The North Carolina women’s soccer team plays in a familiar environment on Friday. It’s the team’s 28th trip to the NCAA College Cup and second in the last three years. Yet, fierce competition stands between the Tar Heels and their first National Championship since 2012. It's the first College Cup since 2011 to feature four No. 1 seeds.
UNC faces Georgetown in the first semifinal Friday at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary. On the other side of the bracket, ACC foe Florida State and defending national champion Stanford await.
UNC looked like it would cruise to the College Cup. In its first three matches, UNC outscored opponents 11-1, including a 3-0 win over Virginia Tech in the third round. Its dominance continued 55 minutes into the national quarterfinals, when UNC held a 2-0 lead over UCLA. But the Bruins came back and forced the game into penalty kicks. The Tar Heels advanced thanks to the heroics of goalkeeper Samantha Leshnak.
Leshnak is one of a number of UNC players who has been important in the absence of sophomore Alessia Russo. Senior Julia Ashley has stepped up as well. Though a defender, Ashley has scored two goals and assisted on five others in the NCAA Championship.
Russo is a big loss for UNC. She was the 2018 ACC Offensive Player of the Year and tied for the team lead in goals. She broke her leg in an October matchup against Wake Forest, an injury that ended her season. Yet, if any team is equipped to handle the loss of its top goalscorer, it's UNC. The Tar Heels have one of the nation's most balanced offenses.
UNC has scored 56 goals, the fourth most in the nation. Yet, no one player has scored more than six goals. The Tar Heels also have more assists than anyone in the country. While Russo's absence undoubtedly hurts, UNC's balanced attack may be able to overcome it.
The Hoyas have been dominant this season. They entered the postseason ranked No. 2 in the coaches' poll and No. 4 in the RPI. With a 21-0-3 record, the Big East Tournament champions haven't lost all year.
Big East Offensive Player of the Year Caitlin Farrell is the name to watch out for in the semifinal matchup with North Carolina. Farrell has scored 18 goals this season, tied for the third most in the country. She and forward Kyra Carusa, who has 12 assists this season, form a formidable 1-2 punch up top.
Goalkeeper Arielle Schechtman anchors a Hoya defense that has the second best goals against average in the nation. She was named Big East Goalkeeper of the Year for the second straight season.
While the Tar Heels did not face Georgetown this season, they did play a common opponent. In Georgetown's second game of the season, Virginia Tech played the Hoyas to an overtime draw. UNC played Virginia Tech twice this season, both were 2-0 wins. Yet since that point, the Hoyas have improved. The next game, they tied Duke in double overtime. Since then, they've won every other game but one, a scoreless draw against Xavier.
Florida State enters the College Cup with an 18-4-3 record. The Seminoles won the ACC Tournament by defeating UNC, 3-2, in the title game. FSU has won closely in its last two games, advancing on penalty kicks against Southern California and defeating unseeded Penn State, 1-0.
FSU ended the season ranked No. 2 in the RPI, one spot ahead of UNC. Forward Deyna Castellanos is a dangerous threat for the Seminoles. She has scored 10 goals this season and was named First Team All-ACC.
Florida State played UNC twice this year, and the teams split the matchups. On Sept. 14, UNC beat the Seminoles, 1-0, in Tallahassee. But FSU got revenge when it counted, in the ACC Championship game. Two saves from Leshnak weren't enough to stop Florida State's offense, and FSU prevailed, 3-2.
If UNC makes it past Georgetown, it will face a team that has defeated it, either way. Stanford beat North Carolina in overtime, 2-1, in California on Sept. 9. The Cardinal look to be the favorite of the No. 1 seeds in this College Cup. Stanford is No. 1 in the coaches' poll and RPI, and has yet to lose this season.
Stanford is prolific on both sides of the ball. The Cardinal allow the third fewest goals per game, while also scoring the third most goals per game in the country. Stanford cleaned up at the Pac-12 awards, and boasts the Pac-12 Forward, Midfielder and Defensive Player of the Year.
Catarina Macario, the Pac-12 Forward of the Year, has scored 14 goals in 18 games this season, making her the seventh most prolific scorer in the country, on average.
Stanford plays Florida State Friday at 7:30 p.m in the second national semifinal. The NCAA Championship game is Sunday at 1 p.m.
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