A lot of things have to fall in place at the right time to win a national championship. Clemson head coach Mike Noonan never stopped believing that if his team played to their potential that they could beat anyone they faced. Throughout the season Noonan commented about the unique character of his 2021 team and how it has served them well during challenging times. He told his players that he wanted them to do three things well in their national championship contest against Washington. Remain focused, play free and have fun. The Tigers did the first two to perfection and the result was plenty of fun.
Clemson struggled at times during the season with back-to-back losses to UNCG on the road and Pitt at home in September and losses to Notre Dame at home and Syracuse on the road in October and a frustrating 1-0 loss to Duke at home in the semifinals of the ACC tournament in November. However, this has been a Clemson team that has had that something special that has enabled them to play through the difficult times during the season during which they had to make adjustments due to injuries but still managed to believe in themselves, enjoy playing the game, and find ways to close out challenging contests. Noonan stated, “They just stayed at it. Through the disappointments (the team) grew strengths.”
Soccer is a game of opportunity and Clemson became an opportunistic team. Noonan accurately captured the essence of this team when he stated, “When the moment’s come, you have to be prepared and I think that’s the best part of the team.” Clemson’s path to the national championship match was not easy nor was it for the faint of heart. You had to believe to do what this team did. The Tigers topped Denver 1-0 with a goal in the 108th minute of the game, they beat Kentucky 2-1 in the Sweet Sixteen with a goal in the last minute of regulation, they advanced past number one seed Oregon State in the Elite Eight in a game that was determined by a penalty kick shootout after it was tied 1-1 at the end of 110 minutes of play, and they advanced past a hot Notre Dame team that had lost only once in the last 15 games in the semifinals of the NCAA Tournament in penalty kicks after the match was tied 1-1 at the end of regulation and extra time.
The national final began unexpectedly when a rare failed clearance by Washington’s talented sophomore goalkeeper Sam Fowler resulted in an open shot on goal by Clemson junior forward Isaiah Reid just 27 seconds into the contest. It was a stunning nightmare type beginning for Washington and Fowler. Anyone who has ever played competitive soccer in goal knows that netminders play without the margin for error that attacking players have. It was an unfortunate miscue but one that goes with the position. Mistakes on the offensive side of the ball are viewed as missed opportunities while miscues in goal are almost always fatal. Washington center back Ryan Sailor, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, summed it up well when he stated, “Those things happen. We all know Sam is one of the best keepers in the country.”
Credit Clemson defender Oskar Agren with the clearance and Reid for making the run to be in position to take advantage of the opportunity that existed and for calmly one-touching the ball into the far side of the net to get Clemson on the board. It was an open goal but sometimes what appear to be easy shots are missed.
During the 15th minute of play Reid made it 2-0 Clemson when he decisively drove a header into the top left corner of the net from the right side of the box. Reid’s second goal was set up by a nice pass from sophomore midfielder Ousmane Sylla to senior defender Charlie Asensio on the left flank who sent a picture-perfect cross into Reid. The fact that Reid, who had only scored once in the last 14 games for Clemson, scored twice in the championship game is a reflection of the grit and determination that Clemson has displayed all year. Noonan stated, “He’s (Reid) playing out of position because we’ve had to shift some things. And he just stayed with it.” Reid stated, “I hadn’t scored much in 14 games, but I didn’t let that deter me from trying to help out the team and try and score goals.”
Solid play on the defensive side of the ball by Clemson goalkeeper George Marks, who was named the Defensie MVP of the College Cup, and a Tiger backline of seniors Justin Malou and Charlie Asensio, junior Oskar Agren and sophomore Hamady Diop contained a very productive Washington attack that averaged 2.18 goals per game. Washington was very dangerous out of the run of play all year with great quickness and touch on the ball and very effective out of set pieces. The Huskies came into the contest having scored 18 times out of set pieces. They had opportunities out of set pieces but seemed a little off in their service and the timing of their runs.
Credit Washington for continuing to press on both sides of the ball throughout the game. The Huskies defense anchored by Fowler in goal and center backs Ryan Sailor and Achille Robin and outside backs Kendall Burks and Charlie Ostrem held Clemson to a total of only four shots with two on goal but Clemson was able to make the big plays they needed to secure the win. It was a disappointing and difficult loss for the Huskies. Washington head coach Jamie Clark stated, “More important (than anything) is how proud I am of these guys and the season they had.” He added, “They made history and I couldn’t be prouder”
Both Washington under Clark and Clemson under the guidance of Noonan have elevated the level of play of their programs during their tenure at the helm.
Under Clark the Huskies have become a perennial contender in the Pac-12 and on the national scene. He took the program to its first ever College Cup this year after advancing to the Elite Eight in 2019 and 2020.
Noonan inherited a Clemson program in 2010 that had fallen on tough times and returned the program to prominence in the Atlantic Coast Conference and on the national scene. The Tigers secure their third national title and first since 1987 and their first under Noonan.
Both of these teams deserved to be in the national final. Clemson finished their national championship season with a 16-5-2 overall record while Washington concludes an historic season with an 18-2-2 overall record. College Soccer is alive and well as reflected in the enthusiasm and excitement displayed by the capacity crowd on hand for the semifinals, the crowd of 7,238 on hand at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina for the National Championship match, and at various venues throughout the season coast to coast.