This time, Virginia prevails
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- Crowds are a given on the day after Thanksgiving. But as night fell and shoppers iced bruises and sorted plunder, the University of Virginia found itself with one more bit of congestion to conquer.
Black Friday at Klockner Stadium offered but a single invitation to the College Cup in stock, and the Cavaliers had waited far too long to leave empty-handed. A full year after a disappointing early exit in the NCAA tournament, with all the sprints, weight sessions, practices and games that came in the interim, they were going to leave with it in their possession this time.
On the strength of a goal from Molly Menchel in the 68th minute, No. 1 Virginia beat No. 3 Michigan 2-1. Virginia is headed to the College Cup, a place it hasn't been since 1991, when holiday shoppers sought out deals on the new Super Nintendo video-game system and most of the players on the field Friday had not yet entered the world. There it will face the winner of Saturday's quarterfinal between No. 1 North Carolina and No. 2 UCLA.
The top overall seed dominated possession, its trademark all season, and became the first team to score more than one goal against Michigan, a program that former U.S. national team coach Greg Ryan rebuilt with defense. Ryan put out five defenders Friday night, a tactical alignment rarely seen in any game, let alone one between two seeded teams in an NCAA tournament quarterfinal, but a concession to the task at hand.
Virginia is too good with the ball. And it always seems to have it.
"I think Virginia plays the best brand of soccer in the women's college game that I've seen in a long time," Ryan said. "We've seen recent years Stanford has played a similar style, but I feel like Virginia is doing it at a higher pace. Not only with the ball, but when they're out of possession, they're so quick to press. It's very much like Barcelona's style."
From the outset, Virginia searched for a way through the bodies Michigan packed in its own end, a way to unlock the defense. Multiple times in succession, it would string together six, seven or eight passes in Michigan's half, finally lose the ball, win it back before Michigan could get out of its own half and then string together another series of passes.
Possession turned into a goal in the 24th minute, the quickest Virginia had been on the scoreboard since the first round.
Barely a minute after coming on as a substitute, Virginia midfielder Alexis Shaffer delivered a cross from the right side that Morgan Brian went for at the near post but couldn't get a head on, thanks in part to either incidental contact or a shove in the small of her back that sent her sprawling ahead of the pass but didn't produce a penalty. Rather than pout on the ground or complain, the junior All-American and one of two Hermann Trophy favorites got up and reset as the ball settled back at the feet of Virginia's Makenzy Doniak a few yards beyond the top of the 18-yard box.
Just 13 seconds after she hit the ground, Brian got on the end of a pinpoint pass from Doniak and calmly slotted the ball past Michigan keeper Taylor Bucklin from 6 yards out.
Against Georgetown in the first round and Wake Forest in the second, that was enough. But Michigan was a team built to play committed defense and attack on the counter.
It was clear early on that Michigan's best chance, perhaps its only chance, was going to come on the counter, and the equalizer came less than 30 seconds after Brian nearly put Virginia ahead by two goals. Finding a pocket of space in Michigan's defense close to the 6-yard box, Brian volleyed a terrific pass in tight space from Danielle Colaprico but could only direct the ball at Bucklin. Less than 30 seconds later, Michigan star forward Nkem Ezurike gathered the ball near the right sideline, dribbled to the edge of Virginia's 18-yard box and served a ball into the run of Meghan Toohey, who adeptly touched the pass down and beat the keeper at the far post.
Just like that, Virginia lost a lead for the first time all tournament and found itself back at square one.
Part of the reason Virginia has faced just 10 shots in the tournament is because of how well it keeps the ball and how good its back line is. But part of it, too, is that it's difficult for opponents to shoot from their own half, where they choose to spend much of the game defending with as many bodies as the rules allow.
"Every single game that we've played, I don't think we've been able to play a thru ball," Brian said. "There's no space in behind their back line, and everyone drops and puts a lot of numbers back because of how well we can keep the ball. And we have some dangerous forwards that can penetrate. For us, we've gotten a lot better at keeping the ball and movement and being patient with how we can score goals."
That patience paid off midway through the second half. Ryan said part of his objective was to take away the middle of the field and force Virginia to play from the flanks. It was a calculated risk because Colaprico serves some of the best crosses in the college game from those wide positions. She did just that on a ball that fell to Menchel's foot at the far post. Menchel's first contact put the ball off the post and even she said she wasn't sure if what followed was her getting a second touch or the ball rebounding off the keeper, but it ended up in the back of the net.
After that, it was just a matter of maintaining possession as the time ticked away. That isn't a problem for Virginia.
Ryan compared Virginia's style of play to Barcelona. And like Barcelona, there are any number of players on the field for the Cavaliers who are elite relative to the level of play. Colaprico is one. So is Doniak. So is Menchel, so adept at getting forward from her outside back position. But also like the Spanish giant and Lionel Messi, there is one player who makes every other part that much better.
This team is more than Brian. A program that despite its College Cup drought has 31 all-time tournament wins is more than her. But everything changed when she came on board.
She was the best player on the field Friday night, and she makes this team the championship favorite.
"She's so special; she's like from another planet,'' Ryan said. "I'm excited to see her play more with the full national team in the future. She's got so much skill, so much ability to finish, to pass, to create. Her movement off the ball is amazing -- she kind of pulls your defense apart, she pulls away from the game and then they find her in a different area and she hurts you there.
"I'd watched a lot of video, and I knew what was coming, so none of this surprises me at all. But Morgan surprised me. Not that she was any different today than the other games. It's just that the quality of that kid's play is phenomenal. She's going to have a wonderful career in the national team."
There is some sense that might begin as early as next fall on a full-time basis, with the rising star facing at least the possibility of a choice between her senior college season or training with the national team to give herself a better chance to make coach Tom Sermanni's roster for the World Cup the following summer.
But that is a prize for a different day. Friday was about taking possession of something a long time coming.
Virginia waited a long time to go back to the College Cup. That wait is over.