Stanford opened the 2019 women's NCAA soccer tournament by scoring more goals in a game than any team had in the history of the event. It closed the season by winning its third national championship without scoring a goal in the College Cup final against North Carolina on Sunday.
Held scoreless for 110 minutes across regulation and two overtime periods, the Cardinal edged the Tar Heels 5-4 in a penalty shootout that went to an extra sudden-death round. It was the second penalty shootout in a title game and the first 0-0 stalemate in a final.
A championship to remember
Stanford joins Notre Dame as the only teams with as many as three national titles, after North Carolina's record 21 NCAA championships. With all three of Stanford's titles coming since 2011, including two in the past three seasons, the Cardinal are the class of the college game. And not by a small margin.
The Cardinal finished the season with 102 goals, among the top-20 totals in Division I history. More tellingly, that is the third triple-digit total this century and the first since 2005. Competition is too fierce, especially in a conference such as the Pac-12, for teams to score 100 goals. But Stanford did just that, albeit aided by a record-breaking and stat-inflating 15-0 win against Prairie View A&M.
If not for the fact that the final went to penalty kicks, it wouldn't be a game people will talk about for years. That is in large part because North Carolina proved adaptable. The Tar Heels held firm, highlighted by senior Bridgette Andrzejewski playing outside back for the first time after spending essentially her entire college career as a forward. North Carolina ceded a slight edge in possession to the Cardinal but broke that possession into atonal bursts.
North Carolina was forced to scrap the three-back system for a more conservative 4-4-2 formation. Some of that was surely due to the team's playing without Emily Fox, the All-American with U.S. women's national team experience who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the team's quarterfinal. Whether she's an outside back or a wide midfielder in a given setup, she is a defensive cornerstone.
Not many teams can make Stanford's Catarina Macario look like she isn't enjoying herself on a soccer field, but the Cardinal star who led the nation in goals and assists looked visibly frustrated as she left the field at halftime.
Almost invisible for parts of the first half, Macario began to make her presence felt in the second half. There was a run to the edge of the box early that required a well-timed tackle from Lotte Wubben-Moy followed by a shot soon after that Maycee Bell had to block. A sliding, slipping attempt in the final 10 minutes went wide of the post.
It wasn't just Macario. Madison Haley was her typical presence around the box. Sophia Smith hit the crossbar in the closing minutes, Carly Malatskey pulled a potential winner just wide of the post, and Pac-12 defensive player of the year Naomi Girma seemed to singlehandedly snuff out any attempt the Tar Heels generated on the counter.
The Tar Heels, who swept the ACC regular-season and conference tournament titles, played the role of underdog to perfection. They made the Cardinal go get their goal. And on this night, they never did. That allowed redshirt freshman goalkeeper Katie Meyer to emerge as the star for Stanford.
Meyer doesn't shy from attention. After saving Taylor Otto's opening shot in Sunday's shootout, Meyer turned to the crowd and mimicked locking her lips with a key. After saving a shot from North Carolina freshman Tori Hansen in the sixth round of the shootout, setting up the victory that came when Kiki Pickett converted the next kick, Meyer pointed at the crest on her jersey and yelled.
She wanted to be in that moment, even if she spent most of the season watching goals accumulate at the other end of the field. When the moment came, she was up to it.
Stanford has a lot of players like that. It is a place where everyone can be herself. If they're at Stanford, they already know they're part of the best program in college soccer.
"Everyone can be bold. Everyone can be shy," Meyer said of what allowed this Stanford team to excel. "Everyone can be a leader."
The Cardinal didn't even need a goal Sunday to prove it.
-- Graham Hays
What stood out in the semifinals
The Sophia Smith show
Stanford didn't have an answer when Florida State scored first in the semifinal last season. It also didn't have Sophia Smith. What a difference a year makes, as Smith's hat trick powered the Cardinal to a 4-1 win against UCLA and the national title game.
By the time the Cardinal reached the College Cup last season, the No. 1 overall seed in that tournament limped to the finish line with myriad injuries, including to Smith. After missing the start of her freshman season to play for the United States in the Under-20 World Cup, Smith saw the second half of the campaign wiped out by a broken leg.
It is perhaps the strongest testament to her skill that, for all of the talent the Cardinal had up and down their roster, they missed her particular presence. There is a reason beyond her playing for a Bay Area school that Smith draws comparisons to Alex Morgan at a similar age, and the Stanford sophomore showed it in the response she led after UCLA took an early lead Friday in the semifinal.
Two minutes after UCLA's Chloe Castaneda gave her team what became its standard early lead in the postseason, Smith galloped down the right side, took a touch toward the end line that might have ruined the shooting angle for some players and blasted a shot through the keeper's legs at the near post. She didn't give the keeper time to react, and she didn't give her teammates time to let doubt creep into their minds.
"I loved the response," Stanford coach Paul Ratcliffe said. "It's the character of this team all year. They're fighters."
Smith wasn't finished. A year ago, Florida State's second goal shortly before halftime all but ended the game. This time, it was Smith's second goal that gave Stanford a commanding 3-1 lead in the first half. Combined with Cardinal goalkeeper Katie Meyer's save on a penalty kick late in the half, the two-goal lead at the break felt like an enormous hill for the Bruins to climb.
Then Smith completed a far more memorable hat trick than the one she recorded in a first-round rout of Prairie View A&M with a goal in the 52nd minute that sealed the game at 4-1.
She enters the final with 17 goals, more than that of all but seven players in the nation.
Strength in numbers
North Carolina has gone without a national championship since 2012, which is the sort of sentence you can write about only a program with 21 NCAA titles. Entering their semifinal against Washington State, the Tar Heels also hadn't gotten a goal from their bench in the College Cup since Ranee Premji scored in that title game seven years ago.
Those two droughts were not wholly unrelated.
North Carolina's 2-1 win against Washington State, which ended the unseeded Pac-12 team's enthralling postseason run, was not a beautiful exhibition of the beautiful game. On a field described as soft by those in San Jose, with players on both teams regularly slipping, the Tar Heels outlasted the Cougars, with Ru Mucherera's cross that Alexis Strickland headed home in the 38th minute proving to be the difference. That was about 12 minutes after Mucherera entered the game and seven minutes after Strickland did the same.
Mucherera is a redshirt senior with five starts in 84 career appearances. Strickland is a freshman who has yet to start in her 26 appearances this season. Both are part of the masses that North Carolina brings off the bench, using college soccer's liberal substitution rules to essentially turn most games into 60-to-70-minute sprints for the starters.
Remarkable throughout the postseason not just for its results but also for playing as more than a smash-and-grab Cinderella against higher ranked teams, Washington State again played above its pedigree early against North Carolina. The Cougars were the ones who came out forcing the issue, and they were rewarded with Morgan Weaver's early goal. But after North Carolina's stars tied the game, with Taylor Otto finding Alessia Russo for a goal, the substitutes went to work.
It isn't so much that North Carolina needs goals from its second unit, though Strickland's was certainly valuable Friday. The Tar Heels are at their best when that depth has an effect. This year's team, which now has more wins than any other Tar Heels team since the 2008 champions, gets that from its second unit. -- Graham Hays
Best of the Elite Eight
Washington State stuns the tournament
It isn't supposed to happen, what Washington State's Mykiaa Minniss ensured with her overtime finish off a corner kick. Not when the Cougars faced one of the most difficult first-round games in the draw. But they beat a Memphis team ranked 14th in the final regular-season top-25 poll. Not when they then traveled across the country to face a team ranked No. 1 for most of the fall. But the Cougars beat top-seeded Virginia in the second round, then knocked off a West Virginia program far more familiar with the Sweet 16.
Not when they had to stay on the road and find a goal against one of the nation's stingiest defenses at No. 2 South Carolina on Friday. But they found the goal, courtesy of a sophomore who hadn't scored one all season and played all 96 wearying minutes against the Gamecocks.
So here the Cougars are, heading to the College Cup for the first time -- the first unseeded team to reach the semifinals since UConn in 2003, when Minniss was barely old enough to kick a soccer ball. And just like the victory against the Cavaliers last week, the Cougars didn't sit in a shell and hope to steal a result on the road. They might have ceded the edge in play to the home team by a smidgen, but going to overtime felt about right for two organized, resolute teams.
UCLA runs rampant
There are as many ways to express the degree of difficulty attached to No. 2 UCLA's 4-0 win at No. 1 Florida State as there were, well, Bruins goals. Consider that Florida State allowed a total of two goals in six NCAA tournament games last season, spanning 560 minutes. UCLA's Chloe Castaneda matched that with two goals in barely 17 minutes in Friday's quarterfinal. The first of teammate Mia Fishel's two scores made it 3-0 before halftime.
Maybe what drives the point home is Florida State's 47-1-1 record in NCAA tournament home games entering the day. UCLA and Notre Dame are now the only teams in tournament history to win at both Florida State and North Carolina. Or maybe it's that the Seminoles had more national titles (two) in the previous seven years than tournament losses by multiple goals (one).
Stanford looks the part of overall No. 1
The story starts where it always starts for the Cardinal, with one of the best players in the history of the college game. And there can be increasingly little debate about that label applying to Catarina Macario. The junior scored the opening two goals in No. 1 Stanford's 5-1 victory Friday against No. 2 BYU and now has 32 goals this season. Only five Division I players have scored more in a season, and only Christine Sinclair did it in the past 20 years. Macario also has 87 points on 32 goals and 23 assists' only Sinclair and Mia Hamm had more in a season. BYU hadn't played anyone like her ... because no one is like her.
North Carolina wins and hopes it didn't lose
Less than a month after being named ACC Freshman of the Year, and less than a week after being invited to a U.S. national team camp, Maycee Bell made good on all the praise by heading home Lotte Wubben-Moy's second-half free kick to secure No. 1 North Carolina's 3-2 win against No. 2 USC. In fact, all three Tar Heels invited to next month's U.S. camp scored against the Trojans, with defender Emily Fox erasing an early deficit and midfielder Brianna Pinto temporarily putting her team ahead 2-1. That's the good news -- throw in Taylor Otto and Alessia Russo and not even the Cardinal have any more top-tier talent playing well at the moment than the Tar Heels.
The bad news? Fox had to be helped off the field, her weight entirely supported by others, after an apparent ankle injury in the second half. Fox didn't return and wasn't captured by cameras taking part in the on-field celebrations after the game. She's on a short list with Macario and UCLA's Jessie Fleming as the NCAA's best players.
"The kids were basically playing for her," UNC coach Anson Dorrance said. "We all want Emily to know that." -- Graham Hays
Best of the Sweet 16
Catarina Macario in select company
It was a goal worthy of some history. Macario gathered a pass around 40 yards from goal and accelerated forward with a handful of quick touches. With the last of those touches, she shifted ever so slightly toward the middle of the field and opened up her shooting angle. Then she ripped a 20-yard shot that curled into the top corner of the net.
The opening goal in top-seeded Stanford's 2-0 win against fourth-seeded Penn State was all the Cardinal really needed. It was also Macario's 30th goal of the season. She's the first player to reach 30 goals since Penn State's Maya Hayes in 2011 and joins Hayes, Christine Sinclair, Abby Wambach and Tiffany Weimer as the only players to get there in the past two decades. As good as Sinclair's West Coast Conference was in its heyday, none of those players had to play in the nation's best conference. Macario also trails only Mia Hamm, Sinclair and Lisa Cole for the NCAA single-season points record. Sinclair and Wambach had been the only players this century to crack that top 10.
David proves Pac-12 is Goliath
Washington State began the tournament on the fringes of relevancy, ranked essentially 37th in the nation as the next-to-last team receiving any votes in the United Soccer Coaches Top 25. It was a surprise first-round host against a Memphis team ranked 14th in that same poll and wondering why it got sent to the wilds of the Palouse. The Cougars then beat the Tigers, stunned No. 1 seed Virginia on the road in the second round and ousted West Virginia with a 3-0 win Sunday. So here the Cougars are in their first Elite Eight.
As the lone unseeded team in the quarterfinals, it's an underdog story. But watch someone as gifted as Morgan Weaver, the senior who scored two goals against West Virginia and has 41 in her career, and it's easy to conclude that the Cougars might not have been such an underdog if they came through an easier league than the Pac-12. With half of the tournament's remaining teams, including the one responsible for eliminating Virginia, the Pac-12 has an ironclad case as the best conference in the nation this season. And as was the case against Virginia, Washington State didn't steal a win away from a more pedigreed West Virginia. It earned the result, looking very much like a team that learned the lessons of playing Stanford, UCLA, USC and the rest.
No. 1 Florida State survives
With its patient possession, Florida State is annually among the more maddening teams to play. The Seminoles rarely let their opponents have the ball and often don't seem in any hurry to score themselves. It can make teams, well, want to foul them 29 times. But most teams don't. And it didn't work out well for South Florida. Rallying from a goal down early in the first half, Florida State beat USF 2-1 and withstood all those fouls from its in-state rival. The 29 fouls were a USF record. And while the NCAA doesn't exactly advertise foul records, you get some sense of context knowing that the second-highest total in 24 games this weekend was Arizona's 17 fouls (in a game that went to overtime). USF also received six yellow cards.
To be fair to the Bulls, who also committed 19 fouls in a loss against the Seminoles a season ago, their play Sunday was more physical than malicious. But the frustration as Florida State kept the ball -- and thereby kept USF from playing through Evelyne Viens -- was evident. The Seminoles were in typically pragmatic postseason form, pulling level on Jaelin Howell's goal just before halftime and taking the lead early in the second half on a Deyna Castellanos spot kick. -- Graham Hays
Best of the second round
No. 1 seed Virginia bows out
The best program yet to win a national title will retain that label for at least another year. This time, Virginia's season ended at the hands of MacKenzie Frimpong-Ellertson, the daughter of a former United States women's national team player, whose late goal helped Washington State stun the Cavaliers 3-2.
Virginia was ranked No. 1 in the country for eight weeks this season and allowed eight goals in 21 games entering Friday's encounter. Yet after trailing for less than three minutes in their first 19 games, the Cavaliers faced three deficits against the Cougars. And the Pac-12 visitors made their lead hold up after Frimpong-Ellertson bundled home a scramble ball in front of goal in the 82nd minute. Now a freshman for the Cougars, Frimpong-Ellertson was just 6 when her mom, Tina, played for the U.S. in the 2007 World Cup. She was a toddler when Tina became the University of Washington's all-time leading scorer. But it took her mom four seasons to guide the Huskies to the Elite Eight. MacKenzie Frimpong-Ellertson will have a chance to do it on her first try when Washington State, fueled by goals from Stanford transfer Averie Collins and all-Pac-12 forward Morgan Weaver, faces West Virginia on Sunday.
Penn State wins a thriller
What Virginia couldn't pull off, No. 4 Penn State managed in escaping an upset bid out of the Pac-12. After erasing Arizona's two-goal lead early in the second half, Penn State saw the Wildcats reclaim a 3-2 advantage with a little more than 20 minutes to play. The Wildcats still held that edge as the clocked ticked inside three minutes to play in regulation -- until Sam Coffey made a strong run on the left side and steered home her second goal of the game to send it to overtime. The high-profile transfer played just one tournament game in two seasons at Boston College. She has three goals in two games for Penn State this tournament. Penn State's Frankie Tagliaferri then ended it seven minutes into overtime.
The Big 12 didn't have the best of days
The conference that somewhat surprisingly received three national seeds saw two of those seeded teams ousted in second-round upsets. Already down a goal when it conceded a penalty kick and saw a player sent off with a red card early in the first half against Santa Clara, No. 3 Oklahoma State never got a foothold in a 3-1 loss. No. 4 Texas Tech rallied once from its own early deficit against Michigan, but two headed goals from Wolverines freshman Danielle Wolfe in the second half doomed the Red Raiders in a 3-2 loss.
And while both teams were unseeded, West Virginia escaped what would have been one of the day's bigger surprises when Alina Stahl's goal with a little more than four minutes to play in the second overtime period gave the Mountaineers a 1-0 win against Central Connecticut State. Only No. 3 Kansas put its best foot forward among the Big 12 teams, with a 3-0 win against Xavier setting up a meeting with quietly stifling No. 2 South Carolina in the third round. -- Graham Hays
Best of the first round
No. 1 Stanford rolls to record win
The NCAA postseason team record for goals in a game fell after barely more than an hour. Hermann Trophy favorite Catarina Macario matched the NCAA tournament single-game record with five assists -- and did so within the game's first 29 minutes. For good measure, she later matched the single-game record with four goals.
Stanford's 15-0 win against Prairie View A&M was so lopsided as to descend into the decidedly uncomfortable. Only five of the previous 10 national champions scored more than 15 goals in their entire NCAA tournament runs. The Cardinal went deep into their roster -- each of seven subs played at least 41 minutes and no starter played more than 60. Beyond that, a mismatch was unavoidable. And Prairie View A&M, which qualified for the tournament as Southwestern Athletic Conference tournament champion and regular-season co-champion, deserved its chance to compete.
Macario is now tied for the eighth-best single-season total in NCAA history, with 77 points on 27 goals and 23 assists. The only woman ahead of her who competed in college this century is Christine Sinclair, the Canadian legend soon to break the all-time international goals record.
Amanda McQuillan has Rutgers' number
For the first time since 2015, just one seeded team fell in the first round. No wonder there were so few surprises, if upsets required underdogs to go to the lengths that Central Connecticut State's McQuillan did in knocking off fourth-seeded Rutgers.
In her first college start in August, the Irish youth international was credited with nine saves and helped CCSU take Rutgers to overtime before finally conceding defeat. On the same field, the Scarlet Knights never figured her out Friday night. McQuillan made 10 saves, including a full-stretch tip to save a goal with a little more than five minutes to play, and Erica Bardes scored in the 89th minute on what might have been intended as a cross from outside the box to secure a 1-0 win.
McQuillan's 19 saves in two games against Rutgers this season are just five fewer saves than Stanford's entire goalkeeping group has through 20 games this season.
Viens earns the spotlight
South Florida's Viens scored an NCAA tournament hat trick and somehow lost ground in the national scoring race. That's the weirdness Stanford's record rout wrought. But it doesn't detract from what the active career leader in goals scored did to make sure she gets at least one more week on the field.
Viens' natural hat trick gave USF a 3-0 lead at Florida en route to a 4-2 win. It was not only USF's first win in seven games against SEC schools, but it hadn't even scored against the Gators in the past three games in the series -- including earlier this season.
The Canadian national team has been curiously slow to embrace the Quebec native. But just five goals shy of the NCAA's all-time top 25 scorers, she's doing something right down here. -- Graham Hays