The initial field of forty-eight contenders for the 2014 Division I Men's Soccer Championship has been reduced to four. Virginia and UMBC and Providence and UCLA have earned the right to play on the biggest stage in college soccer this weekend at the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina. College Soccer News takes a look at the two contests slated for Friday, December 12.
The Game – #16 seed Virginia (12-6-3) vs. UMBC (14-5-5)
The Date and Time – 5 p.m. Friday, December 12
The Plot – Virginia is making its 34th consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament – the longest current streak in Division I soccer – and its 12th Final Four appearance. UMBC is making its 5th appearance in the NCAA Tourney but this is their inaugural appearance in the Final Four. It's a tale of history vs. the new kid on the block.
The Road – Both teams advanced to the Final Four via a shootout over highly regarded opponents.
Virginia marches into the College Cup having beat UNCW at home, number one seed Notre Dame on the road, and number eight seed Georgetown on the road after a last minute goal in regulation and holding on to win in a penalty kick shootout.
UMBC has been the road warriors of the tournament. The Retrievers have on the road wins over Wake Forest, number four seed Maryland, number thirteen seed Louisville and prevailed in a penalty kick shootout over number twelve seed Creighton.
The Skinny – UMBC's defense has yet to concede a goal in the tournament, and the confidence they're playing with is a huge boost. After the wins they have had recently they certainly won't be intimidated by anyone. Expect this one to be low scoring – UMBC has scored only twice in four games and only once in open play. Virginia has been without its leading scorer senior midfielder Eric Bird since the first minute of play in their win over UNCW but they have made the necessary adjustments and have seemed to lock down the defensive side of the ball. Bird is expected to return to the Cavalier lineup for the contest with Providence. He is a playmaker and his presence on the pitch will add an additional dimension to the Virginia attack. After scoring three goals in their win over UNCW, the Cavaliers have only netted a single goal in each of their past two wins.
The first team to score should have a huge advantage but it is going to take a full ninety minutes of play to prevail. The margin for error for both teams is slight so letdowns or miscues particularly on the defensive side of the ball could prove to be fatal. Look for the counter attack to be a major key in this one as both teams are organized with numbers behind the ball which puts an extra emphasis on capitalizing on the transitional opportunities that arise.
For Virginia it might come down to the ability of Bird, Nicko Corriveau and Darius Madison to unlock the back four of UMBC consisting of seniors Oumar Ballo, Marquez Fernandez, Spencer Williams, and Jordan Becker. UMBC plays a very disciplined defensive system but they also keep opposing defenses honest with the pace of senior Kay Banjo up-top.
Prognosis – Virginia has the advantage of having played in the College Cup last year. Having team leader Bird back in the lineup is a huge positive mentally and physically for Virginia. Cavalier head coach George Gelnovatch addressed the obvious question when he stated, "The only question now is his (Bird's) fitness, how long he can make it through a game" He added, "He's actually been a great leader as a reserve, but having him back on the field has been great, so we'll see."
The Cavaliers are a very determined, disciplined and well coached team which is a big plus for them but given the run that UMBC has had under the direction of Pete Caringi Jr. and the momentum they now have it's hard to see the Retrievers losing at this point. The Retrievers have one of the most athletic back fours in college soccer and redshirt sophomore Billy Heavner who became the starter in mid-season has been solid in goal. It's noteworthy that UMBC is a team with something to prove but can they chase the game if they fall behind?
This one could easily go either way based on a single lapse in play but if we have to make a prediction it would be that Virginia will have a difficult time breaking down the UMBC defense and that an opportunistic Kay Banjo or perhaps teammate senior midfielder Mamadou Kansaye will find the back of the net out of a counter to give UMBC the one goal margin they need to march into the national final.
The Game – #11 seed Providence ( 16-4-2) vs. #2 seed UCLA (13-4-5)
The Date and Time – 7:30 p.m. Friday, December 12
The Plot – UCLA is making its 32nd consecutive appearance in the NCAA Tournament and 14th trip to the Final Four. Bruin midfielder Leo Stolz, like Maryland forward Patrick Mullins last year, returned for his senior season instead of entering the professional ranks with the goal in mind of winning a national championship. Is this the year that Stolz and his Bruin teammates win the national championship and get that monkey off the back of UCLA head coach Jorge Salcedo. Providence is making its 8th appearance in the NCAA Tournament and the program's first ever trip to the Final Four in men's soccer under the direction of third year head coach Craig Stewart. This one is another tale of history vs. the new kid on the block.
The Road – Both teams were in close contests in the Elite Eight but found a way to win.
UCLA defeated San Diego 2-1 in overtime, California 3-2, and advanced past North Carolina in penalty kicks after the game was tied at 3-3 at the end of regulation and overtime. All of UCLA's games were played at home in the friendly confines of Drake Stadium.
Providence topped Dartmouth 3-0 at home, UC Irvine 1-0 at home, and Michigan State 3-2 on the road.
The Skinny – Craig Stewart took over the Providence program three years ago, and all he has done since then is make Providence a national powerhouse. Providence has been on an impressive run the last month. After dropping their final two games of the regular season, the Friars have rebounded to win six straight. Providence has gotten timely goals throughout the tournament and turned on the pressure defensively when they needed to. This is a team with plenty of goal scorers. Their leading scorer, Marcus Naglestad, has found the back of the net ten times despite starting only six contests. Sophomore forward Mac Steeves has contributed nine goals. Redshirt senior Keasel Broome has been outstanding in goal for the Friars. The level of Broome's play between the pipes and the ability of Fabio Machado and Dominik Machado to create goal scoring opportunities will be critical success factors for Providence.
A convincing case could be made that UCLA has the best freshman in the country in forward Abu Danaldi who carried the Bruins with a goal and two assists in the contest with North Carolina. Sophomore Michael Amick and senior Aaron Simmons anchor a good Bruin backline while senior goalkeeper Earl Edwards, Jr. gives UCLA a very talented and experienced presence between the pipes.
It may come down to who sets the tempo of the contest. Can Providence settle in and do the things that have worked so well for them or will UCLA be able to dictate the pace and make it a pro style smooth game with rhythm?
Prognosis – This looks to be an up and down game. Bruin senior midfielder Leo Stolz could be the determining factor in this game. If Stolz can control the middle of the field and dictate the game, which he is very capable of doing, he will create havoc in the midfield and unlock the Providence defense throughout the match.
Expect Providence to be dangerous on the counter and a big challenge for the Bruins on set pieces. Providence has shown a lot of grit this year and this one could be upset city if the Bruins take the Friars lightly or if they don't play a full ninety minutes of soccer.
UCLA must travel cross country which is a disadvantage but the Bruins travel well and the fact that they opened the 2014 season with wins on the road against Wake Forest and North Carolina was a bit of a dress rehearsal. When it is all said and done it's highly likely that the depth of the Bruins and the playmaking ability of Stolz and Danaldi among others will make UCLA the bigger threat. Providence will make it interesting but at the end of the evening look for UCLA to come out on top.