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A Preview of the Sweet Sixteen Contests – The Road to Santa Barbara

The Sweet Sixteen gets underway with two contests on Saturday and six on Sunday.  The Field will be reduced to eight teams at the conclusion of play on Sunday.  Eleven of the top sixteen seeds are still standing.  

Akron (12-6-2) at Wake Forest (18-2-0) – Sunday – Both teams play an exciting attack oriented style of soccer which should make for an action packed contest.  Both Akron and Wake Forest entered the season with talented rosters but with a lot of key voids to fill. 

Akron struggled early on with three losses in their first five contests but as has often been the case under Jared Embick, the Zips gelled as a team as the season progressed and are playing their best soccer of the year when it counts the most. 

Despite the gaps that had to be plugged, Wake Forest hit the ground running.  A good case could be made that Bobby Muuss, who has been named the ACC Coach of the Year for four consecutive seasons, has done his best coaching job ever this year. 

Forwards David Egbo (12g, 4a) and Marcel Zajac (7g, 7a) headline a high powered and multi-dimensional Zip attack that rolled past Rider 3-1 and Syracuse 3-1 to advance to the match with the Demon Deacons.  Zajac's return to the lineup after missing the first five games of the season due to injury helped to jump start the Zip attack. 

Midfielders Omir Fernandez (12g, 6a) and Bruno Lapa (10g, 9a) lead a Wake Forest offense that has produced a total of fifty-two goals against a very competitive slate of opponents.  Fernandez and Lapa seamlessly transitioned into key starting roles after being in supporting roles last year. Sophomore forwards Machop Chol  (5g, 7a) and Justin McMaster (6g, 4a) add yet another dimension to the Demon Deacon attack. 

Akron's redshirt junior midfieder Skye Harter (1g, 6a) and Wake Forest's senior midfielder Brad Dunwell (0g, 2a) are the  X-Factors.  Their ability to set the pace for their respective teams will impact the outcome.  

Both teams have experienced and talented netminders.  Akron's Ben Lundt, a three year starter, and Wake Forest's Andreu Cases Mundet, a two year starter, are battle tested and composed goalkeepers who can hold their own with anyone. 

Both teams will apply pressure from the get-go in an effort to find a weakness that they can exploit.  Look for the pace of the contest to pick up as the game progresses and the teams settle in. This one will likely have ebbs and flows.  It all comes down to which team does a better job of handling the pressure.

Stanford (12-3-4) at Saint Mary's (18-0-1) – Sunday – The number nine seed Cardinal advanced to the contest with Saint Mary's by topping UC Irvine 2-0. Number eight seed Saint Mary's, the only undefeated  team in the country,  secured a spot in the Sweet Sixteen with a 1-0 win over Oregon State.  For purposes of comparison against common opponents,  Stanford lost to Oregon State 1-0 and tied them 2-2 during regular season play. 

Stanford  has consistently done a better job than everyone else in the country when it comes to the survive and advance environment of the NCAA Tournament. Specifically, they take advantage of the scoring opportunities that come their way, particularly out of free kicks, and keep the opposition from scoring via tenacious team oriented and physical play on the defensive side of the ball.   

The Cardinal attack, powered by forward Zach Ryan (9g, 3a), midfielder Amir Bashti (7g, 6a) and defender Tanner Beason (7g, 5a), has produced a total of thirty-one goals. The unanswered question is whether or not this Cardinal team has the big play ability needed to once again win the close contests that they will have in the NCAA Tournament. 

The Stanford defense anchored in goal by redshirt freshman Andrew Thomas has only allowed a total of eleven goals to date.  

Saint Mary's under the direction of head coach Adam Cooper has had a history making season after being picked to finish in the third spot in the preseason West Coast Conference coaches poll. The Gaels feature a high octane offense led by junior forwards Jake Rudel (13g, 5a) and Anders Engebretsen (9g, 6a) and senior midfielder Stephen Dougherty (6g, 4a) that has produced a total of fifty goals. The Saint Mary's defense anchored by redshirt junior goalkeeper Remi Prieur has only allowed eight goals. 

Saint Mary's was ranked as the number four team in the country in the College Soccer News Regular Season Ending National Poll.  A team does not win eighteen games without being solid and composed on both sides of the ball.  

The Gaels have not appeared in the NCAA Tournament since the 2011 season and are traveling in unchartered waters. Staying composed and limiting mistakes are key success factors when facing Stanford. The unanswered question is the degree to which Stanford's experience in the NCAA Tournament and the fact that they have played a very competitive regular season schedule will impact the outcome.  

This is an intriguing "something has to give" contest that has the makings of a classic NCAA Tournament match.

James Madison (14-4-3) at Virginia Tech (11-6-3) – Sunday – James Madison out of the Colonial Athletic Association advanced to the Sweet Sixteen with impressive 3-0 wins over High Point and number five seed North Carolina 2-1 on the road.  For purposes of comparison, Virginia Tech lost to North Carolina 2-1 and 3-0  when the two team faced each other this year in ACC play. 

Number twelve seed Virginia Tech out of the Atlantic Coast Conference advanced to the third round by defeating a good Charlotte team in Blacksburg 1-0.     

JMU, under first year head coach Paul Zazenski, is playing their best soccer of the year at the time when it matters the most.  The Dukes feature a multi-dimensional attack that averages 1.71 goals per game.  Midfielder Manuel Ferrio. (9g, 5a) and forward  Aaron Ward-Baptiste (7g, 5a) are key ingredients in an explosive yet patient JMU offense that when clicking  can score in multiples.  

Redshirt sophomore TJ Bush anchors a team oriented JMU defense that has held opponents to 0.52 goals per contest while posting twelve shutouts.   

The Virginia Tech offense driven by forwards sophomore Kristo Strickler (10g, 4a) and junior Nico Quashie (6g, 2a) is averaging 1.85 goals per contest.  Strickler has done a good job of filling the large void that existed in the Hokie attack due to the graduation of forward Marcelo Acuna who scored twenty-five times during a two-year tenure at Virginia Tech. Sophomore goalkeeper Mathijs Swaneveid, who was called upon to fill the shoes of Ben Lundgaard, anchors a Virginia Tech defense that has allowed an average of 1.20 goals per contest.  

Both teams have opportunistic attacks that are capable of taking advantage of mistakes and taking control of the match.  Both teams are resilient so the chances are pretty good that this will be a close contest with neither team totally controlling the run of play. 

The Virginia Tech backline of Will Mejia, Jon Ingason, and Nikal Clarke-Smith and the James Madison backline of Shaun McKenna, Petur Thorsteinsson, Thomas Shores and Tom Judge will be tested. No prisoners will be taken in this contest between two in-state opponents who are hungry to advance and play another day. 

Michigan State (12-4-4) at Georgetown (13-4-3) –  Sunday – Michigan State topped UIC 2-0 and upset number four seed Louisville 2-1 in overtime to advance to the Sweet Sixteen in a bracket in which the two top seeds (North Carolina and Louisville) have been eliminated.  Georgetown advanced by defeating West Virginia 1-0 with defender Dyan Nealis scoring the game-winning goal in the eighty-eighth minute of the game.  

Junior forwards Ryan Sierakowski (6g, 5a) and DeJuan Jones (5g, 5a) and junior midfielder Giuseppe Barone (3g, 10a) provide firepower to a very balanced but somewhat up and down Michigan State attack that has been effective at creating quality scoring opportunities but has had trouble at times finishing them.  The Spartans fate is going to be determined by their effectiveness in the attacking third. 

Michigan State netminder Jimmy Hague, a three-year starter,  is among the top at his position in the country.   Hague and back Patrick Nielsen anchor a Spartan defense that has only allowed a total of sixteen goals so far this year. 

Derek Dodson (9g, 1a), Achara (7g, 1a) and Kyle Zajec (4g, 7a) lead a Georgetown offense that has produced thirty-three goals.  Dodson and Achara each have four game-winning goals. 

Goalkeeper Giannis Nikopolidis anchors a Georgetown defense that has only allowed a total of fourteen goals.  The Georgetown back line of Brendan McDonough, Dylan Nealis, Peter Schropp, and Sean O'Hearn, is very talented which may give the Hoyas the edge they need to prevail.    

Both number thirteen seed Georgetown and Michigan State have momentum and talented players on both sides of the ball. But both teams have been tentative at times this year and have allowed winnable games to get away from them. 

The margin of victory in this one is likely to be a single goal. It will come down to which team finishes the  opportunities that come their way and is able to put in a full ninety minutes of focused play on the defensive side of the ball.   

Lipscomb (10-9-1) at Kentucky (18-1-1) – Saturday – Lipscomb out of the ASUN Conference advanced to the Sweet Sixteen by advancing past Washington in a penalty kick shootout after the contest was scoreless at the conclusion of one-hundred and ten minutes of play and by topping number fourteen seed UCF 1-0.  Number three seed Kentucky out of CSUA punched their ticket to the third round by rolling past Portland 4-0.   

Junior forward JJ Williams has been a key ingredient in the success that Kentucky has had this year.  Senior forward Logan Paynter has been a key factor in Lipscomb's success.  Both are playmakers and it is highly likely that their play will have an impact on the on the outcome of the contest.

Kentucky topped Lipscomb 3-2 in overtime when the two teams faced each other in Nashville on September 18.  That result should keep Kentucky from looking past Lipscomb while giving Lipscomb the knowledge that they can hold their own against the Wildcats. 

This is a different Lipscomb team than the one that struggled during the first half of the season.  The young players who have been in key roles now have their legs under them.  Forget the win loss records of the teams.  This one is going to come down to which team is able to put together a full ninety minutes of play and avoid costly mistakes.  Look for Kentucky to apply pressure from the get-go. 

Maryland (9-6-4) at Duke (11-6-2) – Saturday – Number eleven seed  Maryland advanced to the Sweet Sixteen by defeating N.C. State 2-0.  Number six seed Duke advanced by topping Pacific 1-0.

This one is very interesting because both teams have looked very good at times but each has also come out on the short end of the scoreboard enough to create nagging unanswered questions about the consistency of their play perhaps due in part to the fact that both have young players in key roles.       

Junior Daniele Proch (11g, 4a) and freshman midfielder Issa Rayyan (6g, 3a) lead a Duke offense that has scored thirty-three goals.  Junior midfielder Brandon Williamson is the guy who sets the pace for the Blue Devils.  Sophomore goalkeeper Will Pulisic and sophomore defender Mathias Frick (3g, 0a) are key elements in a Duke defense that has allowed twenty-three goals. 

Maryland returns to the Sweet Sixteen after a two-year absence.  Senior midfielder Amar Sedic  (6g, 0a) is the catalyst in a Terp attack that has produced twenty-four goals.  Senior forward Sebastian Elney (3g, 2a) is among those who add balance to the attack.  Goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair and junior back Donovan Pines are part of a Maryland defense that has allowed only sixteen goal including only one goal in the Terp's last three contests. 

This one is all about who can control the run of play and set the pace of the match.  Both offenses have playmakers.  It all comes down to who will be able to come up with the big plays needed to win.  Look for this one to be close. 

Virginia (10-3-3) at Notre Dame (10-6-3) – Sunday – Number 10 seen Virginia advanced by beating Furman 2-0.  Number seven seed Notre Dame advanced past Michigan in a penalty kick shootout after the contest was scoreless at the end of regulation and extra time.

This is a young Virginia team that has produced a total of twenty-four goals while allowing only eleven. 

Notre Dame, lead by senior forward Thomas Ueland (6g, 1a) and senior center back Patrick Berneski (6g, 0a), has scored a total of twenty-nine times and allowed a total of nineteen goals.  The Irish have allowed one or less goals a total of fourteen times this year including only one goal in their last five contests.   

Look for both teams to cautiously attack. This one will likely hinge on which team is able to avoid the costly mistakes on the defensive side of the ball that open the door for the other to find the back of the net.

Air Force (17-4-0) at Indiana (18-2-1) – Sunday

Air Force advanced to the Sweet Sixteen by defeating Central Arkansas 4-0 and number nine seed Denver 2-1.  Number two seed Indiana advanced to the third round by thumping Connecticut 4-0.

Air Force has a high powered offense that has produced a total of fifty-three goals.  This veteran led team is powered by senior midfielder Tucker Bone (13g, 6a) and senior forwards Austin Dewing (12g, 5a) and Klint Parker (8g, 4a).  What often goes unnoticed is the fact that Air Force led by junior goalkeeper Andrea Seazzu and senior back David Louthan has only allowed a total of fifteen goals.   

Indiana is a perfect  10-0-0 at home this year.  Andrew Gutman, the Big Ten Defender of the Year, Spencer Glass (5g, 8a), Griffin Dorsey (5g, 5a), Trevor Swartz (1g, 13a) and Justin Rennicks (6g, 0a) are among those who provide firepower to a Hoosier offense that has scored a total of forty-four goals. 

Trey Muse anchors a stout IU defense along with backs Gutman, Timmy Mehl, Jack Maher, and Rece Buckmaster that has only allowed eleven goals.

This one is going to hinge on which team is able to contain their opponent's attack and then set the pace on the offensive side of the ball.  Effectiveness on both sides of the ball out of set pieces will be a key success factor.  


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