The Virginia Cavaliers hosted new top-25 entrant in Memphis on Sunday night at Klöckner Stadium as part of a two-game swing in the Commonwealth for the Tigers. The trip did not go well for Memphis as they dropped a game against Louisville in Harrisonburg and were pounded late by the Cavaliers, giving up four second-half goals en route to a 5-0 loss.
Memphis started the game well and were active in midfield. Many are the teams that have tried to press Virginia in midfield, and in the first half, Memphis was about as successful as possible.
The Tigers denied Talia Staude the left channel so she wasn’t able to make the runs forward she’s accustomed to and Lacy McCormack, Virginia’s second central defender, had an abysmal game with the ball at her feet, turning the ball over multiple times. I like McCormack, she’s versatile and it looks like Virginia head coach Steve Swanson is grooming her to replace Staude next year, but better teams are going to take advantage.
The other problem the team is facing is that Swanson has elected to start Claire Constant at central midfield and move Alexis Theoret over to the right. For the first three games of the season, Theoret had started in the center and Emma Dawson was on the right. Dawson is a team captain and she has steadily improved over her three years on Grounds. I don’t know if she’s carrying a knock — though she looks fine on the field — but she’s played minimal minutes these last three games. The problem for the Virginia attack is that Constant can’t really turn the ball with a defender on her. Yet.
Maybe this is part of Swanson’s plan for developing Constant for the next level. It would be consistent with his M.O. Three years ago, Swanson took his best player, Phoebe McClernon, and played her out of position at right back because he knew that her path to the professional level was not as a central defender. It worked for McClernon who became a first round pick.
The Cavalier game plan was to attack the space behind the Memphis back line, which seemed like the right idea, given that Memphis was committing to the high press. But the Tiger defense was excellent in the first half, intercepting or denying the through ball.
Right winger Rebecca Jarrett, showing that she has fully recovered, exploded on a pair of counters, and found the right person in space twice, but Alexa Spaanstra’s shot went just wide and the Tiger defense closed beautifully on Lia Godfrey. On the two most glorious through balls of the first half, first Sarah Brunner and then Brianna Jablonowski were offsides.
Freshman Maggie Cagle, in an effort to speed the game up, did something I have rarely seen in the current iteration of Swanson’s team: she took a quick free kick. The Cavaliers can be maddeningly deliberate when it comes to corners and free kicks, so it was refreshing to see the fast re-start.
The breakthrough came with just two minutes left in the half, when Cagle got the ball at top of the box, fed Jablonowski, who dipped past one defender, and hit a beautiful curling shot into the top right corner. It was a glorious shot from a player who had lost her role as first-off-the-bench striker due to the emergence of Cagle who, by the way, collected her fourth game-winning assist of the season.
As Steve Swanson told our very own Zach Carey after the game, the goal changed the complexion of the game. Memphis had been very successful shutting down Virginia and the Tigers had found pressure points in the defense. The goal was deflating and Memphis was clearly going to have to take it to Virginia.
Memphis did come out attacking in the second, but two of the team’s counters were nicely stuffed by Staude and McCormack. (How Staude has never sniffed a whiff of All-ACC recognition is beyond me, but that’s a rant for another day.)
The dam broke for the Cavaliers 15 minutes into the second half when Haley Hopkins was brought down, seemingly just outside the box. The NCAA has had video-assisted review (VAR) for a couple years now and, in this case, VAR came to the rescue. And it was spot on. For the third straight game, Hopkins took a picture-perfect penalty, and gave the ‘Hoos a 2-0 lead.
I don’t know how much any team really cares about rankings, but I suspect deep down, they are important. Memphis, having just entered the top-25 and having just lost to Louisville, needed to stop the bleeding and make this a game. Pride, I imagine, took over. But they couldn’t convert and Virginia simply put on a clinic as to how to run a fast break.
Check out the highlights. This was soccer like it was drawn up on the whiteboard. It’s one-touch soccer with Hopkins, Brunner and Jablonowski clinical in front of goal.
Jablonowski gave her thoughts on the team on the whole after her breakout performance: “Our team is so good this year. We’re led by veterans with so much experience. They are constantly pushing us to learn new things and I’m super excited.” The junior also added that she hopes, as a role player, to “just be able to come in and impact the game.” Mission accomplished.
Next Up: With the win, Virginia advances to 6-0 on the season and welcomes Oregon State (3-1-2) to Charlottesville on Thursday. Game time is 6PM and the game will be on the ACC network.