TOBIN: Don't sleep on women's soccer
Whenever football season rolls around, a majority of Virginia students seem to neglect the successes of other Cavaliers sports teams. This year, one particularly successful team is being overshadowed by the beginning of the Mendenhall era — women’s soccer.
To describe the No. 5 Virginia women’s soccer team as dominant would be a gross understatement. Standing at 7-1-0, the team touted an undefeated record prior to Sunday’s 3-2 loss against then-No. 20 Georgetown. Additionally, prior to that game, the Cavaliers had not let any opposing team score a single goal.
Here’s the bottom line: this team has a legitimate shot at bringing back a title to Charlottesville in 2016, and while the football team’s new uniforms, coach and quarterback are nice, it’s time to start giving women’s soccer the respect and attention it deserves.
Virginia’s offensive productivity, as has been the case in year’s past, has given the team a significant advantage over opponents. Averaging 3.13 goals per game — the seventh-highest goal-per-game average in the country — the Cavalier offense is rolling on all cylinders.
While some teams rely on one player to do all of their scoring, that is simply not the case for Virginia. Currently, junior forward Veronica Latsko leads all Virginia scorers with six goals already this season. While this statistic alone is impressive, Virginia’s 25 goals have come from 11 different team members. Considering 22 players (along with senior goalie Morgan Stearns) have played this season, this fact is extremely encouraging. In big-time situations when Virginia needs a goal, it can rely on numerous players to score a key goal — making it a dangerous team.
Looking past its numerous contributors, the Virginia offense is also potent because of its aggressive nature. For the past two seasons, the Cavaliers averaged 20.3 shots per game. Although this season is young, Virginia has averaged just over two more shots per game this season. In continuing to attack the net, the Cavaliers will keep their tougher ACC opponents on the back foot and seize control of the pace of the game.
The fact that Virginia’s offense isn’t even the team’s largest asset is a testament to just how scarily good the team is. The team’s defense is an immovable object on several fronts. First of all, the defense does not allow its opponents to get shots off. This season, opponents have only averaged 3.9 shots per game. Think about that for a second — Virginia averages almost six times as many shots per game as its opponents. Furthermore, with the Cavaliers averaging over three goals per game, this would mean opponents, on average, would have to make every single shot to beat the No. 5 Cavaliers.
It seems almost impossible for the Virginia defense to be better, right? Wrong. In Stearns, the Cavaliers have one of the best goalies in all of NCAA Division I women’s soccer. Heading into her game against Georgetown, Stearns had not let up a goal for 976 consecutive minutes dating back to the last game of the 2015 season — a school record. Even though the stellar back line ensures that Stearns doesn’t have to defend against many shots, she has been close to perfection in ensuring the ball never ends up in the back of her net.
Offense and defense aside, Virginia has something that talent alone can’t guarantee — team chemistry. Coach Steve Swanson has put a lot of faith into his younger talent, starting three freshmen against the Hoyas. Instead of changing the team dynamic, these freshmen seem to have fit right in.
“I think the veteran players have done a great job incorporating [the freshmen], and I think they fit in really well,” Swanson said.
It is important not to overlook Virginia’s loss to Georgetown when analyzing the team. After scoring two early goals in the first half, the Cavaliers allowed the lower-ranked Hoyas to claw their way back and eventually take the lead with three first-half goals in the span of 24 minutes.
Certainly, this was not an ideal result. But due to the length of the women’s soccer season, it is extremely rare for teams not to suffer disappointing losses every once in awhile. For the Cavaliers, it is advantageous that this loss came right before conference play started. Currently, there are six ACC teams within the NSCAA Coaches Top 25, and Virginia will take on three of them over the next four games. With a loss under their belt, the Cavaliers will look to come back with a vengeance against No. 17 Virginia Tech at Klöckner Stadium Friday and carry that momentum forward.
Last season, the Cavaliers were awarded a one seed in the NCAA Tournament but were sent home early after losing in penalty kicks to Radford in the quarterfinals. This year, with redemption on their minds, the members of the team are vying to deliver the program’s first national championship. Don’t sleep on them.
Ben Tobin is a weekly sports columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TobinBen.