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  • Sophie Lodes

And Then There Were Eight...

Whether folks watched the NCAA’s round of 16 or The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes this weekend, that action was roughly the same. The round of 16 saw penalty kicks, a game go to double overtime, and several high-goal affairs as teams fought to advance to the elite eight. With no unranked opponents left and three no.1 seeds remaining, the tournament is heavily weighted towards the higher seeds, but there’s no blueprint to advancing beyond: win. May the odds be ever in your team's favor.

No. 1 Florida St

Florida St. put five goals up against an offensively-minded Texas that looked shaky on defense against Wisconsin but held on for the win. Their biggest strength is their ability to utilize their midfield to hold possession of the ball until they can break down the opposition’s defense. Not all possession is good possession, but FSU has perfected the art of possessing in a productive way, pushing forward.

Florida State Seminoles celebrate a goal in their Round of 16 game. Photo by @FSUSoccer /Twitter

Weaknesses are hard to find in the Florida St. blueprint—there’s a reason they hold a no.1 seed designation. Texas A&M came the closest to forcing an upset, losing 1-0. The blueprint to frustrating FSU lies in the counterattack. Knowing the volume of shots created by Florida’s offense, keeping those limited to outside the box is an easier way to regain possession. FSU is creative, and not efficient, so striking on a counter and getting an early lead might be the only way to disrupt Florida’s game plan.

Clearly, this No. 1 seed deserves a comparison to District One. Always a women’s soccer power, Florida St. remains lethal on both sides of the ball, able to attack from anywhere on the field while simultaneously suffocating any attacking chances from the opposition. A team can play a whole match against FSU chasing the ball with Florida St. controlling the tempo offensively and defensively. In three rounds of play, Florida St. has yet to concede a goal, advancing on three consecutive shutouts.

No. 1 BYU

Consistency is BYU’s strength—opponents play their game, and they don’t change their game plan. Michigan St. tried to implement more physicality, but lost that game 3-1, showing how hard it is to force BYU to change. Bumps in the season haven’t disrupted them and Michigan St. scoring didn’t throw BYU into panic. Instead, they doubled down and found the win.

BYU Women's Soccer celebrate a goal in their Round of 16 win over Michigan State. Photo by @byusoccer_w /Twitter

When you’re the no.1 seed overall, picking a weakness feels a little foolish. But BYU has proven to be beatable in one-offs this season and the way to do so is to shock them. Taking advantage of the first five minutes or disrupting the midfield passing with a press can force BYU to recalibrate, buying the opposing team time to try and sneak in a goal or two.

BYU deserves their No. 1 ranking and a District 1 comparison because they’ve consistently found themselves advancing in the NCAA tournament. As their game against Michigan St. proved, BYU isn’t afraid to get chippy and can (mostly) handle physicality while finding the jugular in terms of scoring. They’re careers at the NCAA tournament at this point and they want more than an elite eight win.

No. 1 Clemson

Doing exactly what needs to be done may read like a passive-aggressive strength, but it’s not. The Tigers win, in any game situation. That’s enough to advance and keep on advancing without any of the huge names other teams can brag about. Playing consistent, quality soccer is something that every team remaining can say, but Clemson does it clinically, consistently coming up with the clutch play to eek over the finish line. That’s a skill, not a liability or an insult.

A weakness for Clemson is that they lack an explosive offense, something that most of the other teams in the elite eight are capable of doing. Clemson can take a team to the brink, and did find a comeback goal against Georgia, but haven’t had to find three or more goals to win a game like Penn St. has. Mentally tough, Clemson hasn’t demonstrated their ability to find a second gear and put a team to bed in regulation.

Clemson is best compared to a District 2, if only because the other two no.1 seeds appear slightly more clinical and creative than the Tigers. The Tigers deserve some points for grit for the way that they’ve won each of their three matches in different ways, including defeating Georgia in penalty kicks and keeping Columbia from tying the game late. Clemson doesn’t appear ruthless, but the Tigers get the job done.

No. 2 Penn St

Penn St. will play the long game and they’ll play the long game with ever-changing rules depending on how they want to structure their offense that day. The offense is built around Payton Linnehan, but Penn St. can score with long balls over the top, patient midfield play, set pieces, and anything in between. Capable of patiently outlasting opponents and changing the point of attack mid-game, Penn St.’s in-game toolkit is what sets them apart from other elite eight teams.

What Penn St.’s overtime win against SLU demonstrated was their weakness in maintaining 90 minutes of focus. Defensive lapses in giving up dangerous free-kick opportunities contributed to SLU’s being able to claw their way back into a game that appeared over. Fouls, turnovers, and complacency with a two-goal lead lulled Penn St. into relying on their defensive shape to close out the game—which it did but only in double overtime.

A lot has been said about how Penn St. could be a no.1 seed if the bracket had been formed differently, but the best comparison isn’t District 1, it’s District 8, home of the peacekeeper uniform and known for being able to attack or defend as the situation calls for it. There’s no one size fits all for Penn St. and, to take the comparison too far, the ability to wear different garments is their success.

No. 2 Stanford

Stanford’s strength lies in their ability to play every aspect of the game to such a high level that it’s difficult to tell exactly how they broke down the opposition. Familiar with the pressure of advancing through a national tournament, Stanford never looks phased in a match—and rarely has a reason to. With plenty of attacking firepower and having just shut down one of the best midfields in the tournament, Stanford has confidence at exactly the right time.

That cool-as-a-cucumber attitude might just be Stanford’s weakness though. With three consecutive shutouts, the defense and goalkeeper haven’t been tested and the whole team hasn’t had to play behind. Getting on the board first would be Stanford’s first big defensive test and force the Cardinals to react. Pressuring the backline is probably the best way to shake up a seemingly unflappable Stanford.

Stanford might be the No. 2 seed but they hail from District 3 for their ability to think through an opponent’s game plan and beat them at their own game. Stanford won’t look like they're completely dismantling an opponent until the score is 3-0 from three different types of goals, demonstrating their ability to thoroughly dismantle an opponent.

No.3 North Carolina

North Carolina will score. The Tarheels will not be shut out and that’s largely due to their creativity in the final third and their ability to control the midfield in unpredictable passing sequences. With creativity in spades, the opposition isn’t going to shut out UNC, and closing down one options means another is open somewhere else. That understanding of how to use the midfield to create sustained pressure in the attacking third sets UNC apart from how other teams prefer to build.

The weakness of the Tar Heels is efficiency. UNC shoots—a lot—but doesn’t convert those shots into goals, keeping other teams alive for longer than they maybe should be given North Carolina’s quality. In a direct comparison to their opponent, Stanford is efficient with their shots, setting up a quality vs. quality showdown in their matchup.

Maybe North Carolina deserves a career district based on their soccer pedigree, but this team plays like a District 7. A combination of prestige, past titles, and present quality on the team, and quantity over quality bring the comparison home. There’s a sense that this North Carolina team doesn’t quite have the lethality needed to advance, but maybe that’s just what they want you to think.

No. 5 Nebraska

Eleanor Dale is Nebraska’s greatest strength both because she can score—a lot—and because as long as she’s on the field opponents are worried about her and not necessarily the other forwards or midfielders crashing the box. With the play designed to give her as many options as possible, options in unexpected places open up and Nebraska knows how to leverage those open players into goals.

Nebraska’s biggest weakness is their reliance on outscoring the opponent. Defense tends to be optional when your team has the number one goal scorer in all of Division One college soccer. And although the defense usually holds on until the offense has put up a goal or two, habits become hard to break the longer they’re allowed to go on.

The best district comparison is, perhaps, District 12, given Dale’s refusal to be just a pure goal scorer and instead providing opportunities for the rest of her teammates. As the no.5 seed, one might expect Nebraska to have advanced on their stringy defense, but it’s all attacking firepower and full steam ahead into the opponent's attacking third. The smash-and-grab style of soccer fits District 12’s penchant for producing tributes that figure out how to smash their way through the games.

No. 7 Pitt

Pitt won’t kill a team slowly, they tend to do it all at once in a burst of goals that leave the opposition reeling. The Panthers don’t absorb pressure, they feed off it, playing with a chip on their shoulder that makes their matches feel like a track meet with the back-and-forth, high-paced tempo their games take on. It’s about the forwards with the defense doing just enough to.

Keera Melenhorst (#10) and Samiah Phiri (#23) celebrate Pitt's first goal in their Round of 16 match-up. Photo by @PittWSOC /Twitter

The weakness of this Pitt team is that, once the defense breaks down, it becomes a battle for who can score more with the Panthers betting on being able to score one more than the opposition. They also aren’t a team that starts the game on the front foot, it takes the offense a half to warm up fully. Going against a Florida St. team that can also score bunches means this weakness will be harder to overcome than if the Panthers were playing a team struggling offensively.

It would be tempting to compare Pitt to a District 10, 11, or 12, but that would be to fundamentally misunderstand the firepower this team possesses. Think of Pitt as a sneaky district four: still devastatingly lethal, able to score in bunches, and strong enough on defense to have two shutouts in three rounds. The Panthers just aren’t one of the big names thrown around in women’s college soccer that often. For fans of underdogs, high-scoring, or try-and-stop-us teams, Pitt is the one to bet on.

The Elite Eight kicks off on Friday, November 24 at 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time. The round is sure to be as dangerous as the Hunger Games—or your Black Friday shopping.


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