The semifinal contests of the 2016 College Cup are now history with only two teams left standing on the road to the National Championship. Wake Forest and Stanford are slated for a showdown on Sunday at 2 p.m. EST at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston. The fact that both contests Friday evening were tied at the end of regulation reflected that both semifinals featured very evenly matched teams.
Wake Forest 2 - Denver 1 (OT) - Wake Forest did what good teams do which was to take advantage of the mistakes that opponents make and convert them into scoring opportunities. The Demon Deacons got on the board first in just the seventh minute of play when red hot forward Jon Bakero intercepted an errant Denver pass and lofted a picture perfect shot into the back of the frame from outside the box.
To their credit Denver maintained their composure and responded when Andre Shinyashiki alertly collected a rebound of his own shot as great finishers have a knack of doing and sent it back into the net to knot the score at 1-1 in the seventeenth minute of the match.
The teams went into intermission tied and Wake Forest got the best of it in the second stanza of play recording a ten to two advantage in shots but a bend but don't break Denver defense took care of business and prevented the Deacons from netting the go ahead goal. As a result the contest remained tied at 1-1 at the conclusion of ninety minutes of play.
Wake Forest senior midfielder Ian Harkes came up big for Wake Forest as he has often done during a banner tenure in Winston-Salem when he skillfully threaded a shot into the bottom right corner of the goal in the 103rd minute of play out of a breakaway that resulted unexpectedly and uncharacteristically due to a Denver miscue out of one of their own corner kicks. Harkes' game-winner was set up nicely by a move and pass from Bakero that helped create the space that Harkes needed to conclude the contest.
Nick Gardner had one save in goal for Denver while Wake Forest netminder Alex Ferrell, who returned to the pitch for the Demon Deacons after a seven game absence due to injury, recorded a three save evening.
Credit the Denver backline of Reagan Dunk, Scott Devoss, AJ Fuller, and Kortne Ford that did a great job of getting behind the ball all night with a solid performance despite the outcome. Ditto the solid performance part for the Deacon backline of Kevin Politz, Logan Gdula, Alex Knox, and Sam Raben which will now face what may be their toughest task of the season purely from a matchup standpoint when they tangle with Stanford on Sunday.
The loss was a heartbreaker and the first of the 2016 season for a Denver team that has been brilliant all season. Despite the loss, this Denver team with twenty wins and the programs first ever trip to the College Cup has forever raised the bar of excellence for the Pioneers. Under the direction of Jamie Franks, who at thirty is currently the youngest head coach in Division I soccer, the 2016 Pioneer team has indeed proved to be a trail blazer for a program that should continue to have success in the future. Franks has the unique combination of a very effective process oriented approach to the game as well as a Bobby Clark like appreciation for bringing on board the type of players whose individual talents and attitude can be merged together into a unified team for which the sum is greater than the total of the individual parts.
Wake Forest has also thrived under the guidance of Bobby Muuss who has proven to be a perfect fit for the program. In the two short seasons that Muuss has been at the helm of the program the Deacons have recorded a collective record of 36-5-5 to date and now under Muuss's guidance have the opportunity on the greatest stage in college soccer to secure a National Championship.
Muuss stated after the contest, "Gutty performance by the Deacons here tonight. We talked about it at halftime and we talked about it before the game, if we are enjoying playing we will be victorious tonight." He added, "There were definitely goals in that game and I'm glad we were the ones that came out on top but hats off to the University of Denver, Coach Franks, the season that they had, obviously they have a lot to be proud of with that team taking their program to whole new heights by reaching the College Cup."
Jamie Franks stated, "This is a tough time for our program. In a game like this. I thought we came out and we gave them to much. Fighting futbol has been our mentality from day one and that's what makes us special. He added, "At the end of the day, I'm extremely proud of these kids. We did it through recruiting high character kids and pushing them outside their comfort zone. That's why I'm in college soccer and this is not the last you'll hear about Denver we'll be back."
Wake Forest will have the opportunity to have some more enjoyment on Sunday. This is a team that has climbed a lot of mountains this year and there does not appear to be a mountain too high for them to climb if they play to their potential. However, they have one more steep mountain in front of them on Sunday.
Stanford 0 - North Carolina 0 (OT) - This one took ten rounds of a penalty kick shootout before it was determined that Stanford would survive and advance to the National Championship contest to face Wake Forest on Sunday. The Cardinal very calmly and decisively sent ten straight players to the penalty kick stripe and ten straight made good their attempts with midfielder Amir Bashti netting the tenth.
North Carolina netminder James Pyle did a very good job of sorting out the direction of the Stanford attempts and appeared to come close to making the big stop on several but as they say close only counts in horse shoes and grenade throwing. The Cardinal did not blink during any of their attempts despite the mounting pressure that goes along with a penalty kick shootout particularly one that continues as long as this one did.
Penalty kick shootouts in the NCAA Tournament are perhaps among the best examples of the old ABC Wide World of Sports slogan the "Agony of Defeat and the Thrill of Victory." They are always nail biters with a dramatic and sudden ending that can leave one feeling that there has to be a better way to determine who advances but the bottom line is that there really isn't. This contest could easily have gone on until the early morning hours before anyone found the back of the net in overtime and totally depleted the legs of whoever earned the opportunity to play again with just a single day to rest.
The Cardinal got the best of the run of play in the first half settling into the rhythm of their offense fairly early on. They did a good job of stretching out the Tar Heels by attacking out wide and then switching the point of attack into space in the middle and vice versa and by mixing things up to utilize the long ball to take advantage of the gaps when they existed.
Stanford head coach Jeremy Gunn seemed pleased with at the conclusion of the first half of play with the fact that the Cardinal was doing a good job of putting together combinations of passes while at the same time he was keenly aware that his team had not been able to find the back of the net and that things could change should a very talented North Carolina offense get into their rhythm.
Tar Heel head coach Carlos Somoano, who has the best winning percentage among active Division I men's soccer coaches, indicated at intermission that his front liners needed to put a little more pressure on Stanford to reduce the space or gaps in which Stanford had to operate their attack.
North Carolina did make the adjustments that Somoano referenced and had the best opportunities to score in the second stanza. However, neither team was able to come up with the combination of passes or the big play needed to score. As a result the contest remained scoreless at the end of regulation and two ten minute overtime periods resulting in the penalty kick shootout.
Somoano did a good job of trying to find the right combination to find a weakness in the Stanford defense. He made adjustments during the contest utilizing the different approaches that Tucker Hume, Alan Winn, and Nils Bruening bring to the attack up-top. He also inserted redshirt freshman Jelani Pieters into the lineup with fifteen minutes remaining in regulation to seek to utilize his speed up-top. The Tar Heels also sought to use the height advantage that Tucker and Walker Hume bring to set pieces but to Stanford's credit they keep such opportunities to a minimum.
As expected forwards Foster Langsdorf and Corey Baird spearheaded the Cardinal attack playing very well together. Baird had several very effective moves at speed off the dribble that produced scoring opportunities but was unable to finish. Baird had a four shot evening while Langsdorf, who is always a threat in the attacking third, had three.
Stanford had a whopping ten to one advantage in corner kicks including five during the two overtime periods but North Carolina goalkeeper James Pyle and his backline of Alex Comsia, Colton Storm, and Tucker Hume among others did a good job of keeping the Cardinal from converting.
Both goalkeepers did a good job for their respective teams. Andrew Epstein had three saves in goal for Stanford coming up with several crucial stops. James Pyle was solid in goal for North Carolina recording six saves.
North Carolina concludes another very successful season with a 14-3-4 overall record. Stanford improves to 14-3-4 overall and has the chance to secure back-to-back National Championships on Sunday when they square off with Wake Forest in what looks to be an excellent college soccer contest between two teams that deserve to be in the championship match.