What to watch during the Alabama Soccer’s College Cup semifinal against UCLA

In 40 years of NCAA women’s soccer, only 11 teams have won a national title. Three of them – North Carolina, Florida State and UCLA – are playing in this year’s College Cup.

Then there is Alabama.

The Crimson Tide will make their College Cup debut tonight as they face #1 seed UCLA in a National Semifinal at 7:30 PM CT inside WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, NC

Alabama (23-2-1) is in the midst of its best season in program history. The Crimson Tide captured their first SEC regular season title and finished as runners-up in the conference tournament. Prior to this season, the most Alabama had made in the NCAA Tournament was last year’s second-round exit.

UCLA (20-2-1) makes its 12th NCAA semifinal appearance. The Bruins finished second for both the regular season and Pac-12 conference titles.

The winner of the match will face the top seed no. 1 Florida State or the No. 1 seed 2 North Carolina in the National Championship game Monday at 5:00 PM CT.

Here’s what to look out for in tonight’s College Cup semi-final.

Don’t call them underdogs

Cinderella traded her glass slipper for a football boot. Alabama’s pedigree may not match other teams in this year’s Final Four. But make no mistake, its players strongly believe they belong to the best in the nation.

The Crimson Tide has carried a bit of a chip on its shoulder during its rise to prominence this season. However, the underdog label looks a bit out of place next to a no. 1 in parenthesis.

“Going into the Final Four, it’s like I can’t deny it anymore,” said Alabama center fielder Brooke Steere. “We are here and we went through A) the whole season and then the whole tournament now to get here. Saying we don’t belong together and stuff, it just doesn’t work. We committed ourselves and showed everyone that we are and we are here.

Alabama finished the regular season ranked #2 in the RPI and #3 in the United Soccer Coaches Poll. The Crimson Tide has won 19 of its 20 games with 13 of those wins coming from multiple goals.

“You look at it and these are the teams that have been here so many times,” said Alabama center fielder Macy Clem. “But looking at the whole season, we’ve been in the standings with them all year. Just because we’ve never been where we are today doesn’t mean we’re any less than these other teams. We’ve done nothing but prove that we deserve to be here.”

Alabama advanced to the College Cup with a 3-2 overtime victory over Duke last week. The win was the Crimson Tide’s sixth over teams ranked in the top 25 in the RPI.

“I think the best lesson we got from that Duke game was just reiterating that we’re damn good,” said Alabama coach Wes Hart. “Duke was a very, very good team, obviously. And I thought for the majority of the game we just brought it to him. The most important thing we’ve learned is that we’re a great team.”

Possession and pressing

Tonight’s game will feature two of the best offensive teams in the nation, as Alabama ranks second nationally with 2.92 goals per game, while UCLA sits in seventh place with a 2. 70. Though both teams use a possession-based offense, Hart hopes the Crimson Tide’s defensive approach will wreak havoc for the Bruins on the field.

“My hope would be that our pressing will turn them around, frustrate them and give us momentum,” Hart said. “Hopefully with this comes territory. This is an important thing for us. We hope to press them and turn them around in their own half which will give us the ball much closer to goal.”

Coupled with forcing errors, Alabama’s relentless approach wears down opponents late in the game. The Crimson Tide scored all three of their goals against Duke after the first half, scoring the eventual winner in the 98th minute into overtime.

“Eventually you destroy teams,” Clem said. “Especially these big teams that are so technical. They’re not used to people being on their backs 24/7. I generally think that’s our best quality, if not one of our best.”

Pushed off the bench

Another way Alabama wears down her opponents is by using her super submarine, Gianna Paul. The SEC Freshman of the Year ranks third on the team with eight goals in 26 games despite typically coming off the bench.

Paul opened the scoring during last week’s win over Duke, grabbing a rebound in the center of the box before shooting it into the net in the 68th minute. Generally the fast attacker does his damage by getting behind the defense as his fresh legs can prove deadly to already tired defenders.

“When you watch her come onto the court, it’s like all this seriousness of the whole court settles down,” Steere said. “I think it was Duke, one of their centre-backs said ‘OK, he’s in.’ You watch her walk away and suddenly all the defenses start to pull back a little more. It changes the whole style of play for both sides.

Alabama right-back Gessica Skorka says she is happy to have Paul on her side, saying she doesn’t envy opposing full-backs having to lock her in on the wings.

“I can’t imagine how they feel every time she walks in,” Skorka said. “You already have Riley [Mattingley Parker] and Ashlynn Serepca top, and then comes Gianna? No chance.”

Paul made his first appearance in last week’s game against Duke in the 29th minute. While Hart said he doesn’t have a set time for when he plans to bring Paul into the game, he generally likes to let the game calm down a bit before injecting his speed boost into him off the bench.

“I want us to wear the other team down a little bit and then bring Gianna in maybe on a break or maybe when I think we need a little boost or something,” Hart said. “You’ve seen in a number of games this season, you’ve put in Gianna and suddenly she can make things happen fast.”

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