By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — The original plan called for University of Virginia soccer star Emily Sonnett to leave the U.S. Women’s National Team on Saturday. That would have allowed Sonnett to take part in the Senior Day ceremony and then play in Virginia’s final regular-season home game Sunday afternoon at Klöckner Stadium.
But the Cavaliers’ All-America defender impressed Jill Ellis in training last week, and the U.S. head coach wanted to play Sonnett on Sunday against Brazil in Orlando, Fla. And so Sonnett remained with the USWNT this weekend, and second-ranked UVA took on top-ranked Florida State without her in a rematch of last year’s NCAA title game.
“It was tough for our players, but I felt we had the team to be successful against [FSU], and I felt we could be successful even without Emily,” said Virginia head coach Steve Swanson, who was one of Ellis’ assistants during the United States’ run to the World Cup title this year.
“Obviously it was a bigger challenge, but I think the biggest thing is how supportive our team was when they found out about Emily playing. They couldn’t have been more excited for her.”
In her first appearance for the national team, Sonnett played the full 90 minutes Sunday in a lineup that also included former UVA greats Becky Sauerbrunn and Morgan Brian. The United States defeated Brazil 3-1 in front of 32,869 fans.
At Klöckner, Sonnett’s teammates did her proud. In a nationally televised ACC game whose only goal came on a penalty kick by junior midfielder Alexis Shaffer in the 30th minute, Virginia edged FSU 1-0 before an appreciative crowd of 2,458.
“Emily sent a message to us to let us know that she’s supporting us, and I think that kind of pumped us up a little bit,” senior forward Makenzy Doniak said. “We played for her today.”
A shot by Doniak led to the game’s only goal. The ball bounced off Kirsten Crowley, who was standing on the goal line, and referee Mohammad Samadpour ruled that the Florida State defender had used her hand.
Samadpour issued a red card to Crowley, though ESPNU replays showed the ball hit her right hip and not her hand. That forced the defending NCAA champion Seminoles (13-2-2 overall, 6-1-2 ACC) to go with only 10 players for the rest of the game, and Shaffer converted the penalty kick.
“It was kind of one of those bang-bang plays,” Swanson said, “and I was still kind of sorting it out in my mind, and the next thing I knew it was a red card.”
Even before the red card, however, the Wahoos (13-1-1, 7-1) dominated the run of play, and they controlled most of the game’s final 60 minutes too. Overall, UVA outshot Florida State 19-5.
“The goalkeeper and her defenders were all on the line saving the balls,” Virginia senior midfielder Brittany Ratcliffe said. “I was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, they’re everywhere.’ It should have been a lot more than 1-0.”
Swanson said: “We were on the front foot the whole time, I thought.”
That was not the case last season, of course, in Virginia’s three encounters with FSU. The ‘Noles won each of them 1-0.
“It was very important to beat them,” Doniak said. “I’m sure we’ll probably meet them again down the road. I think we’re two great teams, and when we come together it’s a great match. To be able to beat them first, I think it just gives us maybe a little more confidence, not only going into our next match” ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢’Â¬” Virginia plays Wednesday night at NC State — “but if we play them again, we know that we can do it.”
FSU was short-handed Sunday too, and not only because of the red card on Crowley. Three other Seminoles were away playing with their respective national teams: Megan Campbell of Ireland and Natalie Kuikka and Emma Koivisto of Finland.
“Obviously they didn’t have their entire personnel, just like we didn’t,” Swanson said. “So it could be a totally different game [if the teams meet again in the postseason].
“We were happy to win the game. I thought our fans were fantastic today. They were a difference-maker for us. I thought our crowd really energized us today.”
Sonnett’s absence was felt, but “she made sure to text all of us [before the game],” Ratcliffe said. “She’s been texting us since she’s been gone. We’re so happy for her.”
Because of her USWNT obligations, Sonnett also missed Virginia’s Thursday night game against ACC foe Louisville at Klöckner. The Cavaliers edged the Cardinals 1-0.
“She’s been a great leader for us,” Swanson said of Sonnett. “One of the things that I was really pleased with was the way we came out [Sunday] and the way we fought for each other in Emily’s absence. She’s usually our voice on the field. She’s our organizer.”
Also unavailable Sunday for UVA were freshman Hana Kerner and sophomore Megan Reid, both recovering from lower-leg injuries. For the Cavaliers to beat such a powerful opponent without Sonnett, Kerner or Reid, Swanson said, should “be a shot for us as we move forward.”
Sonnett rejoins the Cavaliers this week, and Swanson said he’s hopeful that Kerner and Reid will be able to play again this season. Two regular-season games remain for the ‘Hoos, followed by the four-team ACC tournament, which starts Nov. 7.
“We just have to see how those [injuries] come around,” Swanson said. “It’s something that could heal quickly. It could take a little time. We’re not sure.”
Kerner and Reid are “key parts,” Swanson said Sunday. “We can see how much we miss them at times. Not so much maybe today, but Thursday we missed them. They just give us a good amount of depth. They’re both tremendous athletes, and they give us a little bit more presence there athletically.”
Also on the mend is Doniak, an All-American who has been slowed this season by hamstring and quad injuries.
“I’m getting closer to 100 percent,” she said Sunday.
And that’s good news for a team that may well run into the Seminoles again. But if the ‘Hoos doubted their ability to defeat FSU, Sunday’s result erased that uncertainty.
“It gives us confidence,” Swanson said. “We won this game, and I thought we did the things we had to do in order to win this game. It’s [only] one game, but I think it helps the psyche of all the players.”