With just three games remaining in the regular season, the No. 2 North Carolina women’s soccer team is heating up at the right time.
After suffering an offensive dry spell that culminated in a 2-1 loss at Virginia Tech on Oct. 1, the Tar Heels have won three straight contests and outscored their opponents 7-0 during that stretch. Despite their recent success, the Tar Heels will play in arguably their most consequential match of the season when they hit the road to play No. 4 Florida State on Thursday night.
The reigning national champion Seminoles currently sit one game ahead of UNC in the ACC standings with a 6-1 conference record. If the Tar Heels can pull off a win, the team will be in a solid position to clinch its fourth regular season conference title in five seasons.
Here are some factors key for North Carolina to secure a critical victory.
Use an organic attack
During the team’s recent run of success, the Tar Heels have deviated from recent offensive norms.
While UNC has historically found ways to build possession and cash in on opportunities inside the box, the offense shifted to a more free-shooting approach in wins over Pittsburgh and N.C. State. This change resulted in a combined 51 shot attempts in the two games, which led to a number of highlight-reel strikes.
In UNC's recent 1-0 win, the offensive unit was partially stymied by Wake Forest. The team only registered 10 shots and mustered a goal from a Tori Hansen penalty kick early in the second half. For the team to continue its slew of offensive success, the Tar Heels must rely on creators such as juniors Avery Patterson and Sam Meza to put pressure on a Florida State defense that has already recorded seven shutouts this season.
Another area that UNC could look to exploit is on the outside, as first-year Maddie Dahlien has emerged as one of the team’s top offensive threats. Although she only has one goal to her name thus far, she disrupts opposing defenses with her breakaway speed, which could free up opportunities for other players to nail home some shots.
Slow down Florida State’s stars
Despite being tested with several season-ending injuries, UNC’s back line has remained solid throughout ACC play. But against the Seminoles, the Tar Heels will face their toughest test to date.
Florida State ranks second in the nation with over three goals per game and boasts three players with at least five goals. Up top, the Seminoles are led by reigning All-ACC Second-Team selection Beata Olsson, who scored two goals in last year’s matchup between the two teams. The attack unit also features right winger Jody Brown, who has tallied six goals and five assists this season.
Although both of these players have found success, the biggest name to watch is Florida State’s Jenna Nighswonger, who has blossomed into one of the best midfielders in the country. In addition to her four goals scored, she is ranked first in the ACC with 10 total assists, including three in the team’s recent 5-1 win over Duke.
Under first-year head coach Brian Pensky, the Seminoles have built a reputation as one of the most dominant offensive teams in the country that also looks to frame its attack on calculated play in the midfield area. While UNC has mostly been susceptible to quick counter attacks, the team will need to remain dialed in during long build-ups as Florida State looks to break down the defense.
With several players injured, the Tar Heels have relied on the services of senior Maggie Pierce to serve as the primary defensive midfielder. As the Seminoles look to attack that area, her play will be magnified as she attempts to lead a unit trying to slow down one of the nation’s best.
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