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Five things to know: 2015 Women’s College Cup

Florida State and coach Mark Krikorian are back at the College Cup looking to defend their NCAA title. (Photo Copyright Steve Bruno for The Equalizer)

Florida State and coach Mark Krikorian are back at the College Cup looking to defend their NCAA title. (Photo Copyright Steve Bruno for The Equalizer)

CARY, N.C. — The 2015 Women’s College Cup semifinals take place Friday in Cary, N.C., with a conference foes squaring off in each match. Rutgers and Penn State face off in an all-Big Ten clash in the first match (5 p.m. ET, ESPNU), and ACC rivals Duke and Florida State — the defending NCAA champions — play the late game (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNU).

The championship takes place Sunday at noon ET.

We already gave you an early look at the College Cup in our Elite Eight review, but it’s time to dive deeper into the final four teams in the hunt for an NCAA title in women’s soccer. These are five things you need to know about the College Cup:

The FSU vs. Duke rematch will look different

Although Friday’s game between the two ACC schools is a rematch, this match will have a very different feel than the rematch in the other semifinal.

When Duke and Florida State played back on Sept. 20, the Seminoles were without five of their internationals due to call-ups to their respective national teams. In fact, in Thursday’s press conference ahead of the match, FSU head coach Mark Krikorian joked that he learned this season that he was a better coach when he had all of his players at his disposal, quickly adding that he was pretty sure he already knew that.

It’s not just Krikorian that thinks the game will be different. Duke head coach Robbie Church admitted that in preparation for Friday’s match, his team hadn’t really looked at tape of the first game between the teams.

It will be interesting to see what moves Church makes to counteract the return of Florida State’s internationals. Nonetheless, having met already in the season and having seen at least some of opponent’s personnel first-hand will undoubtedly impact the way the game is played strategically.

Rutgers Defensive Prowess not Rocket Science

The Scarlet Knights certainly got to the College Cup for the first time largely due to their lockdown defense that’s allowed only eight goals on the season with a nation-leading goals against average of 0.0311. What casual observers of the women’s collegiate game might not know is that Rutgers was a well-organized, defensively stout team last year as well, as the team’s goal against average was 19th in the nation.

What led Rutgers to cut their goals against average in half from a season ago? It’s pretty simple, really. The team is more experience at the back, which has created better chemistry.

Senior defender Erica Skroski noted that three members of the back line had played together for four years now.

“Every year our chemistry just builds and gets better and better every year and I think this year we have an unspoken relationship where we know what we are going to do with the ball before we even get it,” she said. “I think that is something that parallels throughout the whole field between the mid-field into the forwards and we are always one big unit throughout the field and on the same page the whole time.”

Of course, Rutgers’ defense is composed of some really talented players as well. Centerback Brianne Reed is a past All-American honoree and her compatriot Skroski, recently named Big Ten Defender of the Year, is no slouch either. Both would make solid rookie additions to the NWSL next year. Goalkeeper Casey Murphy is just a sophomore and has earned Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year in each her two seasons between the posts.

Interestingly, Friday’s match provides the opportunity for the Scarlet Knights to redeem themselves on one of only two occasions this year where they allowed multiple goals in a match. In the Big Ten championship match, Penn State scored twice while limiting Rutgers’ offensive chances to earn the title. Rutgers head coach Mike O’Neill said that “small little” details got away from them in that match.

Experience is, in essence, gaining knowledge from past errors, and Rutgers hopes to show they’ve done just that.

“The last time we played them [Penn State] we learned a lot,” O’Neill said Thursday, “So from that point on, we’ve been stronger… What we do from match-to-match is try to learn as much as we can and we bring it to the next game.”

Big Ten taking Big Steps

Prior to this season, two Big Ten schools had never made the semifinals in the same season. Rutgers, making its first appearance, becomes the fourth Big Ten school to play on the final weekend, joining Penn State, Ohio State, and Wisconsin.

A few weeks ago after her squad defeated Ohio State in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, Penn State head coach Erica Walsh made a comment that spoke to the rising quality of the Big Ten, when she discussed her team’s run in the tournament up until that point. She admitted in the early days of the conference, Penn State would win games against other Big Ten teams because the conference wasn’t as strong as it now.

[GORDON: Is this finally Penn State’s year to win a national title?]

On Thursday, Walsh discussed what it means for the Big Ten to comprise half the College Cup field, also pointing out that all Big Ten teams in the tournament advanced past the first round.

“I’ve been in the Big Ten for nine years a part of this program and every year it seems as the Big Ten continues to grow and improve as the difference between top and bottom is smaller and smaller,” Walsh said. “I think we’ve seen this coming, this evolution in the conference.”

The coaching across the board is tremendous. It’s no secret or surprise to us that there are two Big Ten teams here.”

The big remaining question for the conference is whether the team that advances to the championship can earn the conference’s first national title.

Young Talent Abound

Although the attention leading into this final weekend has been focused on the defensive side of the ball — and rightfully so given that three of the four remaining teams have yet to allow a goal in the tournament, there’s also top-notch attacking talent to behold as well — especially young attacking talent.

Florida State’s Megan Connolly, who as a freshman leads the team in both goals and points, is a prime example of the level young talent that will be showcased this weekend. The Ireland native is an exciting player to watch and has scored just about every way imaginable this year. In fact, the midfielder is the only first-year player to be named a semifinalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy, given to college soccer’s best player.

Another underclassman that’s raising eyebrows on the offensive side of things is Megan Schafer, who has tallied 13 goals and four assists this season for Penn State. Her composure under pressure and ability with her back to goal make her a player to watch.

Raquel Rodriguez MAC Hermann Trophy Front Runner?

Generally speaking, the recipient of the MAC Hermann Trophy plays into December. If this pattern holds, one of two semifinalists would win it, either Megan Connolly of Florida State or Raquel Rodriguez from Penn State.

Rodriguez, a senior midfielder from Costa Rica, would seem to hold the advantage given how her play interconnects with the rest of the squad and how Penn State has suffocated their tournament foes with possession. And to be honest, being an upperclassman certainly doesn’t hurt. Interestingly enough, Rodriguez did not win the Big Ten Midfielder of the Year this season, as that award went to recent U.S. women’s national team call-up Rose Lavelle.

In truth, is not really clear who will win the price this season, which is unusual. What kind of final impression will the senior leave on voters?

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