It was just a little tweak. At least, that’s what Virginia women’s soccer coach Steve Swanson calls it.
Late last season, Swanson and his coaching staff made a slight tactical adjustment with the team, moving from a two-man front to a 4-4-2 alignment. The results have been steady and spectacular ever since that small tweak last October, including this season’s rise to No. 1 in the nation. UVa is the only unbeaten and untied remaining in Division I this season.
“I was kind of surprised how fast it all kicked in. It was just a little tweak,” Swanson said.
It kicked in immediately. After falling to Florida State 1-0 in overtime on Oct. 14, 2012, Swanson and his staff went to the drawing board. He likened coaching to a golfer where you always have one eye on how your team is currently doing and the other eye on how your team can do better. Over the final 8 games of 2012, the Cavaliers owned a 7-1 record while outscoring opponents 30-6. The run included winning the ACC Championship in the league tournament, while the only blemish came to conference foe Duke in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. That 3-1 loss was one of only two contests in the eight-game stretch where the Hoos didn’t produce offensively in a big way (the other was a 1-0 win over UNC). The team’s winning scores came through at 5-0, 5-1, 1-0, 4-2, 4-0, 4-1, and 6-1. That included a 4-2 victory against Florida State just a few weeks after failing to score against the Seminoles in the overtime loss.
With the same scheme in place this season, it has been more of the same. Virginia owns a 12-0 record with just two games all season featuring 2 goals or less (a 2-1 win at Boston College and 1-0 win against Maryland). The overall score sheet reads 40-7 in the Hoos’ favor. The Cavaliers lead the nation at 3.33 goals per game.
Individually, Makenzy Doniak is tied for 15th nationally at 2.08 points per game, while Morgan Brian is tied for 21st at 2.0 points per game.
“After about three weeks [being back with the team last season after coaching the U.S. under 20 team in Japan], I think it was after the Florida State game, I didn’t think we generated a lot of chances against them and I felt we were better than we were in terms of being able to do that,” Swanson said. “We looked at our personnel a little more closely and we felt we’d be better in a two front than a three just given the forwards that we did have. … We were playing a 4-3-3 with three center midfielders and it’s easier to match up in that system if you play the same way. They can mark up Morgan a little more easily in that system. So we tried to flood the midfield a little bit more. We’ve always been a team that moves the ball quite well but I think it gave us more numbers in the middle of the field and gave our players more support around the ball.”
The shift favored the highly skilled UVa midfield in particular where players like Brian, a U.S. Women’s National Team caliber player, Kate Norbo, Emily Sonnett, and more lead the way. By creating more passing targets around the midfield, it actually opened up space for the talented playmakers in the middle.
“That definitely helped. When I turn or find the ball, I have somebody to my left and my right pretty close, especially because we have players that like to play closer to us in the midfield,” Brian said. “I think it’s generated a lot more attack and since we have so many people around the ball we can combine and play the way we want to play and get our outside backs forward to push a lot of numbers into the box.”
The goals, as noted above, flowed out of the midfield flood. With that shift setting the tone, the team climbed to to the top of the national rankings in mid-September. That big No. 1 tag and the offensive firepower has captured the attention of people around Grounds and around Charlottesville.
“I think there’s definitely more hype around campus about the women’s soccer team, the program, and we’ve been doing so far,” Brian said. “I think it’s the way we’ve been playing, the amount of goals we’ve been scoring, and the results we’ve been getting. If we can keep doing that, hopefully we can keep bringing people out to Klockner to watch us play.”
A record crowd of 2,540 fans attended the team’s first home game as the nation’s No. 1 team at Klockner Stadium on Sept. 29 against Maryland, while 1,902 more saw the 3-0 victory against Clemson this past Sunday. Now, the program has its eyes set on a new attendance record this Thursday when No. 5 Notre Dame comes to town for a 7 p.m. contest. This will mark the first ever ACC clash between any UVa and Notre Dame teams, though these two programs have played regularly in the preseason in recent years.
The goal is to have at least 5,000 fans rock the Klock. Every fan who attends can get a free hot dog and soda at the concession stands, while the first 1,500 fans through the gates Thursday night will each receive a Virginia Soccer scarf. Plus, fans will get to see some of the best college soccer available at a great venue.
“For me, I’ve had a bond with my team every year. I love the team. They’re great to train and fun to watch. I’ve always felt that way,” Swanson said. “I feel like it’s nice to have so many other people see the same things I’ve seen or what we as a coaching staff have seen all of these years. I hope that continues. I think they play an exciting brand of soccer and I think they’re fun to watch. I think I can say that as a coach but also as a fan myself.”