Appearing in its 29th straight NCAA tournament, No. 11 Virginia women’s soccer will begin its run for a national championship Saturday evening when it takes on Fairleigh Dickinson for the second time this season. After being knocked out of the tournament fairly early as a No.1 seed last season, the Cavaliers (13-3-3, 6-2-2 ACC) are hopeful to advance to the College Cup this season.
Virginia’s keys to success
Work out offensive struggles
In Virginia’s last seven games of the season, including its loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament, the Cavaliers outshot their opponents 113-41, while only accumulating a record of 3-2-2. This is a worrisome trend for Virginia. Although the quality of its opponents has been good, if the team is outshooting opponents by more than 70 shots, the Cavaliers should have won more than three games during that stretch.
In order for Virginia to turn these scoring opportunities into goals, they will need to get the ball into the hands of freshman midfielder Maggie Cagle and graduate student forwards Haley Hopkins and Alexa Spaanstra. This trio has been the catalyst for the Cavaliers’ offense throughout the season, and they will have to continue to generate opportunities for themselves and their teammates if they want to march through the tournament.
Maintain outstanding goalkeeping
Senior goalkeeper Cayla White has had an amazing season for the Cavaliers. In her first season as a full-time starter, White has produced eight shutouts, while only allowing 12 goals through 16 games. While part of her dominance is through Virginia’s offense controlling possession most of the game, White has still kept the Cavaliers in a lot of close games, making outstanding saves.
White’s athleticism has allowed Virginia's defense to be aggressive and press up on opposing attackers which has disrupted the rhythm of opposing offenses throughout the season. Virginia needs to continue to trust White in goal and play aggressively on defense to disrupt the flow of offenses, which in turn, gives the Cavaliers an advantage in the possession battle.
Rely on Veteran Experience
While Virginia does have a lot of young talent, the core of the team is built around a strong group of upperclassmen. Hopkins, Spaanstra and junior midfielder Lia Godfrey are the top three point leaders for the Cavaliers this season and draw much of the attention of opposing defenses.
On the backend of the field, senior defender Talia Staude and graduate student defender Sarah Clark, along with junior defender Samar Guidry have been a steady presence for Virginia. This trio work in unison on the defensive side of the ball. However, opposing defenses need to worry when they receive the ball as well, as each of the three have scored goals in big games for the Cavaliers. Virginia veteran presence on all three levels of the field should give them an advantage in high pressure postseason play.
Possible path to the College Cup
Virginia should have no problem advancing through the first round as it takes on Fairleigh Dickinson (8-10-3, 5-2-2 NEC), which found its way into the tournament as an automatic qualifier after it won the Northeast Conference tournament in penalty kicks. In the first matchup between these two teams in August, the Cavaliers jumped out to a 4-0 lead in the first 26 minutes into the game, eventually defeating the Knights 5-0.
It will be important for the Cavaliers to start their tournament off with another dominant offensive performance to build confidence for the tougher opponents that they are likely to face later on in the tournament.
In the second round, the Cavaliers will most likely face No. 22 Tennessee, who takes on Xavier in Knoxville, Tenn. The Volunteers (11-5-2, 7-2-1 SEC) boast a powerful offense that has outshot Virginia this season. However, Tennessee was only 2-3-1 against ranked opponents during the regular season and they were shut out by Georgia in the SEC tournament. The Cavaliers will have to use a strong defensive performance if they want to get past the Volunteers.
UCLA — the number one overall seed — will be the toughest opponent the Cavaliers will have to face if they want to reach the College Cup for the first time since the spring of 2021. The Bruins (17-2, 9-2 PAC-12) have had disappointing postseason performances the last few years and will be hungry to make it to the College Cup this season. If the Bruins and the Cavaliers end up meeting in the quarterfinals, it will arguably be one of the best games of the tournament between two perennial powerhouse programs.
While the path for the Cavaliers to advance deep into the tournament is manageable, the Cavaliers have to get through their opening matchup first. A large crowd on Saturday evening could give the Cavaliers some energy in their first game of the NCAA tournament, creating momentum for the Cavaliers as they hopefully advance further.
Virginia's match against Fairleigh Dickinson is set to kickoff Saturday at 6 p.m. at Klöckner Stadium and will be available to stream on NCAA.com.