Why Midfield Play Could Be The Difference In College Cup Title Game
BOCA RATON, Fla. -- Even the name almost makes you want to stifle a yawn: Holding midfielder. Other players on the field get to be attacking midfielders or strikers. Even wingers and fullbacks are position names that hint at adventure and flair.
Football, the other one, has holding penalties. Airline travel has interminable holding patterns that guarantee missed connections. Want some customer support on the phone? Be ready to listen to some scratchy music while you are, you guessed it, holding.
You take the bull by the horns, but you hold on for dear life.
Yet come Sunday afternoon, players from either Florida State or Virginia will be holding aloft the championship trophy. They will jump, dance, scream and cradle the biggest prize in college soccer for the first time in either program's history.
One way or another, those holding midfielders are going to help decide which team gets to celebrate.
In fact, though the teams approach the position in different manners and with different numbers of players, the more you watch Virginia's Danielle Colaprico and Florida State's Michaela Hahn and Isabella Schmid, the more you realize these two teams might not be in Sunday's national championship game but for them.
"It's kind of like we connect the attack and the defense," Schmid said of the often overlooked position. "We're just kind of the center point. I would say the midfield is hugely important because we're responsible for the rhythm of the game and calm things down and all that stuff."
If Florida State is college soccer's model of international cooperation, with players from seven countries on a typically worldly roster, the holding midfield partnership of Hahn, a junior from the other side of the state near Orlando and Schmid, a junior from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean in Germany, is the microcosm of the model.
Mark Krikorian's 4-2-3-1 formation calls for two holding midfielders, an arrangement by which Hahn and Schmid, if they do their jobs well, effectively give the Seminoles the flexibility of an extra defender or attacker at any given moment.
The two players Krikorian called the most underrated on his team usually do their jobs quite well, if also quietly well.
"They're like coaches," Krikorian said. "They both read the play very, very well. Their technique is very good. They have fantastic soccer brains. They're intercepting passes, stepping into passing lanes and so on. Their quality with the ball is really good, but probably the best thing is they make the players around them better. They clearly understand the quality of the opponent's pressure. They'll put the ball in a place where their teammate can handle the ball away from pressure so that they have a little bit more time to handle the ball."
Neither grew up playing the position at which they now collectively excel. A forward and a defender at various times in her life (including not inconsiderable time at outside back with the Seminoles), Schmid said she felt like she needed an extra set of eyes when she was first dropped in the midfield. Instead of having the bulk of the game in front of her as a defender or behind her as forward, everything was whirling around her in the midfield.
For Hahn, the switch meant learning how to defend -- work she was largely able to avoid as a goal scorer earlier in life.
"Even though I do like scoring, and I haven't scored and I'm a little sad [about that]," Hahn said, "I like distributing the ball and making those passes because people do notice it. Also, I wasn't the best at defending when I came in, and now I'm a really good defender, cutting out the balls and stuff, and it just makes me happy that people actually see it and it's not all about scoring."
Schmid initially only wanted to come to the United States for one year, as an exchange year to experience something new before returning to Germany, where she has been part of the European power's youth national team system. What she found in Tallahassee -- where she will graduate from Florida State in three years with plans to pursue a master's degree -- convinced her to stick around for the duration. As it turned out, doing so also meant finding those extra eyes she wanted, not in the back of her head but alongside her.
In their third season together, Schmid and Hahn operate as one unit, with the typically defensive-minded Hahn freeing Schmid to push forward into the attack.
"I always know Michaela is going to be there, otherwise I wouldn't be able to go forward," Schmid said. "By her doing so, it gives me confidence, and I know I don't have to make a sprint back because I know she's going to be there. And it's the same with her: As soon as she is going forward, she knows I'm going to stay back. We just trust each other, and we communicate well."
Florida State is the defensive powerhouse that it is both because it plays well when it doesn't have the ball and also because it usually has the ball more than the other team. It's why the Seminoles are the only team to stop the Cavaliers this season, having beaten them twice by matching 1-0 scores.
Florida State's back line gets and earns a lot of credit for the stinginess. The forward lines apply their share of pressure. But it's so hard to go through Florida State and so hard to get the ball from the Seminoles because of those two players in front of the back line.
Which makes the midfield the center of attention in Sunday's match.
"I mean it when I say it: I think they have one of the best midfields in the country," Schmid said of the Cavaliers. "They have very talented players, but the thing is, I'm actually more excited to play against them than I am about any other team, just because I know they're very good and I like playing against good players. You know they play soccer. They try to combine, they try to connect the passes, and that's the style of soccer I like, so I'm very excited to play against them.
"I think the challenge is just that we need to break their rhythm because that's their strength. They're very good, and as soon as they start combining, it's very hard for us to defend. So we just need to break that rhythm and start being physical and interrupt their play."
That starts with interrupting Colaprico and Morgan Brian, who form the spine of Virginia's midfield. Both Hermann Trophy semifinalists, the seniors have combined for 33 assists in 3,235 minutes this season (for reference, that is six fewer assists than the entire North Carolina team accumulated in 18,826 combined minutes, and that was a team good enough to split the ACC regular season title with Florida State and earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament).
For much of the season, including parts of the first game against Florida State in late September, Virginia played with a more prototypical holding midfielder in Campbell Millar, a player coach Steve Swanson lauded as someone who improved as much during her four seasons as any player he ever coached. But for the most part, since Brian returned from World Cup qualifying with the U.S. national team, Colaprico has played in the holding role between the back line and Brian.
It's not inconceivable that Swanson, who hinted at some strategic twists for Sunday's game, would shift the versatile Colaprico elsewhere on the pitch for the final, but stacking his two playmakers has worked well so far for an offensive juggernaut. Nor does Swanson sacrifice anything defensively, as evidenced by the way the 5-foot-3 Colaprico held her own on the ground and in the air against bigger opponents, such as UCLA's Sam Mewis and Texas A&M's Annie Kunz, the past two games.
"The thing about where we have her now is she's such a good two-way player," Swanson said of Colaprico. "She's not only a strong player with the ball, and she can get forward, but she also defends really well. I think to have the combination of those two in the midfield, who play really well together and look for each other, has been really helpful for us as we've entered postseason play. Sometimes you want to have Dani a little bit further up the field because of her attacking abilities, but I think the most important thing is you try to get her in positions where she's touching the ball a lot during games."
It doesn't hurt that Colaprico played the attacking role Brian occupies when the latter was away for an extended period of time with the national team this fall, or that Brian trained in the holding role during that time with the United States. Each has run a mile in the other's shoes -- literally in distance, if thankfully only metaphorically in footwear.
"She has a huge role on this team," Brian said. "She plays a lot of different positions, and for us that is really good for her to be so versatile. Last week, she played the holding mid position. And that is exactly what we need her to do -- play the role given -- just like everyone else on the team. For her, she is very good on the ball. She calms the team down. I love playing with her. I think that we play really well together."
Both Swanson and Krikorian, whose familiarity dates back decades, to when the former coached at Dartmouth and the latter at nearby Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire, will get the opportunity to outmaneuver each other Sunday, but much of their work was done long ago in finding the pieces now in place.
For Hahn and Schmid, that meant identifying positional potential. For Colaprico, it required some patience in the recruiting process.
"I didn't really have much of a feel of whether Steve wanted me at first," Colaprico said.
It didn't help that the prep All-American from New Jersey didn't play to her plaudits when a Virginia assistant came to watch her.
"I just played awful, and it was like the most devastating thing of my life," Colaprico said. "I was like 'I just ruined it. I'm never going to UVA.' I wanted to go there from the start and from the beginning, so I kind of just kept in touch with him all the time, and then finally at the end ... he reached out to me and kind of persuaded me to come to UVA."
It's safe to say she held up her end of the bargain.
Although other positions typically offer greater glory, Sunday should offer a spotlight for those who make the pass that allows the pass that leads to the goal or stop the run the other way that could unravel a defense.
Colaprico, Hahn and Schmid? They hold the key to a national championship.