Wake Forest vs Florida State – 7:00 PM
It’s the first of many titanic clashes in what will indisputably be the toughest league title to win in the history of college soccer. The home side won’t just be looking to defend their home turf but also a 100% record that has seen them go into the weekend near the top of the still embryonic RPI rankings. Washington ended up being harder work than expected this past Friday, with Katie Stengel’s direct corner kick proving the difference. The real acid test would come on Sunday though, as the Demon Deacons were sluggish in a first half that saw them go into the break down 2-0 to Portland. A switch to 4-2-3-1 worked wonders though, and beginning with Riley Ridgik’s thunderbolt right out of the break, the visitors were all over the Pilots en route to a famous 3-2 win. Wake’s depth proved telling in the end, with the club using a lot of bodies on a punishing Sunday afternoon, and such depth gives the Demon Deacons hope of being amongst the leaders in the ACC come season’s end. That Wake was able to score three goals when Stengel didn’t even get off a shot was also a very positive sign, though Tony da Luz and crew will naturally be hoping she gets back in the goal column on Thursday. The Demon Deacons could hardly have asked for a better start to the league schedule, with both FSU and Duke coming to Winston-Salem on Thursday evenings, when the club should have fresh legs. Miami (FL) on Sunday will be heavy underdogs, meaning a win here might well mean the club will go into next Thursday at 7-0-0 ahead of the showdown with Duke.
Florida State suffered their first setback last weekend, albeit a minor one, as they were held to a 1-1 draw by a staunch defensive effort by Oklahoma State. The Cowgirls had taken a lead early in the second half against the run of play and tried to hang on for dear life as FSU mounted an all-out assault on goal that finally bore fruit late in the second half with Jamia Fields’ equalizer. The defense clamped down on Oklahoma on Sunday but again needed late heroics to save the day, with Dagny Brynjarsdottir netting the winner in the final quarter of an hour. It marked the third straight match FSU had scored just a single goal, and while the club hasn’t been shutout in six games, all against major conference competition, the lack of fireworks on the whole has to be a concern going into league play. The club doesn’t appear to have totally replaced Tiffany McCarty up front, though the defense still appears to be in punishing for with three clean sheets in their past four. FSU could’ve hardly asked for a more challenging beginning to the league season, with Wake, Duke, and North Carolina as their first three on the docket, with the first two on the road this weekend. The only silver lining may be the club having Brynjarsdottir and Megan Campbell available for that set, with the duo all but assured of being on their nation’s rosters for FIFA Women’s World Cup Qualifying at the end of the month. The Noles will be keen to take advantage of being at full strength this weekend, and a win here would be an early blow in their favor in the ACC title race.
NC State vs Notre Dame – 7:00 PM
We’ll probably have most of our answers about whether NC State can hang with much of the ACC by around 9:00 PM on Thursday night as the Wolfpack entertain College Cup contenders Notre Dame in the latter’s ACC debut. On its face, even wondering if NC State can keep up looks a bit foolish considering the club is still in its first season under new boss Tim Santoro, with last year’s team miles off the pace in the ACC. But Santoro’s side hasn’t put many feet wrong thus far in 2013. There hasn’t been any shock upset defeats, with the club quietly dispatching mid-majors they’re supposed to beat, though margin of victory against Longwood and UNC Wilmington were a bit close for comfort. Yes, NC State did lose by two goals to their biggest test by far to Georgetown, but it’s not like the Wolfpack were overrun in that defeat despite the multiple goal loss. That match did reveal a pretty cruel truth about the ‘Pack though. They just aren’t really deep at this point, with the club playing just thirteen players against the Hoyas. That’s a pretty big red flag considering the ACC could be a war of attrition this year. Santoro will also likely be concerned about the club’s defense going into this one. They gave up twenty-one shots, including nine on goal against UNC Wilmington. Similar numbers against Notre Dame will likely equal a heavy defeat. The Wolfpack will likely be jacked up going into this one though, on home turf against a highly rated opponent. If they can keep things tight for a while, who knows?
Notre Dame would do well to keep both eyes on their Thursday opponent, but that might be easier said than done with North Carolina in Chapel Hill looming on Sunday afternoon. Still stinging in all likelihood from the previous weekend’s humbling at the hands of UCLA in South Bend, Notre Dame were back to their dominant best last week though, beating Detroit down, 4-0, while not allowing a shot on goal. In effect, the match turned into the Morgan Andrews show, as the rookie midfielder scored the first two goals of the match before assisting on the third in a dazzling performance that underlined her ability as one of the nation’s very best rookies. Detroit isn’t on the ACC schedule though, and neither are the club’s other vanquished foes this season, as the level of difficulty of the Irish’s opponents is about to rocket up, even on Thursday night against a club many have tipped to finish near the bottom of the league this year. It’s still tough to get a true judgement as to where Notre Dame stands this season, as their best win is against a defensively challenged Illinois team, while they did not look good at all against UCLA. It’s certainly possible that Notre Dame may be as good as advertised by many at the beginning of the season. If they are, they should ease past NC State in their league opener. But if they aren’t at the top of their game, they could be in for a tougher night than expected on Thursday in Raleigh.
Virginia vs Syracuse – 7:00 PM
Talk about trials by fire. Syracuse isn’t going to get the warmest of welcomes to the ACC on Thursday night when they face the daunting task of heading to Charlottesville to take on the smashing machine that Virginia has become over the first quarter of the season. The Cavs seemingly have relished demolishing bigger name opponents, as they pulverized Rutgers last Friday with six unanswered goals, including some peaches of efforts in the second half. UVA probably could’ve picked a number against a woefully overmatched Seton Hall side in the Sunday match but had to settle for just three after fifteen saves from Pirates goalkeeper Jennifer Pettigrew. Morgan Brian looks to be growing into her massive potential as the Cavs’ offensive leader, while Danielle Colaprico looks like becoming one of the nation’s breakout stars of 2013 thus far. UVA gets one of the plusher opening assignments in the ACC this week, not necessarily based on their opponent but by just having one match at home this week before a potentially tricky road trip out to Boston College next week. Virginia are heavy favorites on paper given the form of the two sides. Matches aren’t won on paper though, and Virginia will be wary of their status as a big scalp in the eyes of a side like Syracuse.
It was probably a lot easier to be bullish about the Orange before an uneven and disappointing showing against UConn last Sunday. A defensive miscue near the end of the first half put Cuse in a 1-0 hole going into the break, and despite an improved effort in the second half, they still would put just three shots on goal en route to defeat. The duo of Erin Simon and Stephanie Skilton combined for all the shots on goal and remain a threat, but the pair are also going to be facing a very tough Virginia defense that’s eaten talented attacks alive this season. The Orange have had their moments against talented teams like West Virginia and UConn, but they’ve struggled to put it all together against a top team for ninety minutes, with the best win they’ve netted all season being the season opening 3-2 victory over Hofstra. As good as the Pride might be this year, that’s probably not going to be enough for Syracuse to snap their long NCAA Tournament drought. The schedule isn’t forgiving either, with trips to Virginia Tech and Notre Dame to follow over the next week. It might be less about the end result here than how Syracuse plays. Nobody outside of Syracuse is expecting an upset. But if the Orange are totally outclassed, it might be a foreboding sign of a rough ACC season to come.
Virginia Tech vs North Carolina – 7:00 PM
Four years ago, North Carolina came to Blacksburg having never lost to Virginia Tech. Hell, the Tar Heels hadn’t even let the Hokies come within one goal of them with one exception in six previous meetings. The Heels also came to Blacksburg ranked #1 with eleven (!) future pros who would play that day. They lost 1-0. It was one of the most famous results in Virginia Tech history, and the Tar Heels’ Blacksburg hoodoo would continue two years later when Kelly Conheeney’s second half goal ensured another 1-0 win for the Hokies. Ironically, Conheeney, who played in both of those upsets, is still in Blacksburg, though her status is still up in the air after having not played thus far through injury after missing most of last season with concussion issues. Getting a player widely considered the best in program history back at anything approaching full strength on Thursday night would be a huge boost for a Hokies program hoping to shock the world again. VT comes in with an unbeaten record, though they haven’t played anyone nearly as talented as UNC yet. Last Sunday, they went into the half behind against James Madison before rallying for three unanswered goals in a 3-1 win. Ashley Meier put in a dominant performance with a brace, while rookie Murielle Tiernan continued to impress with a goal and an assist for the cause. The Hokies will need something special on Thursday night to upset the odds again. Then again, Virginia Tech is no stranger to producing something special when the Tar Heels come to town.
North Carolina did not get an easy draw to open up the new ACC season, with the tough trip to Blacksburg preceding games against title rivals Notre Dame and Florida State. Then again, given the start to their season, one wonders what exactly it’s going to take to stop these Tar Heels. UCLA were only spared a greater beating by some spectacular goalkeeping from Bruins’ netminder Katelyn Rowland, and there was little doubting which side was in control in the big name showdown in Durham. The 4-2 win that followed against West Virginia was deceptive in a few ways. On the one hand, the Heels were up 2-0 after seventeen minutes and 4-0 after forty-seven. But Anson Dorrance bemoaned his side’s problems with closing the game out on Friday against UCLA, and it looked like those worries would return to haunt him as the club promptly shipped two goals in five minutes. It probably made things a bit dicier than they needed to be, but the Heels still nonetheless held on for the win. Given the eerie parallels between this fixture and the two clubs’ meeting four years ago when UNC was #1 and had a legion of future pros facing an unfancied VT side, you’d forgive the visitors for being a bit on edge going into the ACC opener. But if the Heels can maintain their early season form, it’s hard seeing them being upset in Blacksburg for a third straight time.