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Florida State Sports Notebook: Midseason Edition

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

Syndication: Tallahassee Democrat Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Florida State soccer team has now passed the mid-point of the season. Therefore, it is a good time to assess how the season has gone so far and where the team may be headed as we move on toward the post 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.

Florida State is currently 7-0-2 (3-0 ACC). The Noles are seventh in the latest coaches poll and tied with Duke and Pitt at the top of the ACC with nine points. Did you expect for the season to be going this well?

Based on just the results, I am not surprised by FSU’s performance to this point in the season. However, when the eye test is factored into the equation I am a bit surprised about how well the team has actually performed on the field thus far in the season.

What surprises you about how the season has played out to this point?

There are a few things. I will hit the highlights in no particular order.

I don’t know that the results on the field would have been appreciably better had former coach Mark Krikorian and players like Emily Madril and Yujie Zhao stayed and Kirsten Pavlisko would have avoided injury. That is a surprise.

I want to be clear about what I mean because I have seen some chatter out there questioning whether this team is better than last year’s championship team. Let’s put that to rest right now. This year’s team has proven that (at least so far) they are capable of playing elite soccer. However, last year’s team was absolutely an all-timer. They went unbeaten and untied at full strength (unless you count the national championship game as a tie). You don’t lose players like Jaelin Howell, Gabby Carle, Emily Madril, Yujie Zhao and Kirsten Pavlisko and get better. Howell and Carle would not have come back in any case but if the other three were on this team I am confident that the Noles would be 9-0 right now and be the unanimous #1 team in the country.

However, the fact that anyone can even credibly compare this year’s team to last year’s edition says a lot about how well this year’s team has played. This is what I mean when I say that the results on the field may not have been appreciably better right now. The record would be better had those players stayed because the early draws would have likely been wins but the actual product on field is very high right now even without those players and it probably wouldn’t be that much higher if those players were still on the roster.

The team has really jelled together and played extremely well since the Auburn game. The Seminoles have seemingly figured things out. Onyi Echegini has been a revelation on the left wing. We knew that Echegini was really talented from her play at Mississippi State however we couldn’t be sure how well her skills and talent would translate in Tallahassee playing in a different system with different teammates. Remember also that Echegini signed with FSU without ever visiting the campus or meeting any of her new teammates. Given that reality it is a bit of a surprise that things have gone so smoothly even with a player as gifted as Echegini.

Echegini is of course a new player added to the roster but we have also seen some returning players having to adjust to new positions. In basically every instance the changes have worked. Ran Iwai has never played on the backline at this level but she has taken to her move to left back like a duck to water. Her play has really solidified the backline. LeiLanni Nesbeth has moved to holding midfield and her play has been great overall. Nesbeth has solidified the spine of the midfield and allowed FSU’s attackers to move forward without worrying about any problems behind them.

The play of the freshmen has also been a bit of a surprise. Florida State doesn’t usually have to rely so much on contributions from freshmen. However, with all of the turmoil that we witnessed during the summer the Noles were in the unfamiliar position of having to rely on true freshmen to play significant minutes. Heather Gilchrist has stepped into a starting role at center back and she has not looked out of place. The same can be said for Sophia Nguyen when she has had to spell Heather Payne at right back. Olivia Garcia has looked dangerous when she comes in on the wing. They have really stepped up and their play has been a key to the team’s overall strong play.

Keeping all of that in mind, where do the Seminoles sit in the national conversation?

Obviously there is plenty of season left but right now Florida State has to be included on anyone’s shortlist of national championship contenders.

FSU right now is seventh in the coaches poll, 14th in the RPI and second in the Massey Ratings. Massey’s ratings are soccer’s answer to KenPom. Massey rates FSU’s offense and defense as first in the nation but they are second in the overall ratings to UCLA principally because the Bruins are 9-0 and have played the toughest schedule in the nation thus far in the season.

The Noles are being held back in the ratings because the schedule (to this point) has not been that tough. Massey has FSU’s schedule rated 14th right now. FSU’s best win according to Massey is over #23 Clemson.

Basically, FSU is playing very impressive soccer right now but people want to see if they can keep it up when the opponents get tougher.

Okay, that is a great segue to take our focus to the rest of the season. How do you see the next few games playing out?

The Seminoles are about to hit the challenging part of the season. Let’s discuss the next few opponents.

Up first is Miami ((3-4-2, 0-3-0 ACC) on Saturday. The Canes are unranked in the coaches poll, #47 RPI and #89 Massey. There is not really much to say about this game. Miami does look to be moving in the right direction as a program. They do have an impressive win over #5 Alabama. However, the Canes just don’t have FSU’s talent and it would be a surprise if the Noles didn’t win this game by multiple goals. It will be nice to see Megan Morgan again though.

Massey gives FSU an 80% chance to win while Miami has a 9% chance to win. The other 11% is the chance of a tie.

On October 6th the Gauntlet begins. Florida State will face Virginia, Notre Dame, Duke, North Carolina, and Pitt in consecutive games. The Massey rating of those opponents in order is sixth, ninth, fourth, third and seventh. That’s correct. The Gauntlet consists of five top 10 opponents in a row. Let’s discuss these teams in a bit more detail. Before we get to that it must be noted that Heather Payne will definitely miss the Notre Dame and Duke games and probably the Virginia game due to national team commitments.

Virginia (9-1-1, 2-1-0 ACC) is first on October 6th in Charlottesville, Va. The Cavs (#2 coaches, #6 RPI. #6 Massey) have talent all over the field as usual. However, UVA hasn’t been particularly impressive of late. I can’t believe that I am saying this about the #2 team in the nation (at least according to the coaches) but there is something missing with this team. I know, they are 9-1-1 so how much can be missing. However, you need to look a bit deeper with this team. In politics they have top line numbers in polls and then they have crosstabs which allow you to look deeper into the results. With the Cavaliers you really need to look at the crosstabs. UVA has a total of six shots on goal in their last three games combined. They are 2-1 in those games (against UNC, ND and Louisville) because they have scored on five of those six shots. I highly doubt that UVA will be able to be this clinical against FSU’s goal keeping. It is astounding that the Cavs have not been able to generate more chances considering that they have a front line featuring Haley Hopkins, Rebecca Jarrett and Alexa Spaanstra. I think that what is happening is that the Hoos have not been productive enough in midfield and therefore the potent frontline has not been getting good enough service. This has led to the strikers having to provide too much of the offense on their own because the build up in the midfield has been lacking. I want to stress how talented the Cavs are because they do have the players to fix this issue. However, if they don’t figure it out it will be tough to handle FSU because the Noles will be very hard to defeat if Jenna Nighswonger, Clara Robbins and Co. are dominating the midfield.

Massey gives FSU a 47% chance to win and gives UVA a 38% chance to win.

Next is Notre Dame (8-2-0, 1-2-0 ACC). The game will be on October 9th in South Bend, Ind. The Irish (#16 coaches, #4 RPI. #9 Massey) are a very solid team. They took care of business in the non conference and have a win over Virginia on their resume. They also have losses to Clemson and Pitt. They have quality players like Korbin Albert, Olivia Wingate and Kiki Van Zanten but overall the talent level in South Bend isn’t as good as what FSU can offer. Assuming FSU plays to the standard that we have seen in the last few games it is tough to see a loss for the Noles here.

Massey gives FSU a 53% chance to win and gives ND a 32% chance to win.

Duke (8-2-0, 3-1-0 ACC) is next up. The game will be on October 13th in Tallahassee. The Blue Devils (#4 coaches, #3 RPI. #4 Massey) are a dangerous team. Of course it all begins with striker Michelle Cooper up top. Cooper is a lot to handle with her speed and athleticism. She doesn’t need a lot of space to strike. The Noles will need to know where she is at all times. However, Duke is a Jekyll and Hyde team. They got absolutely dominated by UNC in Durham 3-0 in a game where the Heels held them to two shots. They followed up that performance with a lethargic 1-0 win over Syracuse. I was about to write them off as overrated at that point. Then they came out and absolutely took NC State to the woodshed in a 6-0 no mercy thumping. Now I’m not sure what to make of the Devils. It really depends on which team decides to show up. Ultimately, I think that FSU is a bad matchup for Duke. I don’t think that the Blue Devil defense will be able to stand up against the loaded Seminole front line. Also, the game is in Tallahassee and that matters.

Massey gives FSU a 59% chance to win and gives Duke a 27% chance to win.

North Carolina (9-2-0, 2-1-0 ACC) will travel to Tallahassee on October 20th. The Tar Heels (#2 coaches, #2 RPI. #3 Massey) are of course loaded. And by that I mean loaded with talent and players. UNC has 37 players on the roster. For context, FSU has 21. If you have watched any college soccer the last 10 or so years you know what the Heels will do in this game. FSU will see the high press. That will be the key to the game. If the Noles can avoid (or at least minimize) mistakes in the back they should be fine in this game. FSU will then be able to take advantage of the space in the back that will be open due to the high pressing. The Tar Heels have another issue. The goal keeping has been suspect. Against Virginia (a game of the year candidate) UNC jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first half. Carolina was absolutely dominating the Hoos in the first half. UVA didn’t even attempt a shot and basically couldn’t get the ball out of their half of the field. Then everything changed in the second half. UVA scored three goals in the half for the win. However, the first and third goals were due to very questionable goal keeping from UNC keeper Emmie Allen. If that doesn’t get cleaned up the Heels will have a very rough stay in the Sunshine State.

Massey gives FSU a 54% chance to win and gives UNC a 31% chance to win.

The Noles will travel to Pitt (10-1-0, 3-0 ACC) on October 23rd. The Panthers (#14 coaches, #7 RPI. #7 Massey) look much improved but I will save my observations about them until later as the game is almost a month away.

However, right now Massey gives FSU a 52% chance to win and gives Pitt a 34% chance to win.

Overall, the Seminoles are playing about as well as can be expected. Any dropoff from the Krikorian era has been minimal (at least so far). Assuming FSU can continue to play at this level and avoid injuries the Noles are prime contenders for yet another College Cup run.

As always, the comments are yours.