Coming into this game, I wasn't sure what to expect. Virginia had obliterated its competition thus far this season, rolling to a perfect 13-0-0 record and the top spot in the national ranking, but had done so without facing any of the teams that I would define as national title contenders within the ACC. So obviously, the Wahoo's are good, but just how good?
As it turns out, the Cavs are potentially great, pending a large caveat.
Virginia struck quickly twice near the end of the first-half and coasted to a 2-0 win yesterday in Spry Stadium. While Virginia was a bit lucky to score twice in a tightly contested first half, the final scoreline flattered the Deacs, who were lucky not to concede in the second half as Virginia systematically twisted and turned the Wake defense.
Now the caveat: no one knows just how good Wake is right now, as it was announced before the game that leading scorer Katie Stengel will miss an "indefinite" amount of time for blood clots in her left leg. Without their most potent offensive player, Wake looked unimpressive in attack, although the Deacs had some success in the second half.
The first half hour of the game was a fairly tight affair. Virginia enjoyed the bulk of possession, but a lineup featuring the members of Wake's senior class (Aubrey Bledsoe, Caralee Keppler, Jackie McSally, Ally Berry, Annick McBreyer, Courtney Owen, and Chelsea DiLiberto) put forth an inspired effort to keep Virginia out of any potential danger areas. The Wahoos did generate one okay look, but a shot by Morgan Brian off a low cross was straight at Bledsoe.
However, as they have done all year, Virginia struck with ruthless efficiency. After an initial cross was rebuffed, Shasta Fisher lofted a ball into the box, where Brittany Ratcliffe had slipped into a pocket in the Wake central defense. Ratcliffe's wide open header from 4 yards left Bledsoe no chance, and the Wahoos were ahead 1-0 in the 36th minute.
Virginia quickly doubled the lead in the 41st minute. Emily Sonnett got a glancing head on Amber Fry's corner kick, and while the ball was successfully cleared off the line by the Wake defense, the ball rebounded to Alexis Shafer at the back post at point blank range for an easy finish.
Wake began the second half more impressively after massive lineup changes. However, even though the Deacs were able to sustain pressure for spells, the final pass was missing and Wake was unable to generate any good looks. On the other end, Virginia's midfield and forwards were given more room to operate as Wake committed numbers forward, and the Cavaliers did everything but finish. Bledsoe made a number of great saves, and the Deac defender were forced to make diving clearances on a number of occasions. Ultimately, Virginia was unlucky to add to its tally, while Wake simply did not generate much offensively to get back in the game.
- Obviously the loss of Stengel hurts. Katie is generously described as "competitive" (from people who know, I've heard that she makes Kobe Bryant look sane in that regard), so I can't imagine she won't do anything in her power to get back on the field ASAP. It remains to be seen how Tony da Luz shuffles the deck for the next few games. Caroline Wootten will probably start (she did not today due to Senior Day activities), but Riley Ridgik played well at forward in the second half. Another option would be Ally Berry.
- The loss of Stengel changed the complexion of the game, but the better team still won. Virginia showed me a lot today, particularly in the second half. Solid in defense and with a number of good attacking options, even if the finishing left a bit to be desired. I don't think they've played FSU or UNC yet, but I would not be surprised if they beat both of those teams. They deserve the #1 ranking.
- If Stengel doesn't come back, or isn't able to come back effectively, then it's time to re-evaluate Wake's chances. This season started with national title aspirations, and while I think that may be a bit extreme, I can see a gritty run to the College Cup as a possibility. There is a lot of talent left on the roter, and Bledsoe is an all-American (and showed it today). When the Deacs won the ACC Tournament a few years ago, it was on two penalty shootouts where Bledsoe came up huge. Given the talent the Deacs still have on defense, that route to victory against top teams is still very much in play. Offensively, the Deacs need to craft a new system that doesn't rely on Stengel for play-making and as an outlet for passes from the back, but the work put in now should pay off next season (when Stengel will have graduated).
- A lot should be said in praise of this senior class: in addition to the players named above, Stengel, Rachel Nuzzolese, and Lee Page were unable to play due to injuries. This class has been the most successful on a team and individual basis in Wake women's soccer history. They are uniformly excellent students and genuinely care about each other (Courtney Owen gave every player on the team a hug before kickoff). They deserve any and all praise, and if there is a just sports deity then they will overcome these setbacks to have a successful end of the season and postseason. They deserve nothing less.