Now that you have had a couple of weeks to reflect, what are your general feelings about how last season went?
Overall, the season went quite well. The bar is extremely high in Tallahassee but Florida State tied for the top spot in the ACC regular season standings, won the ACC tournament, earned the overall top seed in the NCAA tournament and made the College Cup for the fourth time in the last five years. That is quite a list of accomplishments for any program even Florida State. Given the turmoil the program went through last summer what the team was able to achieve is even more impressive.
I wrote this article on April 26th. At that time there was so much uncertainty around the program that I would have said that if FSU finished in the top four of the ACC and reached the Sweet 16 it would have been a successful year. There was legitimate concern that the bottom could fall out of the program following former coach Mark Krikorian’s departure.
Although losing in the College Cup is a disappointment (especially given how well FSU actually played in the game) the overall season has to be considered an unqualified success.
What are some of the reasons that Florida State had such an impressive season?
I think that there were five keys to the season. We will discuss them in more detail (in no particular order).
At the end of the season Florida State had a roster of only 20 available players. The Seminoles started the season with 21 players but Summer Denigan decided to take a leave of absence midway through the season so the Noles were down to 20 players at the end of the season.
This is an extremely thin roster. In fact, the Noles didn’t have enough players to conduct a proper practice. The coaching staff had to recruit players from the men’s club soccer team to help out in practice.
If Florida State had suffered any significant injuries the season could have gone off the rails in a hurry as the thin roster allowed very little margin for error. However, the Noles only suffered one injury that kept a player out for significant time. On Sept. 24th Jenna Nighswonger clashed heads with Clemson midfielder Hal Hershfelt in the 14th minute. Nighswonger left the game and she would miss the next game against Miami. However, that would be the only game that she missed as she returned on October 6th against Virginia.
Heather Payne and Maria Alagoa had to miss a few games due to national team duty. Also, U20 national teamers Lauren Flynn and Mia Justus missed the first game against South Carolina and some time in training camp but other than that the Seminoles basically had their full roster this year. The fact that the Noles had such great injury luck was a major factor in the successful season.
- Players stepping up in new positions
Florida State is like any college program in that there is constant change as seniors graduate. However, FSU is unlike many programs in that the talent base has been so high (especially lately) that there is almost always a talented player waiting in the wings to step up. Nevertheless, because of all of the upheaval in the summer there were definite holes in the roster that needed to be filled.
The biggest area of concern was on the backline. I wrote the following passage in this article on July 7th.
Defense was a major factor in last year’s national championship season. The Seminoles ranked third nationally in goals against average last year (.503). The defense last year was comprised of Jaelin Howell (HM), Kirsten Pavlisko (RB), Emily Madril (CB), Lauren Flynn (CB), Gabby Carle (LB), Cristina Roque and Mia Justus (GK). Only the goal keepers and Flynn are now returning. This leaves a tremendous (and somewhat unexpected) void on the backline. Florida State will be really good if not elite at other areas on the field but the losses on the backline will cost this team.
Well, thankfully for Seminole Nation, I was (mostly) wrong in my assessment about the losses on the backline costing the team. Sure, it would have been awesome if Madril had decided to return and if Pavlisko hadn’t needed surgery but the Noles benefitted from several players stepping up and seizing a new opportunity.
LeiLanni Nesbeth moved to holding midfield to take over for two time Hermann Trophy winner Jaelin Howell who went pro. Nesbeth was very good in her new role and her presence helped solidify the spine of the midfield.
Heather Gilchrist stepped in at center back in place of Madril. The freshman played at a level well beyond her years and deserves a lot of credit for preventing the defense from cratering.
Ran Iwai was also a big reason for the defensive performance. The junior moved to left back from her normal spot in the midfield. I will discuss Iwai more later in this article but given that she was moving to a completely new position her performance all year was a godsend to the Seminoles.
Finally, Heather Payne stepped in on the backline and performed like a player who had been there all of her life. Given that she plays up top for the Irish national team she displayed her impressive versatility by playing so well at right back for FSU this year. Her presence at right back was key for Florida State this year particularly her ability to get forward adding an extra dimension to the Seminole attack.
Florida State finished fifth in the ACC in goals allowed and goals against average. That is not super impressive in a vacuum given how FSU has dominated the ACC in recent years. However, given the upheaval over the last offseason that we just detailed regarding the backline it was a great performance. Ultimately the backline wasn’t a big weakness for the Seminoles this year and that allowed the great talent elsewhere on the field to shine.
- The addition of Onyi Echegini
Echegini transferred to Florida State from Mississippi State as a senior with two years of eligibility remaining. Her impact was not a complete surprise. I wrote the following after her transfer was announced:
Echegini’s impact should be felt immediately. Echegini was a top 10 player at her position last year despite playing for a Bulldog team that only won five games.
Nevertheless, Echegini was even more impactful than I anticipated. After only one season in Tallahassee she is third in the ACC among active players in points per game (1.33) and goals per game (.52).
The left wing position was unsettled even under Krikorian and Echegini came in and immediately turned it into a major strength.
Former head coach Mark Krikorian resigned on March 29th. Brian Pensky was hired on April 25th to be Florida State’s new head coach. Pensky had built a great reputation at Tennessee and before that at Maryland. However, FSU was primed to win now. There was a lot of excitement about repeating as national champions given the talent returning and Krikorian’s established track record at coaching said talent.
However, Krikorian’s resignation dampened that optimism quite a bit (to say the least). Also, at the time of Pensky’s hiring at least 10 players were in the transfer portal. Some of them did decide to leave but Pensky was able to persuade many of them to return. That was the first necessary step. Yet Pensky’s task was not done there.
He also had to hire a staff on short notice. Bobby Shuttleworth and Aaron Brunner were hired to assist Pensky and the program seemingly didn’t miss a beat.
Pensky pushed the right buttons when deciding which players would be effective in new positions. He also made subtle adjustments that paid large dividends. For example, Pensky was sensitive to the fact that FSU was operating with a thin roster. He adjusted the practice schedule to give the players a little more rest throughout the year. By lightening up a bit on practice he was able to keep the players fresher while also decreasing the chances of injury. Of course there was a tradeoff as with fewer (or less intense) practices there is less time to work on skills or tactics but Pensky was blessed with an experienced championship quality roster. Pensky realized that backing off on practice wasn’t going to negatively impact the team’s overall performance especially given the talent and experience available on the roster.
Pensky came to Tallahassee with a humble attitude. He respected the success that the current players had under the prior staff so he didn’t try to reinvent the wheel. While Pensky did tweak some things (FSU was a bit more direct this year than in the past) the Noles didn’t dramatically change. This was an extremely smart approach. The players were used to playing a certain way and if there had been major changes there would have almost certainly been friction between the players and the coaches that would have had a detrimental impact on the field and in the locker room.
Pensky managed to avoid that negativity and that was a big key to the successful season.
- Overall talent
The team is filled with talented versatile players. The proof is in the pudding. The program lost the following players over the summer:
Alyssa Stadeker (Transfer, Georgia)
Kristina Lynch (Transfer, Notre Dame)
Jaelin Howell (Graduated)
Taya Hjorth (Transfer, Kentucky)
Kirsten Pavlisko (Out for the season with injury)
Gabby Carle (Graduated)
Gianna Mitchell (Graduated)
Megan Morgan (Transfer, Miami)
Emily Madril (Graduated)
Yujie Zhao (Graduated)
Olivia Smith (Transfer, Penn State)
Mackenzie Smith (Transfer, West Virginia)
Remember that the entire coaching staff also departed.
However, the remaining players still managed to win the ACC and make the College Cup among other accomplishments. In fact, it can be strongly argued that Florida State was the best team in the nation this year even with all of the above departures. The talent level in Tallahassee is simply stunning.
Now that this season is history, how is the program looking as they prepare for next season?
This is obviously a very preliminary discussion. Florida State only had 20 players on the available roster at the end of the season last year. Pensky has said that he would like to have a roster of 27 players. He has work to do to get to that number.
Let’s discuss the current roster. Jenna Nighswonger, Heather Payne and Clara Robbins were all honored on Senior Night and they all have announced their intention to turn pro. Kirsten Pavlisko technically has one year of eligibility remaining but while FSU would love to have her back everyone believes that she has decided to end her college career. In fact, she turned down an invitation to attend the U23 USWNT training camp. Summer Denigan took a leave of absence from the team midseason and she didn’t return. The door is open for her to return next year but it is unknown whether she will accept that invitation.
Finally, goal keeper Mia Justus has decided to transfer to Texas. Justus is a fantastic keeper (she is the #1 keeper for the U20 USWNT) but she is stuck behind Cristina Roque on Florida State’s roster. Roque may be the best keeper in college soccer so it would have been difficult for Justus to pass her on the depth chart. However, Justus is simply too good to sit on the bench. She would be the starting keeper on 90+% of the teams in the nation. She needed to go somewhere where she could play on a regular basis. I’m told that there was a spirited competition for her services but she finally decided to take her talents to Austin.
The good news is that FSU welcomes a fantastic recruiting class. Jordynn Dudley, Amelia (Mimi) Van Zanten, Maggie Taitano, and Peyton Nourse will all join the roster next fall. The fact that the class is ranked in the top four nationally despite featuring only four players reveals a lot about how highly each of those players is regarded. Any or all of them could make a significant impact as soon as next year even on a roster as talented as Florida State’s.
However, assuming Denigan doesn’t return (more on that later) that still only leaves FSU with 20 players and that assumes that no one else will transfer out.
It may help to look at a graphic to see where Florida State is now regarding the roster. This graphic is not a prediction of how FSU will look next fall. Pensky will be very active in the portal and that will change things significantly. Rather, this is just a guide to help us see where the team is right now.
In constructing the following graphic I made a few assumptions. As discussed earlier, I am assuming that Pavlisko is not returning. If she does return she would solve a lot of issues but no one expects that to happen. I am also assuming that Denigan will not return. This is pure speculation on my part as she has not notified the staff of her intentions. However, historically players who have left the team like she did normally don’t return.
I am also not considering the new freshmen right now. This is not because I don’t think that they will be ready to contribute next year. This is more because I haven’t yet seen them at the college level and I am not sure how they will fit in with the roster. If I had to guess I would say that Van Zanten probably has the best chance to have an immediate impact by taking a spot on the backline but that is pure speculation.
I am assuming that FSU will continue to employ a 4-3-3 formation. This is the traditional formation for the Seminoles and it worked quite well last year. However, based on how the roster is finalized it could make sense to switch to another formation. The two most likely to be employed would be the 4-4-2 or the 3-4-3. The problem with the 4-4-2 is that it would break up the Onyi Echegini, Beata Olsson and Jody Brown frontline. As that is likely the best frontline in the nation this doesn’t seem like a good strategy. The 3-4-3 has promise as FSU is thin in the back and this formation requires only three in the back. However, while I think that this formation could be used against some opponents I don’t think that FSU would risk having three in the back against most teams. Therefore, I think that the traditional 4-3-3 look is the most likely and that is reflected in the graphic.
My last assumption requires a bit more explanation. As discussed earlier Ran Iwai moved to left back last year because FSU had an extreme need at that position. She filled her role at her new position quite well all things considered. However, left back is not her best position and Florida State will have new needs this season. With the departure of Nighswonger Florida State needs a new play maker. Of the available players (right now) Iwai would seem to be the best option to take over Nighswonger’s #10 playmaker role in the midfield. To be sure, there are other players on the roster who could fill the role. Maria Alagoa and Emma Bissell come to mind but both of those players are more targets than playmakers. I think that Iwai fits the bill the best but it is a debatable point. In any case the graphic will reflect her possible move back to the midfield.
Remember that this is a reflection of where the roster is NOW. There will definitely be changes bases on portal additions. Also, this is my judgement of where the players fit the best. Your mileage may vary.
Based on that lineup, Florida State needs an outside back and a back up goal keeper from the portal at a minimum. However, what the Noles really need the most is depth. As we have discussed, FSU only has 20 players currently on the roster for next year. Realistically Pensky needs to get 4-7 players from the portal.
The good news is that Florida State is one of the premier programs in the nation. There will be many players interested in coming to Tallahassee especially now that Pensky has stabilized the program by reaching the College Cup. While I am not sure who will be in the portal there will be significant talent and the Noles will likely get their fair share. It would not surprise me to see a couple of players from the portal become immediate starters.
The bottom line is that with a bit of tweaking FSU will almost certainly be in the mix for another College Cup appearance next year.
Off the field the Seminoles also look good. FSU was second in average attendance in the ACC this year with 2088 fans a game. North Carolina was first with 2681. Let the debate over charging for tickets continue.
Finally, do you have thoughts on how the rest of the ACC is shaping up for next year?
I have very preliminary thoughts. Things can and will change as the other teams also get talent from the portal.
The big news so far is that All-Everything Duke striker Michelle Cooper has decided to forego her final two years of eligibility and turn pro.
Cooper is the ACC active leader in shots per game, goals per game and points per game. She is a finalist for this year’s Hermann Trophy and (if she stays in the United States) will almost certainly be the top overall pick in the NWSL draft. In short, she is pretty good. The Blue Devils still have Kat Rader to supply offense but the loss of Cooper is massive. Her departure means that Duke is now out of the top tier in the ACC until further notice.
The Blue Devils are replaced by Pitt. The Panthers made the tournament for the first time in program history last year and they advanced to the Sweet 16. They lose an important player in Hailey Davidson but they get Amanda West back from injury. Many people feel that West is the best player in program history. Pitt is on the rise.
Keeping in mind that the portal will change things, my way too early top tier in the ACC looks like this (in no particular order):
Virginia has an asterisk because they lose a ton to graduation. However, the roster is always talented in Charlottesville and they will utilize the portal. I just can’t leave them out based on their history.
As always, the comments are yours.