NCAA quarterfinalist Virginia is out to refute the notion college soccer has to be about athleticism and frenetic play.
Coach Steve Swanson, who also was hired as the U.S. Under-20 women's team coach in August, stresses a possession style. Players keep the ball and move it around with deft passing. Forwards and midfielders take on defenders one-on-one to create passing lanes and mismatches. Julia Roberts is nominally a defensive midfielder, but often starts the attack.
"It's fun to play the kind of style we play," Swanson said.
That style has taken the Cavaliers back to the NCAA quarterfinals after five seasons of stumbling in the third round. Virginia's slick passes dismantled Virginia Tech's defense in a 4-0 rout Sunday. Next stop: at Florida State at 2 p.m. Friday.
The 4-0 score wasn't a surprise. Virginia beat Virginia Tech by the same score in the regular season and averages more than 2.5 goals per game.
Virginia Tech coach Chugger Adair, whose team had beaten Big East champion West Virginia and Big 12 champion Texas A&M to reach the NCAA third round, faces Virginia regularly in the ACC and knew the challenge his team faced.
"UVa is a very good team, very possession-oriented," Adair said. "They create a lot of chances. We knew we were going to not see a lot of the ball, and we had to defend well."
Swanson's team has a lot of talent to pass the ball around. After losing a strong senior class that sent three players to WPS, the Cavaliers added youth national team captain and high school player of the year Morgan Brian to a solid roster. Juniors Roberts, Erica Hollenberg and Caroline Miller played on a McLean (Va.) youth soccer team that won a national championship in 2007, and sophomore Molly Menchel was in the same organization.
Roberts and Hollenberg said they've been playing together since age 11.
"It's been an incredible journey," Roberts said. "Me, Erica, Molly and Caroline have been playing with each other for so long. To get to this point with our team is a really great feeling."
Even with a talented roster, a fluid possession game takes a lot of teamwork. Swanson said the Virginia style takes a lot of repetition in practice. Then he repeated himself: "A lot of repetition."
"It's a very strong commitment," Swanson said. "We spend a lot of time. We want to be the best team at moving the ball. In our speed of play, we want to be the fastest in the country. I don't think it's there, but we're getting there."
Virginia romped through its first six games but hit a rut just as conference play started. The Cavaliers scored only once in their first four ACC road games.
"The competition in the ACC has just been ridiculous," Roberts said. "Every game for every team in the league is a hard-fought game."
The team started clicking again and won its last five regular-season games, starting with a 4-3 win against Florida State. After extending the win streak to six with a win over Maryland in the ACC quarterfinals, Florida State took revenge with a 2-1 win in the semis.
Now, Virginia faces Florida State once again.
Swanson thinks his team is steadily improving and ready to face the country's best.
"The biggest thing for us, particularly in these two games this weekend -- our decision-making has been extremely good," Swanson said. "That's an area of soccer that is not looked on enough as a difference in this game. We tend to look at athleticism quite a bit, and skills are important as well. But the decisions you make in the game and your movement off the ball are keys. This group has been good from the start on that, and we've been getting better all year."
He was particularly impressed with his team's goals Sunday, which included a nifty backheel pass from Brian to Lauren Alwine for the goal that broke open Virginia Tech's stubborn resistance.
"I don't think there's any reason we can't win these three games," Swanson said. "We're playing well right now -- we're playing the best soccer of our season."