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Florida State Sports Notebook: End of Regular Season Edition

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

Charles Mays

The Florida State soccer team has now finished the regular 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 finished the season at 14-0-1 (9-0-1 ACC). The Seminoles are currently ranked 1st Coaches, 3rd RPI and 1st Massey. The Noles also won the ACC regular season title outright with 28 points. Did you expect for the season to go that well?

The short answer is “No”. Florida State always has talent but the Seminoles lost significant front line talent in first round picks Jenna Nighswonger and Clara Robbins. FSU also lost Heather Payne who would have been a first round pick had she made herself available for the NWSL draft. Instead she signed with English first division side Everton. FSU also lost significant depth with the departures of Mia Justus, Amelia Horton, Summer Denigan and Emma Bissell.

Florida State has managed to overcome the losses and deliver one of the best regular seasons in program history.

I wrote the following in my season preview article:

Nevertheless, this is one of the most talented rosters in the nation. It would be shock if this bunch didn’t run the NCAA Tournament streak to 24. In fact, if this team can avoid major injuries another College Cup trip is not out of the question.

The College Cup now looks almost like the floor for this team. Basically, this season has played out to be the best case scenario. While I thought that this was possible I definitely didn’t expect that to be the case at the beginning of the season.

Why have the Seminoles been this good?

As the old saying goes, “Success has many fathers (in this case mothers) but failure is an orphan.” That saying applies here as there are too many reasons to list. However, I will hit the highlights.

The first reason is health. Claire Rain tore her ACL 13 minutes into the first game of the year against Texas A&M. She was ruled out for the season soon after that game. That was obviously a very tough break but the Noles have enjoyed pretty good health elsewhere. Leilanni Nesbeth missed the first couple of games. Heather Gilchrist missed a couple of games with an illness and a couple of players (Jody Brown, Maria Alagoa) have missed games due to national team duty. Other than that the team has basically been healthy. When a team with this much talent can remain healthy a bunch of wins are likely to follow.

This judgment does come with an asterisk as Jordynn Dudley missed the NC State game with a lower extremity injury sustained against Duke. However, I do believe that Dudley will return this year likely in time for the NCAA Tournament at the latest.

The next reason is offense. Florida State has the best offense in the nation according to Massey and it is hard to dispute that judgment. FSU is first in the nation in goals per game (3.3) and points per game (10.4). This team has scored less than two goals only once all year (1-0 win over Florida). However, the Noles are “only” 13th in shots per game and 10th in shots on goal per game. What does that tell you? It tells me that this team is extremely clinical. They generate chances at a good clip (top 15 in the shots categories is nothing to sneeze at) but they are unparalleled at finishing. The hardest thing to do in this game is to score goals. This Florida State team is very good at doing the hardest thing in soccer. As long as that continues this team will be a very tough out in the postseason.

The third reason is coaching. Even with a roster this stacked you can’t just roll the ball out there and expect to win. Coaching remains important. Brian Pensky and his staff have done some significant tweaking/tinkering and most of the moves have worked. I will detail a few significant ones. Onyi Echegini started the season in the midfield. She was moved back to the wing (where she played last year) a couple of games ago against Duke and she responded with a brace. Jordynn Dudley was moved from the wing to the center forward (#9) position. If you have seen her play even once this year you know how well that move turned out. Mimi Van Zanten is now starting at outside back and is flourishing. However, the biggest change has to be the style of play. As you probably know the Seminoles were a possession team under former coach Mark Krikorian. In Pensky’s first season last year the Noles remained basically a possession team although they were more direct than under Krikorian. I expected the team to gradually get more direct this year but still basically maintain their possession roots. I was wrong. FSU is much more direct this year. The change has been rather abrupt. To be sure, Florida State can still possess the ball especially when the tactics of the opponent dictate it but this team is no longer mostly a possession team. The methodical buildup that was a hallmark of the Krikorian teams is basically gone. In its place the Seminoles now go much more over the top. This has worked primarily because of the athleticism that Florida State boasts up top. Nevertheless, the staff had to sell the team on the new style and implement it correctly. It seems that they have completed both of those assignments in fine fashion.

Finally, and most importantly, this team is just loaded with talent. Almost as importantly, the talented pieces fit together almost seamlessly. I mentioned before how clinical the team is but they are also extremely athletic. This is the most athletic team that I have seen at Florida State in a long time (maybe ever). FSU has so many players who can score in so many ways that it is hard to match up. It’s like a football team with four great wideouts or four great defensive linemen. The opponents can’t double team everyone.

The team hasn’t lost yet and has only one draw so they are obviously good. However, no team is perfect so what strategy would you use to try to pull the upset against this team?

We will discuss that but first a couple of caveats. First, no strategy is likely to work against this team if they play well. FSU is undefeated for a reason. Second, it obviously matters a lot what the strengths of the opposing team are when planning a strategy. Therefore, my prescription will work better for some teams and not as well for others. Keeping those caveats in mind here is how I would try to deal with the Seminoles.

First, I would have to figure out a way to take advantage of the slow starts that have plagued FSU this year. The Noles have often been sluggish in the first half. Florida State is only outscoring opponents 13-8 in the first half. In the second half the Noles are destroying opponents to the tune of 37-4. If the opponent doesn’t have a lead at halftime the game is probably a wrap.

In order to get that lead I would try to attack down the flanks. Florida State has experienced players all over the field except at the nine (where they have Dudley so it doesn’t matter) and at outside back. FSU rotates Ran Iwai, Mimi Van Zanten and Sophia Nguyen at outside back. These are all talented players but they are inexperienced at the position. Iwai is a converted midfielder who moved to outside back for the first time last year. Nguyen played outside back last year a few times when Payne was on international duty and Van Zanten is a true freshman who didn’t play the position at the club level. I would attack down the flanks and try to cross in the box and hope that FSU loses my striker so that she could get a dangerous shot on goal.

In other words, I would do what Notre Dame does here:

Therefore, since FSU is talented and experienced almost everywhere I would attack where the Noles are talented but relatively inexperienced.

Finally, no team is beating FSU if they can’t at least hold their own in the midfield. North Carolina was able to do this well and that was a big reason why the Heels were able to earn a draw with FSU. They also got this lucky goal but that’s water under the bridge now.

If a future opponent is not able to disrupt the Seminoles in the midfield then the Noles will be able to provide continuous service to those assassins up top and that will be game over.

Again, will this prescription work? Probably not but you have to try something.

Let’s broaden it out. How are things looking overall in the ACC as we continue on with the ACC Tournament and head to the NCAA Tournament?

The ACC was almost historically strong last year. Ten teams (Florida State, Clemson, Duke, NC State, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Pitt, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest) from the league made the NCAA Tournament and a whopping eight of them (Florida State, Clemson, Duke, NC State, North Carolina, Notre Dame, Pitt, and Virginia) were seeded. Five of them (Florida State, Duke, North Carolina, Notre Dame, and Virginia) made the Elite 8.

There was almost no chance that the ACC would be as strong this year as last year and things have followed that script. There are only two teams that are demonstrably better this year than last year and they are Clemson and Pitt. The rest of the teams are either about the same as last year (FSU) or worse than last year (everybody else).

The ACC has five teams that are locks for the NCAAs (Florida State, Clemson, North Carolina, Notre Dame, and Pitt) and one team on the bubble (Wake Forest). Virginia is technically eligible for a bid but the Cavs are at 103 in the RPI so they don’t have a realistic chance. Wake Forest is at 76 in the RPI. I really want the Deacs to get in because they pass the eye test for me. However, they really needed to beat Clemson in the first round of the ACC Tournament to get in and they lost 1-0. Therefore, I think that they are on the outside looking in and the ACC will only get five teams in the NCAA Tournament.

Finally, let’s bring it back to the Seminoles. Are they the best team in the nation and what is your level of confidence that they will make a deep run in the postseason?

I do believe that FSU is the best team in the nation right now. The Noles are only 52nd nationally in goals against average (,800) but Massey ranks the defense overall as 5th in the nation. Nevertheless, if the Seminoles continue scoring goals at anywhere near this pace the defense won’t matter as much because teams simply won’t be able to keep up with that potent offense.

Regarding the ACC Tournament, Pitt is a real threat. They were impressive in the first round win at Chapel Hill. The Panthers fell to FSU 12 days ago in Tallahassee but it was a relatively close 3-2 game (although the Noles were dominant in the second half as usual). Pitt can score. They average 2.7 goals per game and Massey rates the Panther offense at 9th nationally. While Sarah Schupansky and Amanda West are legitimate threats I just don’t see Pitt being able to match FSU’s offensive firepower for a full 90 minutes.

In the other half of the bracket Clemson will face Notre Dame. FSU beat both of these teams by multiple goals in the regular season and I’m not sure that much will change in the ACC Tournament. The Seminoles are a bad matchup for any defensive first team (Clemson) and Notre Dame doesn’t have the offense to match FSU.

Of the teams remaining in the ACC Tournament, Pitt is the most dangerous but I still believe that FSU will end up in the ACC Tournament winner’s circle for the fourth straight time.

We will have a chance to discuss the NCAA Tournament in more detail soon. However, Florida State should be a lock at this point for a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and in Tallahassee that is the main goal of the regular season.

The comments are yours.