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A Preview of the Elite Eight Contests – The Road To Santa Barbara

The intensity picks up as Maryland faces Kentucky, James Madison tangles with Michigan State, Notre Dame squares off with Indiana, and Akron battles Stanford in the Elite Eight.  Four teams will punch their ticket to the College Cup (Final Four).   

Contest – #11 Seed Maryland (10-6-4) at #3 Seed Kentucky (19-1-1)

Where – Lexington, Kentucky

When – Friday, November 30, 2018 at 6 pm

Background – Maryland is one of the premier programs in the country.  Period.  However, during the latter part of the 2017 season and for a portion of the 2018 season the Terps looked to be a work in progress and a team trying to sort out their identity.  They were competitive and worked hard but lacked the ingredients needed to grind out wins in the close contests. Perhaps the disappointing and uncharacteristic manner in which they closed out the 2016 and 2017 seasons contributed to a play not to lose instead of play to win mentality. The bottom line is that Maryland now seems to have sorted things out and is playing with a renewed sense of confidence as a team.  The result is a Terp team that has the momentum and team-oriented identity that has been a trademark of Sasho Cirovksi’s Maryland teams. The 2018 team may not be a vintage Maryland side on the offensive side of the ball but the fact that they have momentum and are playing well together makes them a very dangerous team.

Kentucky is having a stellar season advancing to the Elite Eight for the first time in the history of the program.  The Wildcats gained national attention when they defeated a highly regarded Louisville team 3-0 on September 4 led by a two-goal evening from junior forward JJ Williams.  A subsequent 3-0 signature win over Indiana further enhanced their standing.   The Wildcats have an attack that has produced a total of forty-nine goals and a defense that has only allowed ten.  The pressure clicks up a notch as teams advance in the NCAA Tournament.  This is a young Kentucky team.  Senior back Tanner Hummel, a four-year starter, is the lone senior in the starting lineup. So, it remains to be seen how, if at all, the pressure of playing for a spot in the College Cup will impact Kentucky’s play

The Skinny – Kentucky advanced to the Elite Eight by thumping Portland 4-0 and sliding past Lipscomb 2-1.  Junior forward JJ Williams (18g, 8a) and sophomore midfielder Kalil Elmedkhar (11g, 10a) are the big goal scorers in the Wildcat attack but the playmaking ability and composure of guys like freshmen forward Jason Reyes (8g, 4a), freshmen midfielders Marcel Meinzer (0g, 7a) and Nicolai Fremstad (2g, 7a) and sophomore midfielder Bailey Rouse (2g, 1a) will have a huge impact on the outcome of this contest. 

Maryland advanced past NC State 2-0 and number six seed Duke 2-0 to advance to the Elite Eight. The Terp attack which has produced a total of twenty-four goals is good but not as explosive as in years past.  Nonetheless, senior midfielder Amar Sejdic (6g, 0a), junior Paul Bin (4g, 2a), freshman midfielder William James Herve (3g, 3a) and senior forward Sebastian Elney (3g, 2a) are all capable playmakers. The Terp defense lead by redshirt junior goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair and backs junior Donovan Pines, junior Johannes Bergmann, sophomore Ben Di Rosa and senior Chase Gasper is very athletic and could give Maryland the edge they need to leave Lexington with a win. 

Bottom Line – Kentucky had a few shaky moments in their win over Lipscomb in the Sweet Sixteen.  The experience the Wildcats gained in that match and the fact that they were able to pull it out late may prove to be a plus.  Both teams will press the attack.  This one is going to hinge on which side is able to maintain their composure and settle into the rhythm of their game.  The ability to get the best of the run of play in the middle of the park looks to be a critical success factor.  Sejdic and company could give Maryland the edge there.  Williams and Reyes should give Kentucky the advantage up top.  Both teams are very solid on the defensive side of the ball so neither wants to be put in a position in which they have to chase the game.  It will likely take two or more goals to secure a win in this one.   

Contest – James Madison (15-4-3) at Michigan State (13-4-4)

Where – East Lansing, Michigan

When – Saturday, December 1 at 5 pm

Background – In 2017 James Madison allowed a total of twenty-seven goals.  New head coach Paul Zazenski has stressed solid play on the defensive side of the ball from the beginning of the 2018 season.  The Dukes have responded with a stout defense anchored by goalkeeper TJ Bush that has allowed a total of only eleven goals while recording thirteen shutouts.  It may be defense first at JMU but that has not kept the Dukes from applying pressure on the offensive side of the ball via a very balanced attack led by junior Manuel Ferriol and senior Aaron Ward-Baptiste among others that has produced a total of thirty-nine goals.  JMU is enjoying, and perhaps motivated by, the opportunity that the tournament provides to show that they can compete favorably with anyone. 

Michigan State has been a difficult team to get a handle on this year. Three of their four losses were by a 1-0 score in overtime. The Spartans are very good but their margin for error is slight. Michigan State advanced to the Elite Eight most recently in 2013, 2014 and 2017 where their season came to an end. A senior lead Spartan team will be eager to get over the Elite Eight hump that has been a brick wall for them in the recent past.

The Skinny – JMU advanced to the Elite Eight by topping High Point 3-0, number five seed North Carolina 2-1 and number twelve seed Virginia Tech 3-0 on the road.  The Dukes, while being very solid on the defensive side of the ball, are as effective as anyone in the country when it comes to creating and finishing scoring opportunities inside the box.  If opponents are tentative, they will exploit them. 

Michigan State advanced to the Elite Eight by topping UIC 2-0 at home and then securing wins on the road over number four seed Louisville 2-1 and number thirteen seed Georgetown 1-0 on the road.  The Spartan attack which has struggled at times to come up with the big goal needed in close contests is powered by junior forward Ryan Sierakowski (6g, 5a), junior midfielder Giuseppe Barone (3g, 10a) and senior forward DeJuan Jones (5g, 5a).  Michigan State’s defense led by goalkeeper Jimmy Hague and backs Patrick Nielsen, John Freitag, Connor Corrigan and Michael Wetungu has allowed sixteen goals. 

Bottom Line – Neither team can afford to dig themselves in a hole in this one.  Organization on the defensive side of the ball will be crucial. Strong defensive play will likely limit the number of scoring opportunities available to both teams.  This one could hinge on which keeper – Bush or Hague – is able to come up with the big stops in goal.   

Both may cautiously attack in the beginning but there also is a good chance one or both of them will elect to apply pressure from the get-go in an effort to dictate the tempo of the match.  A more deliberate physical contest will favor Michigan State.  A more end to end contest will give James Madison the edge. 

Both teams are capable of scoring via a long through ball but Michigan State is the more likely of the two to breakthrough in this manner. Senior forwards Ryan Sierakowski and DeJuan Jones play very well together.  

James Madison is very effective at creating scoring opportunities in the box which is among the reasons why they earn so many corner kicks.  Junior midfielder Manuel Ferriol and senior forward Aaron Ward-Baptiste provide punch to the JMU attack but others like redshirt sophomore Carson Jeffris and redshirt senior Billy Metzler add diversity to offense.   

The play of junior midfielder Giusepe Barone for Michigan State and graduate student midfielder Yannick Franz for James Madison will have an impact on the outcome. This one should be a dandy. 

Contest – #7 seed Notre Dame (11-6-3) at #2 seed Indiana (19-2-1)

Where – Bloomington, Indiana

When – Friday, November 30, 2018 at 7 pm

Background – These two teams faced each other back on September 11 in South Bend with Indiana prevailing 2-1 in overtime.  Number seven seed Notre Dame is under the direction of first year head coach Chad Riley.  Defense has been the Irish’s calling card down the home stretch during which they have allowed only one goal in their last six contests.  The Irish have played a demanding schedule that includes signature wins over Connecticut, Syracuse, Louisville, and a tie with Virginia. 

Indiana clearly has their sights set on claiming the national championship after coming so close last year.  The Hoosiers won both the Big Ten regular season title and Tournament titles this year.  This in Indiana’s thirty-second straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.  They last won the national title in 2012. Indiana played an extremely difficult and gutsy schedule this year beginning with season opening contests with Wake Forest and North Carolina on the road. 

The Skinny – Notre Dame earned a spot in the quarterfinals by advancing past Michigan in penalty kicks after the game was scoreless at the conclusion of 110 minutes of play and by topping number ten seed Virginia 1-0 in overtime.  Both contests were played in South Bend.  Seniors forward Thomas Ueland (6g, 1a) and defender Patrick Berneski (6g, 0a) are Notre Dame’s top two goal scorers.  Senior back Felician Duman (1g, 6a) also adds to the attack out of set pieces.  Senior forward Ian Aschieris (5g, 1a) adds another option to the Irish offense.   

Indiana topped Connecticut 4-0 and Air Force 2-0 to punch their ticket to the Elite Eight. This is a veteran Hoosier team anchored in the back by senior backs Andrew Gutman, Timmy Mehl, and Rece Buckmaster and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Jack Maher along with sophomore goalkeeper Trey Muse.  The Hoosiers have posted fourteen shutouts this year while allowing a total of only eleven goals. Griffin Dorsey (5g, 5a), Justin Rennicks (6g, 0a) and Spencer Glass (5g, 8a) along with Gutman (11g, 8a) are among a very balanced group of finishers who provide firepower for Indiana.  

Bottom Line – The Irish have performed well when they have been on the front foot from the opening whistle.  As the season has progressed, they have continued to attack but have become more selective in regard to how and when they apply pressure.    

There are no easy contests in the NCAA Tournament and at this point anything can happen.  However, all things considered the only team that is going to derail Indiana is Indiana. In other words, the Hoosiers have to continue to play their game and do the things well that have worked for them all year.  They are vulnerable should a lapse in play cost them a goal and force them to have to chase Notre Dame.   

Indiana will likely pressure out of the gate in an effort to take control of the contest.  Chances are pretty good that the play on both sides of the ball out of restarts with have an impact on the outcome.  Center back Andrew Gutman (11g, 8a) and midfielder Trevor Swartz (1g, 15a) for Indiana and center back Patrick Berneski (6g, 0a) and back Felicien Dumas could factor into that. 

Contest – Akron (13-6-2) at #9 seed Stanford (12-3-5)

Where – Stanford, California

When – Friday, October 30, 2018 at 6 pm

Background – Akron comes into this one on a seven-game winning streak.  The Zips won the MAC tournament title.  This is not the same Akron team that dropped to 6-6-2 back on October 20 when they were upset 2-1 by Northern Illinois. At the time, the Zips struggled to put combinations together on the offensive side of the ball and lacked the intensity on the defensive side of the ball needed to win the 50-50 balls. The loss to NIU seemed to serve as a wakeup call for an Akron team that lacked consistency on both sides of the ball.  During the last seven contests Akron has picked up the pace scoring a total of sixteen times while allowing only four goals. 

Stanford won the national championship the past three seasons and has advanced to the Elite Eight for the past four years.  The Cardinal won the Pac-12 Conference title for the fifth season in a row this year and is unbeaten in its last seventeen contests in the NCAA Tournament (12-0-5).  What is almost unbelievable is that Stanford has recorded a shutout in fourteen straight matches in the NCAA Tournament.  

The Skinny – Akron advanced to the Elite Eight by defeating Rider 3-1 at home and number sixteen seed Syracuse 3-1 and number seed Wake Forest 1-0 on the road. Akron has matched up well with Stanford in the past and does so again this year. The Cardinal is 1-2-1 all-time against Akron. The two teams have faced each other in the NCAA Tournament three times in the last four years. 

Number nine seed Stanford punched their ticket to the quarterfinals with a 2-0 win over UC Irvine at home and by advancing past number eight seed Saint Mary’s in penalty kicks after the contest was scoreless at the end of regulation and overtime.  Despite the success that Stanford has obviously enjoyed in the NCAA Tournament, this is the first time that the Cardinal has hosted an Elite Eight contest since 2002.  Stanford was expected to have to make their annual trip cross country to tangle with number one seed Wake Forest but that changed when Akron upset the Demon Deacons last week in Winston-Salem.

Redshirt freshman forward Zach Ryan (9g, 3a), senior forward Amir Bashti (7g, 6a) and junior back Tanner Beason (7g, 5a), the Pac-12 Player of the Year, power a very good but not necessarily vintage Stanford attack that has produced a total of thirty-one goals.  This team does not have a Jordan Morris or a duo up-top like Foster Langsdorf and Corey Baird.  Whether or not that makes any difference remains to be seen.  The Stanford defense anchored in goal by Andrew Thomas and backs Beason, Adam Mosharrafa, Ryan Ludwick, and Andrew Aprahamian has allowed a total of only eleven goals while posting twelve shutouts. 

David Egbo (12g, 5a) and Marcel Zajac (8g, 7a) provide juice to an Akron attack that has scored forty-one goals but that is a little misleading because ten of those came in a win over Canisius. The Akron defense anchored by Ben Lundt, a three-year starter in goal,  has allowed a total of a twenty-one goals which is also a little misleading because a good number of those came in the early going.

Although it may not be reflected in the statistics, the play of redshirt junior midfielder Skye Harter (1g, 6a) for Akron and junior midfielders Jared Gilbey (0g, 1a) and Derek Waldeck (1g, 6a) for Stanford will be a factor in the outcome of the game.    

Bottom Line – It goes without saying that Stanford is a formidable opponent in the NCAA Tournament. Akron can’t afford errors on the defensive side of the ball and must take advantage of the limited opportunities to score that will come their way. On the other hand, Stanford has to do the same thing if they want to survive and advance.  Neither team wants to have to chase their opponent in this one.  A single goal may prove to be the difference maker in this one.  Fasten your seatbelts.  It may get physical. 

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