Let’s take a moment to reflect on the year that was, how we got here, and how it all played out. By Brian Ludden
It’s likely that we will never have another year of college soccer like we did in 2021. We got to see two seasons play out in the space of ten months, and we saw four champions crowned in Division I, and then two each in Division II and III.
It really all started back in August of 2020, when the NCAA announced that fall championships would not be played in the fall. At the time, we all hoped that we would see the College Cup in the spring. Most conferences, including the Big Ten and Pac-12, canceled their fall seasons, and hoped to play in the spring of 2021. It wasn’t completely gone, as we still had the ACC and SEC (along with a couple more) to watch in the fall. But not having the NCAA Tournament in November and crowning a champion at the end of the fall was certainly disappointing.
As the calendars turned from 2020 to 2021, we were getting closer to the spring season and having everyone out on the field. The spring season got underway on February 3rd, mostly with conference-only schedules, with the hope of crowning a champion in May.
As winter turned to spring, we started to see who the contenders were and who would be expected to make a run at the title. And despite the reduced number of teams and centralized location, the women’s tournament got underway on April 29, 2021 with the men starting two days later. We saw the men’s top seed, Clemson, lose in the third round, and the 5 seed in the women’s bracket, West Virginia, lose in the second round. We got down to the final four, and then the championship watches were set. And what a day that turned out to be.
May 17, 2021 would be the day of the national championship matches, with the women going first, followed by the men about 30 minutes later. In the first match of the night, fans watched as favorite and top seed, Florida State, took the lead in the 62nd minute, before Santa Clara equalized with just 7 minutes left. After no goals in overtime, it was time for penalties. Someone had to lose, and it wasn’t going to be the underdogs. Santa Clara converted all four of their penalties, while the Seminoles of Florida State went 1 for 3, and Santa Clara was crowned the 2020 champions of women’s college soccer.
This was only the appetizer, however, and fans were treated to more excitement in the second game of the night, traditional powerhouse Indiana vs. the new kid on the block and emerging power Marshall to decide the men’s champion. Neither team could find a goal in regulation, and after seven minutes of overtime, it looked as if we might be going to another penalty shootout. Jamil Roberts had other ideas. The Sporting KC draft pick tapped in a rebound in the 98th minute to give Marshall their first ever national championship in men’s soccer.
After the excitement of the 2020 season, college soccer fans didn’t have to wait very long for it to come back, as we were back underway in August 2021. With a more traditional season structure, teams were able to test themselves vs. non-conference opposition, before getting into the conference schedules.
As the weather got colder, national championship favorites began to emerge. But we also got to witness many upsets, with numerous top-ranked teams losing to teams they should’ve been able to beat. The conference tournaments for the men and women wrapped up, and the tournament fields were set once again. Unlike in the spring, we also saw the return of home games for the higher seeded teams.
As we once again got down to the final four, the men went to Cary, North Carolina and the women were headed out west to Santa Clara, California. In the 2021 season, we didn’t have a Cinderella story on the women’s side, as top-seeded Florida State got another chance at PKs in the title game vs. BYU, and this time, they didn’t go down, converting 4 out of their 5 penalties, and got their hands on the National Championship trophy.
On the other side of the country in Cary, Clemson knocked off ACC foe Notre Dame in the semifinals, and Washington got a 2-1 win over Georgetown to set up a College Cup final between the Tigers and the Huskies. The tone was set early on in the title game, as a mistake by Washington’s keeper gave Isaiah Reid one of the easiest goals of his life to give Clemson a 1-0 lead in the first minute. Reid doubled Clemson’s lead just 14 minutes later with a looping header that gave the Washington keeper no chance. The 2-0 lead was all Clemson needed, as they held off a late Washington charge, and won their first College Cup final since 1987.
So, we got to experience a great year of college soccer, full of upsets, thrilling games, comebacks, and everything in between that encapsulates college soccer. Let’s just hope we get this much excitement in 2022.
Brian Ludden is a contributing writer for College Soccer News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.