Florida State's revamped defense denies Stanford its title defense
CARY, N.C -- The College Cup was supposed to be about how little had changed in a year. It was supposed to be a celebration of permanence, of Stanford's strengthening grip on women's soccer.
Instead, there will be no repeat championship for the Cardinal. They won't win the title this season. And the only streak they will carry into next season is of the one-loss-in-a-row variety.
There are a lot of reasons for that turn of events, but one of them is that a lot can change in a year.
Just ask the Florida State team that suffocated Stanford into submission -- and just for good measure, the defense that produced the goals that the defending champion never found.
A team that hadn't lost in more than a year was beaten by goals from Gabby Carle and Malia Berkely, two defenders who hadn't scored all season for the Seminoles. With its 2-0 semifinal win on Friday, Florida State is moving on to Sunday's national championship game and a chance to not only win the second national title in its history but to do so at the expense of old nemesis North Carolina.
It's quite a change since last year, when Stanford ended Florida State's season in the third round of the NCAA tournament. The score looked competitive. The game didn't.
"Last year Stanford took us apart," Florida State coach Mark Krikorian said after turning the tables. "We weren't close. The score was close, 1-0, but there were so many elements in the game, that going back and looking at it, it was clear that we needed to improve in a lot of areas."
Friday night was the grand reveal. With a backup goalkeeper, a freshman holding midfielder and just one player on the back line with more than a season's worth of prior experience in that role, the Seminoles controlled the tempo of the game and slowed Stanford to a frustrated crawl.
A year ago, Stanford did almost what it wanted, score notwithstanding. The Cardinal took 22 shots in that game, seven of them on frame. They took 12 shots Friday night. They put just one of them on goal, nearly eight fewer than their tournament average this year.
But first things first: Florida State's defense gave itself some breathing room.
Entering the game, Stanford had trailed for a little more than seven minutes all season. It trailed longer than that before Friday's game got to halftime. Pushing forward in the attack, a theme on a night that also saw North Carolina's outside backs finally run Georgetown into the ground in an overtime thriller, Carle scored her first goal of the season in the 29th minute.
Given too much space by Stanford's defense as she cut inside parallel to the 18-yard box, the sophomore from Quebec put all of her energy into a shot back across her body that snuck inside the post for a 1-0 lead.
"I started going inside and kept going until I realized I could score," Carle said. "And then I shot, and it went in."
You would have thought someone in Stanford's previous 45 games would have figured that out.
Perhaps it isn't quite that easy, but you wouldn't have guessed it from the second goal.
With barely three minutes left in the half, Berkely pushed forward from her center back position. In the attacking end, she noticed Stanford goalkeeper Alison Jahansouz off her line and decided to try her luck. The shot appeared to tail away from the goalkeeper ever so slightly as it neared. As a result, what looked like a comfortable save instead skidded off her gloves and into the net.
"The second goal was the one that really deflated us because it was an unfortunate mistake," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said. "And then it's hard when you're down against a team that is good in possession, keeping the ball. They could just play keep-away a little bit."
There was definitely some good fortune in the second goal, although it was good fortune that came as a result of first putting a shot on frame. There might even have been some luck on Carle's goal -- the placement was perfect as the infrequent scorer flung her body into the shot.
Such things happen in knockout soccer, whether the World Cup or College Cup. Unexpected goal scorers score unexpected goals. It would be a stretch to say either Carle or Berkely had been building toward those moments in any substantial way.
Building toward Friday's defensive performance, on the other hand, is exactly what they and fellow back liners Natalia Kuikka and Kirsten Pavlisko did -- along with holding midfielder Jaelin Howell in front of them.
Kuikka, in particular, won't get the attention she deserves because she wasn't among the goal scorers. But the senior from Finland is the rock of the back line, one of the best defenders in college soccer, even if she did arrive in Tallahassee as a midfielder.
"The Finnish national team is thrilled with us because they had no idea that she could be one of the top center backs in the world," Krikorian said. "And she's maturing into one of those."
They weren't perfect, perhaps. Stanford had a couple of openings to get back in the game. But the Seminoles were better at snuffing out the sport's most star-studded lineup than anyone else, not just stopping Stanford when it had the ball but starting and maintaining possession for their side.
"We knew that if we allowed them to completely control and dictate the tempo of the game, it would be a long game for us -- as it's been for the past 45 opponents that they've had," Krikorian said. "So it was going to be really important for our kids to play brave and make sure that they had the ability to hold the ball under some pressure, knowing the pressure was going to come. Fortunately, our two center backs are gifted technically. They have great individual ball control and they have confidence on the ball."
The story of the defense Friday night mirrored the story of the whole team's season.
This wasn't a dominant team. It wasn't even whole for much of the season, starting without several players competing in the Under-20 Women's World Cup, doing without Kuikka because of international duty later in the season and balancing injuries -- including to starting keeper Brooke Bollinger as the NCAA tournament arrived. The Seminoles finished seventh in the ACC. They trailed South Florida in the second round of this tournament. They saw a potential season-ending shot from USC hit the crossbar in the Sweet 16, then survived a penalty shootout against the Trojans.
But it was a very good team. A very good team playing better right now than it has all year.
Speaking about his own team's injury woes, which were substantial, Ratcliffe said he felt like the Cardinal never played their best soccer, never rounded into form to the degree they could. They never had a chance to be the best they could be.
There were a lot of reasons for that. Friday night, Florida State's remade defense was the primary one.