The professional seasons may be over here in the USA, but college soccer is just getting ready for the postseason. And our very own UCF Knights have finished the regular season with the best record in the American Athletic Conference (AAC) with a season record of 12-1-2 and a conference record of 7-0-2. The regular season title means that UCF will host the conference championship tournament next week, with the championship match to be played on Sunday, November 5, at the UCF Soccer Complex.
On October 27 UCF faced USF, their fiercest rivals, who came into the match with a record of 11-3-0 and the conference record of 7-1-0. The one loss put USF just behind UCF in the standings, and a win would have meant the conference tournament would be hosted by our rivals from Tampa. The game was a tense one, with both teams playing a very physical style and the defenses breaking up possessions constantly. Three yellow cards were issued in the game: USF's Aubrey Magrath in the 30th minute, UCF's Stefanie Sanders in the 41st, and USF's Briana Blethen in the 91st.
The hosts started the match with a flurry of shots and grazed the crossbar above USF goalie Kat Elliott's head several times in the opening minutes of the first half. But the visitors showed their grit by weathering that storm and began applying pressure throughout the last 20 - 25 minutes of the opening half. The teams looked very evenly matched, and it had the feeling of a game where a mistake by one team could be the difference. That mistake came with mere seconds left in the first half when USF was awarded a PK by referee Abdu Bensalah. After a lengthy discussion involving the referee, a groundskeeper, and the far side Assistant referee, USF's Andrea Hauksdottir stepped up and slotted a ball into the lower nearside corner of the net after getting UCF's keeper, Vera Varis, to guess the wrong way. The season-high crowd of over 1400 was disappointed going into the half, but the odds still favored UCF. By virtue of their better conference record, the Knights only needed a draw to win the regular season conference title and host the championship tournament next week.
When play resumed in the second half, the hosts were determined and they amped up the pressure on USF. In the 58th minute that pressure paid off as a cross from UCF's Morgan Ferrara found Dina Orschmann in the box, who poked the ball in past Kat Elliott to level the score. When the horn blasted at the end of regulation time, the score was even. In NCAA soccer that means 10-minute overtime periods before a result is declared, either of which can be ended with a golden goal. If the game is still a draw, then the result is final. And as seems fitting for such an epic struggle between two strong rival squads, there was a lot of tension and several chances by each team in the two overtime periods, but the game ended in the same 1 - 1 draw. The 7-0-2 record by UCF after final result was good enough to beat the 7-1-1 mark set by the visitors for the championship, which marks the fourth time that UCF has won the AAC conference regular season title.
UCF and USF both earned byes in the first round of the conference championship, so they will each play their semifinal matches on Friday, November 3. USF will face SMU at 4:30 pm and UCF will host Memphis at 7:00 pm. The championship match will be on Sunday, November 5. All tournament matches will be hosted at the UCF Soccer Complex on campus.
UCF Sweeps Regular Season Conference Awards
On November 1, the AAC released its end-of-season awards, and UCF found itself winners in all of the categories.
- Offensive Player of the Year: Morgan Ferrara of UCF. Ferrara finished the season with a conference-leading 12 goals and added three assists in 15 appearances for the Knights.
- Midfielder of the Year: Kayla Adamek of UCF. Adamek added 10 goals and also had three assists in her fifteen match appearances.
- Defensive Player of the Year: The honor was split between Kathellen Sousa of UCF and Vanessa Gilles of Cincinnati. Sousa led the Knights defense to a league-best 0.51 goals against average and helped her side allow a league-low eight goals all season. The Knights also finished undefeated in conference play and had eight clean sheets in 15 total matches.
- Goalkeeper of the Year: Vera Varis of UCF. It's almost unfair--Varis had eight clean sheets and was only required to make 41 saves all season due to the outstanding defense in front of her. That is the lowest save total of any team in the league. The second closest total was by Cincinnati, whose keeper was required to make 62 saves on the season. Varis also topped several other goalkeeping categories: she had a 0.900 save percentage and a 0.25 goals against average per 90 minutes played.
- Rookie of the Year: Dina Orschmann of UCF. Orschmann led the team with nearly 3 shots per match over 13 appearances in her freshman season. She also added to the team's scoring with six goals and seven assists on the season. Those efforts landed her on several top ten lists: she was tied for 8th in the conference in scoring, sixth in goals per match; she was tied for third in the conference in assists and was first in the conference in assists per match.
- Coach of the Year: Tiffany Roberts Sahaydak of UCF. Roberts Sahaydak's Knights have now won the conference for the second time in AAC history, and her team suffered only one loss the entire season. That was on August 18 against then 4th ranked South Carolina, who prevailed 1 - 0 on a questionable PK awarded to the Gamecocks early in the first half. A week later, UCF hosted Roberts Sahaydak's alma mater, UNC, and defeated the Tar Heels 2 - 1 in overtime to give the Knights a win over a Top 5 opponent. The win was also a significant personal milestone: Roberts Sahaydak won two national championships in the 1990s as a member of Coach Anson Dorrance's amazing UNC teams, and the victory marked the first time she had tasted victory leading a team against her former head coach. Should UCF face and defeat UNC again in the NCAA tournament, it could indeed be that the Padawan will surpass the Jedi Master.
UCF Could Win it All at Home
By virtue of winning the AAC regular season, UCF has earned the right to host the conference championship. Then on Monday, November 6, the NCAA selection committee will announce the 64-team field for the national championship tournament. Similar to the March Madness tournament, the field is broken into four groups seeded 1 - 16. But unlike March Madness, the top seed hosts the matches at their home stadium. So if UCF wins the AAC and receives one of the four Number 1 seeds in the tournament, they could earn their way all the way to the Final 4 weekend without ever having to leave campus.
And when the final weekend of play does roll around, December 1 and December 3, if UCF is still advancing in the tournament it will still feel like a home match. This year the Women's College Cup championship will be played at Orlando City Stadium, home of the Orlando Pride of NWSL and Orlando City SC of MLS. There are going to be a lot of very strong nationally-ranked teams in every bracket, so the road will not be easy. But it is conceivable that the UCF Women's Soccer team could win a National Championship right here in the friendly confines of the best soccer pitch between Tierra del Fuego and Point Barrow (Google them, people).
This is a great time to be a fan of soccer in our city, and the women's soccer team at UCF is working hard to try to make it even more fun for those of us who love the beautiful game. Follow the Knights by attending a match and keep up with all the news about all the other teams on campus by listening to the UCF Knightline podcast.