NCAA Women's Soccer: 5 Things You Need To Know For The College Cup

Shane M. Lardinois

Duke, led by freshman Taylor Racioppi (7), is the first team since 2000 to reach the College Cup after missing the NCAA tournament altogether the previous year.

The national championship will come down to the ACC against the Big Ten, but there is work still to do to know which teams will fill those roles when the College Cup concludes.

The rubber match of a series in which each team won at home this season, No. 1 Penn State plays No. 2 Rutgers in Friday's first semifinal (ESPNU, 5 p.m. ET). After a scoreless draw in the regular season, No. 1 Florida State then plays No. 3 Duke (ESPNU, 7:30 p.m. ET).

The games will provide the answers. Below you'll find the questions.

1. Why is this a College Cup of unfamiliar territory?

The games at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina mark a welcome return to a venue that has hosted the championship seven times since 2003 and would be a wise choice if the NCAA ever followed its baseball and softball model in establishing a permanent home for the event.

It also makes it a curious setting for a weekend that is more about firsts than the familiar.

While a repeat guest in its fifth consecutive College Cup, Florida State is nonetheless trying to become the first school other than North Carolina to win back-to-back national titles. Should it prove unsuccessful in that quest, Duke, Penn State or Rutgers will win a national championship for the first time.

For good measure, should Rutgers do so, it will be the first team to win a title in its first College Cup appearance since Abby Wambach, now newly retired, led Florida to the title in 1998.

More germane to semifinals that are both conference rematches for the first time is the reality that the first goal may be the winning goal. Barring a scoring barrage, this season is likely to produce a champion with one of the lowest goal totals from its leading scorer. Only Penn State's Megan Schafer enters the semifinals with more than 10. And while all four teams rank among the top 50 in scoring, all rank among the top 15 stingiest defenses. Some of the brightest talent on display will be trying to prevent goals being scored.

2. How did these teams get to Cary?

Duke: The first team since Portland in 2000 to reach the College Cup after missing the NCAA tournament altogether the previous year, Duke's season was an accelerated rebuilding job. There was a pedigree. A national finalist as recently as 2011, last year's postseason miss ended a streak of 11 consecutive tournament appearances. What on paper was a modest eighth-place finish in the ACC nonetheless showed a team that could hold its own against elite competition.

Courtesy of Florida State

Florida State center back Megan Campbell is a leader and tough tackler. But what makes her doubly valuable is her long throw.

Florida State: The Seminoles are 13-0-1 in the ACC and NCAA tournaments over the past two seasons. They won a penalty shootout that followed the lone draw in this year's ACC title game and allowed just four goals in those games, none in 10 consecutive NCAA tournament games. That is a remarkable continuity of result for a team otherwise different enough in composition that freshmen totaled 29 goals and 31 assists this season (out of 64 and 69, respectively).

Penn State: A team with nearly 20 players in their first or second year of eligibility might seem ahead of schedule, but Penn State nearly reached the College Cup with much the same core a season ago, losing by a goal on the road in the quarterfinals. And no team is playing better. In fact, not since undefeated North Carolina in 2003 has a team that reached the semifinals without conceding a goal in the tournament do so by a wider margin than Penn State's 17-0.

Rutgers: An NCAA tournament quarterfinal offered a tidy summation of Rutgers' progress over the course of 12 months. On the same field where it lost to Virginia by three goals in the second round a year ago, able then to slow a potent offense for only a half, Rutgers stymied the No. 1 seed for 110 minutes this year, then survived nine rounds of penalty kicks to advance to its first College Cup. As the year went by, early wins against Loyola Marymount, Hofstra, Princeton and Connecticut, in addition to Big Ten success, spoke more and more highly of this team's abilities.

3. What is most likely to win each team a title?

Duke's midfield: Beating Florida and Stanford on the road in successive rounds had a great deal to do with playing those teams to a midfield stalemate. Taylor Racioppi is the rising star, but equally important are Ashton Miller and Kara Wilson, who sit behind Racioppi and control valuable real estate. With the understanding of shared responsibilities any such arrangement demands, Miller is the more likely to join the attack, as her five goals and five assists show.

Florida State's back line: The aforementioned stinginess is the product of all-field efforts, both in applying pressure and dominating possession. But center backs Megan Campbell and Kirsten Crowley flanked by Emma Koivisto and Carson Pickett are a nearly impenetrable last line. The team as a whole has allowed only 13 goals, but opponents have put the ball in the back of the net just three times in the run of play against that specific quartet. That is the same number of goals scored by Crowley, quietly adept in the air on set pieces despite her modest size. Those headers, Campbell's throws and Pickett's set piece services add to the group's value.

Penn State's balanced attack: As the lack of postseason goals against it suggest, Penn State can defend. It isn't the most prolific scoring team left, a position held by Florida State, but the depth and balance of Penn State's offense are its identity. Raquel Rodriguez, Nickolette Driesse and Emily Ogle are all midfield engines. Leading goal scorer Schafer is a presence at the top, while Mallory Weber, Frannie Crouse and freshman Charlotte Williams are all assets.

Rutgers's defense: It's the theme of the College Cup, and Rutgers is the model for building a championship contender around a defense. It took more than eight games at the start of the season for any team to score on the Scarlet Knights. The back line is the cornerstone, but Big Ten goalkeeper of the year Casey Murphy is an athletic 6-foot shot-stopper and defensive midfielder Haley Katkowski is a rock who will start her 100th consecutive game in the semifinal.

4. Why do you need to look beyond the goal scorers?

Duke's Christina Gibbons: It isn't easy for an outside back to be the most influential player on the field, but it helps Gibbons' cause that she never leaves that field. There are several pro-caliber two-way outside backs in the College Cup field, but Gibbons might be the best of the bunch. Her ability to stretch opponents down the flank isn't new, but it showed up in the box score with two assists and two goals in five November games.

Craig Houtz

The depth and balance of Penn State's offense, powered by leading scorer Megan Schafer, left, and midfielder Emily Ogle, right, are its identity.

Florida State's Megan Campbell: An outside back a season ago, Campbell moved to center back, also a familiar role for the veteran Irish international, to replace ACC defensive player of the year Kristin Grubka. She's a leader and tough tackler. But what makes her doubly valuable is her long throw, a tool that not only turns an otherwise routine throw in the opponent's end into the equivalent of a corner kick, but gets the Seminoles out of their own half in a hurry.

Penn State's Emily Ogle: She makes plenty of appearances on the score sheet and enters the College Cup with seven goals and six assists, but those totals don't tell nearly the full story of her role as the link between the back line and the attacking players ahead of her. If you saw the role Morgan Brian took on with such aplomb in the World Cup this past summer, Ogle's role (and value) at the college level is not dissimilar.

Rutgers' Brianne Reed: Take your pick of Reed and Erica Skroski in the middle of the back line. Skroski was the Big Ten defender of the year this season, but Reed joined her on the all-conference team and was a third-team All-American a season ago. There isn't much point in trying to pick a winner because it's their partnership that works. But like Campbell's throw, if less precise, Reed's flip throw is an asset for Rutgers in the attacking third of the field.

5. Who is the attacking X factor for each team?

Duke's Taylor Racioppi: A New Jersey native who not only admires fellow Garden State product Carli Lloyd but has on occasion worked out with the World Cup star and trainer James Galanis, Racioppi is an inventive and aggressive attacking player in her own right. She handled big minutes in her first college season, and after going through a prolonged scoring drought, she quieted any talk of a freshman wall with three goals and three assists in five November games.

Florida State's Cheyna Williams: She's the leading goal scorer for the defending champion, so she may seem more a constant than a variable. But it's the nature of Florida State's system, with Williams and Berglind Thorvaldsdottir sharing minutes as a lone striker, that she exerts more influence on some games than others. The Seminoles are at their best when she does.

Penn State's Raquel Rodriguez: For a select few players, the year offered the rare opportunity of participating in both the World Cup and College Cup. Only Rodriguez will realize that chance after starting for Costa Rica in games against Brazil, South Korea and Spain during the World Cup and earning first-team all-Big Ten honors for the second season in a row at Penn State.

Rutgers' Colby Ciarrocca: Williams isn't the only Vanderbilt transfer who could be the difference in Cary. In her first season since transferring from the SEC school, as Williams did a season earlier, Ciarrocca has given Rutgers a goal poacher in the best sense of the phrase. She has also shown a knack for scoring them against quality opposition, including Big Ten and NCAA tournament goals against Connecticut, Minnesota and Ohio State.

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