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BROWN: Way-too-early Virginia women’s soccer preview

I revamp my expectations for Coach Steve Swanson’s side in 2022

<p>The Cavaliers will need to find ways to make up for several key departures in order to make a run at a national championship.</p>

The Cavaliers will need to find ways to make up for several key departures in order to make a run at a national championship.

Last year, I wrote in an early-season column predicting that the Virginia women’s soccer team would win the 2021 national championship. However, Coach Steve Swanson’s squad prematurely fell to BYU by a single goal in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. This year, I am doubling down on my claim from last year. Despite several key departures, what remains is reason to be optimistic for what lies ahead, and if the remaining Cavaliers can smoothly step into bigger roles, Virginia can win the program’s elusive first national championship.

One of the glaring holes Virginia must fill is that left by former goalkeeper Laurel Ivory, who is now on the Seattle-based National Women's Soccer League side, OL Reign. Ivory’s accolades are extensive. She is second all-time in clean sheets, and her 68 career wins stand at second in program history. Needless to say, whoever replaces her has big shoes to fill. That replacement is likely to be junior goalkeeper Cayla White. White has appeared in 11 games for the Cavaliers, posting four clean sheets. The junior has performed well in her limited minutes, but is still relatively untested.

A large part of Ivory’s exceptional success was the defense in front of her. The center-back pairing of senior Claire Constant and junior Talia Staude was phenomenal throughout the 2021 campaign. The two started in all but one game together last season and anchored a Cavalier defense that posted 13 clean sheets.  Unfortunately, this pair will be broken up with Constant’s graduation. Still, Staude is a third-team all-ACC member and will no doubt look to climb the ranks in her final season. In February, Staude was called up to represent the under-23 United States Women’s National Team, further bolstering her pedigree.

Lining up on either side of the center-backs is exceptional talent — more United States National Team-level talent. Sophomore outside-backs Samar Guidry and Laney Rouse were both called up to the under-20 United States Women’s National Team training camp. The fullback duo inject electric pace into the attack but are rarely caught out of position on defense. They have bright futures and will certainly grow into bigger roles in their junior seasons.  

Moving up into the midfield, reigning ACC Coach of the Year Swanson has several All-ACC options in his midfield. The departure of midfielder Taryn Torres to the NWSL’s Gotham FC will be felt tremendously. With a tireless work ethic and exceptional technical skills and elite vision, it is no surprise Torres earned Player of the Match honors in only her second NWSL start. Gotham has fittingly dubbed her “Picasso.”  Additionally, graduate student midfielder Sydney Zandi, who started all 23 games last year, will be graduating.

With these departures, there are questions to be answered in the middle of the pitch. After earning first-team All-ACC honors, sophomore midfielder Lia Godfrey will have an even bigger role, as she will likely dictate the team’s tempo. She effortlessly glides through defenders and can play dangerous cutting passes towards goal but is not afraid of going into contact.  Her 12 goals and three assists earned her All-Region and All-American honors and, ultimately, a spot on the under-23 United States National Team — the ceiling of this 5-foot-4 maestro is extremely high. Sophomore midfielder Alexis Theoret, who played all 23 games last season, will likely join Godfrey. By the end of the season, Theoret was logging consistent minutes and played a season-long 78 minutes in the Cavaliers’ season-ending loss to BYU. As for the third midfield spot, junior Emma Dawson makes a strong case, having also played a season-long 78 minutes in the final game of the season.

Going towards goal, expect growing pains for Virginia — the hole that is left by senior forward Diana Ordoñez is ineffable. The sixth pick in the 2022 NWSL Draft to NC Courage, Ordoñez left a historic imprint on the program. By the time of her departure for the NWSL, she had twice led the ACC in goals, earned All-ACC selections three times, and scored a whopping 102 goals for the Cavaliers — third all time — all while forgoing her final year of eligibility. Underscoring her meteoric ascent, she was called up to the senior Mexican training camp April 1. 

She scored 15 game-winning goals, placing herself fifth in Cavalier history for that category.  Next season, Virginia will play without their get-out-of-jail-free card for the first time since 2018.  On top of the loss of Ordoñez, graduate student forward Haley Hopkins — Vanderbilt-transfer and All-ACC Third Team member — is graduating. So, what remains for the Cavaliers offensively?

The only returner from the starting front three is senior forward Alexa Spaanstra, who opted for a fifth year. Spaanstra tied Hopkins for second on the team in assists and was third in scoring behind her aforementioned attacking peers. She is quick, physical, smart and industrious. Her efforts were acknowledged by United States National Team scouts as she earned an under-23 call-up, similar to Godfrey and Staude.  

Playing without Ordoñez and Hopkins will be a unique challenge, but there are still attacking options. Spaanstra will be put in the spotlight, but her attacking teammates will also need to step up. Sophomore Brianna Jablanoski played in 19 games last year and notably improved as the season progressed. Additionally, sophomore Sarah Brunner contributed 208 minutes last season. She served as an outside back but is listed as a forward.There are no doubt glimpses of talent, but losing Hopkins and a 5-foot-11 finisher in Ordoñez will be felt for some time.  Spaanstra will have to undertake a bigger role in the attack as she leads the newcomers.

Despite the 2021 Cavaliers’ dominant regular season, the heights of a championship were never reached. Regardless, I will be doubling down on my previous national championship predictions. This time, however, they are contingent on a few holes being adequately filled and certain players, like Spaanstra, Godfrey and the defense, assuming bigger roles within the team. Losing Ordoñez is a significant loss, and replacing her productivity is no easy task. Still, there are six months until the season begins, giving Swanson time to figure out a new system. It is not a matter of if Swanson’s team will perform, but when. Most importantly, when they perform, will it be enough to obtain the perennially elusive national championship?