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FSU soccer preview: Talent, experience and title aspirations

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A new season brings familiar expectations for Mark Krikorian and the Florida State soccer program.

One year after winning the school’s second national championship, those expectations will only increase for a team that returns a ton of experienced playmakers from the 2018 roster.

“We have a talented, experienced team returning this season,” Krikorian said. “It’s a hard-working group that’s industrious and challenges each other to get better every day.”

The biggest question to answer for FSU is along the backline. The Seminoles were stifling in that area in 2018, allowing just 13 goals all year, including shutouts in their last three games of the NCAA Tournament. However, they must replace Natalia Kuikka, the veteran center-back who allowed the rest of the defense to get forward with a brick wall protecting them in the back.

The good news is Malia Berkely is a star and her leadership alone is key to sustaining that stingy form. Gabby Carle (one goal, four assists) and Kirsten Pavlisko (one goal, 2,228 minutes) are back to provide stability at the outside back spots and give the Seminoles two players that can also get forward into the attack on the wings.

“The progress has been good,” Berkely said. “We’re learning to communicate and it’s important because we all like to get forward into the attack.”

The midfield is stacked with perhaps the best core in the entire country.

Jaelin Howell, Deyna Castellanos, Yuijie Zhao and Gloriana Villalobos are back to patrol one of the most important units on the pitch. Castellanos sent shockwaves throughout the world during the summer after announcing she would spurn turning pro in favor of returning to FSU for her senior season. The Venezuelan has long been a star at the international level, a finalist for the 2017 Women’s FIFA Player of the Year. Currently ranked fourth in career goals at Florida State, Castellanos’s return instantly makes the Seminoles a favorite nationally to repeat as champions.

“It’s super important for me to be a good example to all the younger girls looking up to me,” Castellanos said about returning. “Being at FSU, getting my degree and finishing my senior year is the type of person I would want as my own role model, that’s why it was so important for me to come back.”

It hardly begins and ends with Castellanos, as Howell (four assists, 2,152 minutes) has been mentioned as one of the rising stars in the U.S. National team youth ranks and could soon get a call to join the senior squad at some point in the near future. Zhao (seven goals, five assists), an identical fast riser in the Chinese national team system displayed flashes of her brilliance throughout her freshman campaign. Villalobos (one goal, three assists) adds yet another calm presence with the ball at her feet and international experience with the Costa Rican national team.

“We have a lot of depth at the position,” Howell said. “A lot of returning talent and even the new players have done a good job of competing and working their way in.”

The Seminoles have perhaps their most unique advantage in the collegiate game with two keepers that are some of the best in the ACC. Brooke Bollinger (38 saves) was having a standout freshmen campaign a year ago before sustaining a season-ending injury against UNC in the ACC Tournament Championship game. In stepped Caroline Jeffers and the East Carolina transfer didn’t miss a beat, leading the Seminoles to a national title, while earning three clean sheets down the stretch in the process.

Whoever the Seminoles start in goal against TCU, the confidence has to be immense knowing both keepers are capable of stoning shots behind an already strong defense.

“It is a bit of luxury, it’s not often you have two kids you can feel as good about as we do with our keepers,” Krikorian said. “Caroline is an older player that has a mature perspective on life and she came in for us and was exceptional last year.”

The returning experience should be enough to make the Seminoles a sure bet to remain as one of the best teams in the country throughout the season. However, as elite programs do, a batch of newcomers will help reload some of the losses FSU sustained to graduation and transfer.

Heather Payne, Jenna Nighswonger and Leilanni Nesbeth give the Seminoles a talented trio of impact freshmen. Payne, expected to compete for time at center back, has already appeared in seven games for the Irish National team, joining the long line of ‘Noles to come from Ireland (Megan Connolly, Megan Campbell).

“She’s very poised and takes information well,” Berkely said on Payne. “She’s doing a good job of learning and getting better every day.”

“She’s been even better than I expected,” Krikorian added. “I knew she would be good, but she’s a really great player. She’s adapted quickly and is a smart kid.”

Nighswonger is considered to be one of the premiere American youth talents and was listed among the best newcomers according to TopDrawerSoccer.com this week. Her blend of speed, smarts and ball skills should see her quickly become among the best offensive freshmen in the ACC. Nesbeth is still recovering from an ACL tear last September playing for Brighton and Hove Albion in England but, once healthy, she brings a level of pace and energy that will translate well into the Seminoles’ offensive philosophy.

FSU also welcomes Abbey Newton to the mix, an LSU transfer (five goals, three assists) that was on the SEC All-Freshmen team in 2018. Her experience at the Power 5 level should allow her to smoothly translate to the ACC and become an impact player early on at FSU.

All things considered, anything short of a return to the College Cup will probably be deemed a disappointment for an FSU team that returns so many key pieces. The Seminoles should contend for a No. 1 seed again and have the opportunity to host in Tallahassee all the way up to the national semifinals.

If all goes well and the ball bounces the right way again, it isn’t far-fetched to envision another hoisting of the trophy.

“We had a special season last year and we appreciate one another for all that went into it,” Krikorian said. “That’s in the past now, we enjoyed it, but we need to look forward to what’s coming. Our group has done a great job understanding that.”

COMING UP

Thursday: vs. TCU at 7 p.m. (Live stream on ACC Network Extra, click here to watch)

Sunday: vs. Wisconsin at 2 p.m. (First live game to broadcast on ACC Network)

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