Power Rankings: Virginia surging

Morgan Brian leads the Virginia soccer team in a huddle. The Cavaliers will play without her this weekend when they play North Carolina because of Brian's duties with the U.S. national team. Matt Riley/UVa Athletics

You don't have to be perfect to make it to the College Cup, but Virginia could be excused for thinking otherwise.

Consider the history. Three schools have made at least 25 NCAA tournament appearances in women's soccer: Connecticut, North Carolina and Virginia.

The Tar Heels have then advanced to the College Cup 26 times. The Huskies reached the final weekend seven times.

The Cavaliers made their lone College Cup appearance in 1991, the same year Color Me Badd climbed the charts.

Every year since, save 1993, brought another invite to the tournament. Every year ended short of the semifinals.

So perhaps it only made sense that All-American midfielder Morgan Brian, who wasn't yet alive for the school's lone College Cup appearance, saw last Thursday's 3-2 overtime win against Notre Dame less as the continuation of the only remaining perfect season in the nation and more as one more step forward.

People in Charlottesville know all too well that October wins don't forestall November disappointment.

"I think in the past eight or nine games we haven't put more than 45 minutes of great soccer together," Brian said after the Notre Dame win. "And I think today we played a good first 45 minutes and then the second half we put about a good 25 more minutes together. And that's progress for us."

Progress toward playing a perfect 90 minutes, preferably in early December. So far, though, even the partial variety has been a whole lot better than any other team.

Virginia was one of four teams last season that had a 20-goal scorer, ACC Player of the Year Caroline Miller. Three of those players, including Miller, moved on. After losing Tiffany Cameron to graduation, Ohio State went from 1.8 goals per game last season to 1.5 goals per game this season. Without Taylor Uhl after a transfer, Minnesota went from 2.2 goals per game last season to 1.5 goals per game this season. Without Miller, Virginia went from 2.8 goals per game to ... 3.2 goals per game.

Stanford didn't become more potent the season after it lost Kelley O'Hara or Christen Press. Penn State isn't scoring more without Christine Nairn. That isn't how it normally works.

Part of the surge, certainly, is having Brian for mostly a full season after she split time last season between the Under-20 Women's World Cup and college.

"I think it was difficult because Morgan had the World Cup, so she was recovering from that," coach Steve Swanson said. "I don't think she fully got back from that, with the school and all the cumulative effect of the World Cup, so I think she wasn't necessarily herself until the end of the year, which anybody can understand.

"We're getting her production back, and I think we've got some experienced players that play well together. We move the ball."

But Brian, one of the two best players in country, is best as both goal scorer and playmaker, which means that while she makes everyone around her better, they can do the same for her. Virginia controlled possession in a rainstorm against Notre Dame and did so again in Sunday's 2-0 win at Wake Forest. It's what the Cavaliers have done all season because of the work Danielle Colaprico, Kate Norbo and Annie Steinlage do in the midfield. It's because Shasta Fisher and Emily Sonnett can play the ball out of the back and outside backs Molly Menchel and Morgan Stith can push forward. And because up top, Makenzy Doniak (10 goals, five assists) improved a little on a superb freshman season and classmate Brittany Ratcliffe (eight goals) improved a lot on a quiet one.

When Brian played for the United States in a friendly against Mexico in September, her college teammates luxuriated in a day off from practice to travel to Washington, D.C., tailgate and loudly root her on from the stands. They won't even be able to watch her on television when she suits up for the United States this weekend in San Antonio because they'll be playing North Carolina at the same time (the Tar Heels will likewise be without star midfielder Crystal Dunn because of national team duty). It's another opportunity to show how much more Virginia is than one player.

"We've always been a program that prides itself on getting a lot of players involved in the scoring, and I think that's the case this year," Swanson said. "It was a little unusual that Caroline had so many goals, so many big goals, and she deserves all the credit for that. But I thought we could replace those goals; I just didn't think it was going to come from one person."

Now on to the rest of the rankings.

1. Virginia (13-0-0)

Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum was livid about Virginia's overtime winner, but replays (around the 1:28 mark) are at most inconclusive as to whether the ball crossed the line and also appear to show a possible handball that could have produced a penalty kick if the goal had not been awarded. Before the showdown in Chapel Hill, Virginia travels to NC State on Thursday.

2. UCLA (12-1-1)

It was a busy week for the Bruins, who played three games and four overtime periods in the span of seven days. That stretch started with a stumble, a 0-0 draw at home against Washington, but the Bay Area sweep of Stanford and Cal more than made up for any dropped points. The 2-1 overtime win at Stanford, freshman reserve Lauren Kaskie's goal with less than five minutes remaining providing the program's first win in Palo Alto since 2007, could prove to be a turning point for first-year coach Amanda Cromwell. Conceding the equalizer with 93 seconds to play in regulation but coming back to get the win on the road matters beyond one result.

3. Florida State (12-0-3)

No team here has scored one or fewer goals more often this season than Florida State, which has done it nine times after a 1-0 overtime win at Syracuse last week. But look at the loss column and the Seminoles seem to make it work. On the plus side, sophomore Carson Pickett picked up her second goal in the past three games in Sunday's 4-0 win against Pitt. A rough final stretch awaits, with home games against Maryland and Notre Dame sandwiched around a trip to Virginia Tech and Virginia. Complicating matters are the World Cup qualifiers at the end of the month that could leave Florida State without at least part of its Icelandic delegation and Irish international Megan Campbell.

4. North Carolina (12-2-0)

Senior Kelly McFarlane is a big reason North Carolina wins a lot of games, but it's usually in ways that don't show up in the box score. She flipped the script with the second-half winner in Sunday's 1-0 win at Boston College, her first goal of the season. Also scoring her first goal of the campaign was Amber Munerlyn in a 3-0 win against NC State, albeit the first of what could be many. A season ago, North Carolina caught a break when it received a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament and a chance to host second- and third-round games. Now the Tar Heels are back on familiar footing, in control of their own destiny for a No. 1 seed with four of five remaining regular-season games at home.

5. Portland (11-1-1)

Since a 3-2 loss against Wake Forest on Sept. 8, a game in which it let a two-goal lead slip away, Portland has won eight games in a row and outscored its opponents 20-5 in the process. There aren't any national championship contenders in that list of opponents, but there aren't many walkovers, either. The Pilots are quietly playing good soccer. The most recent results were a sweep of trip to Southern California, a 3-1 win at Pepperdine in which keeper Erin Dees came up with nine saves and a 2-0 win at Loyola Marymount. Five of their final six games are at home.

6. Santa Clara (8-3-1)

After a long break from action, Santa Clara successfully navigated a tricky conference weekend with wins at home against San Diego and BYU. Sofia Huerta and Julie Johnston each had a goal and an assist over the two games, par for the course, but it was junior Katie Speidel who sealed a successful weekend with her third career goal, the winner late against BYU on Saturday. A lot of soccer remains, but the Broncos are averaging exactly two goals per match, which they haven't done over the course of a full season since 2006.

7. Virginia Tech (11-1-2)

Junior Ellie Zoepfl found a convenient time to score her second career goal, her finish in the 87th minute propelling Virginia Tech to a 1-0 win against Notre Dame on Sunday. That is probably the best win this season for the Hokies, but it's hard to argue with the volume of victories. Of their three most difficult remaining games, two are at home, beginning with a visit from wounded Wake Forest on Thursday. At this point, hosting multiple rounds of postseason soccer is very much a possibility.

8. Stanford (9-3-1)

It's difficult to process three consecutive losses at home and a streak of four consecutive games in which the Cardinal failed to win in regulation. But there they are, three losses in the regular season, more than the past five seasons combined. Leaving them in the top 10 might be giving the brand name the benefit of the doubt. Still, the Cardinal have scored 17 goals more than they have conceded, hardly out of line with other contenders for this spot. One puzzle is how to get Chioma Ubogagu on the score sheet. She's too talented to have six goals in her past 29 games.

9. Denver (12-1-1)

Every game between now and the start of the NCAA tournament is a trap game for Denver because there simply isn't much to prove in the Summit League, whose programs aren't competitive at the same national level as the Pioneers. They won their first three Summit games by a combined 12-0 margin and outshot their opponents 70-12. The league is going to take a toll on Denver's RPI, but at this point, the Pioneers aren't going to slip so low as to miss out on hosting a first-round game in the NCAA tournament.

10. South Carolina (12-1-1)

It's a different coast, but South Carolina looks a lot like last season's San Diego State. Like those Aztecs, the Gamecocks are downright miserly on defense. The SEC team has allowed just six goals in 14 games this season, which covers for the fact it has scored only 20. Still, coming off wins at Florida and Tennessee two weekends ago to take control of the SEC race, they avoided a letdown with two second-half goals against Alabama this past weekend.

Next five: Notre Dame (9-4-1), Penn State (10-3-1), Kentucky (11-2-1), West Virginia (11-2-2), Florida (10-3-1)

Ten games to watch this week (rankings from NSCAA Top 25)

• No. 1 Virginia at No. 4 North Carolina
• Maryland at No. 3 Florida State
• No. 19 Wake Forest at No. 6 Virginia Tech
• No. 7 South Carolina at No. 24 Mississippi
• No. 23 Kentucky at No. 8 Florida
• LSU at No. 8 Florida
• Colorado at No. 9 California
• Duke at No. 13 Notre Dame
• Ohio State at No. 17 Penn State
• No. 22 Nebraska at Wisconsin