An exciting slate of Elite Eight contests are on tap for this weekend. Seven of the top ten seeds including the top four seeded teams are still standing. On Friday, #5 seed Akron faces #4 seed Louisville and #7 seed Michigan State squares off with #2 seed Indiana. On Saturday Fordham travels to face #3 seed North Carolina and #9 seed Stanford tangles with #1 seed Wake Forest.
#9 seed Stanford (16-2-2) vs. #1 seed Wake Forest (19-1-2)
Where – Spry Stadium – Winston-Salem, North Carolina
When – Saturday, December 2, 2017 – 7 p.m.
Background – Many thought this marquee Elite-Eight matchup between two of the top programs in the country would take place in the College Cup (Final Four) but seeding dictated otherwise. Regardless of where the contest occurs along the NCAA Tournament road, it had to happen at some point.
This is the third year in a row that the Cardinal and the Demon Deacons have faced each other in the NCAA Tournament. Stanford prevailed 2-1 in overtime in the Elite Eight in 2015 when then sophomore Foster Langsdorf converted a header out of a free kick served in by then sophomore Corey Baird. Last year Stanford prevailed when the two faced each other in the national championship game in a contest that was determined by a penalty kick shootout after the match was scoreless at the conclusion of 110 minutes of play. Perhaps the third time will prove to be a charm for Wake Forest.
The Skinny – Both teams have done three things well all year that are trademarks of a championship team. The first is the ability to find a way to win the close contests. The second is a clearly understood identity and style of play. The third is the ability to modify their approach when needed based on the style of play of an opponent. All three of those factors don’t just happen by accident. They reflect what Jeremy Gunn and Bobby Muuss have brought to and instilled in their respective programs and the quality of the players they have recruited.
Key Factors – Senior forwards Foster Langsdorf (13g, 6a) and Corey Baird (6g, 6a) give Stanford a duo up-top that is among the best if not the best in the country. They play well together and complement each other which adds to their effectiveness.
Senior Jon Bakero (16g, 14a) who has netted six game-winners is the real deal up-top for Wake Forest as reflected in the number of times that he has come through in the clutch for the Demon Deacons.
Senior midfielder Drew Skundrich is a playmaker who adds tenacity and additional punch to a very good Cardinal midfield. Sophomore Ema Twumasi (10g, 7a) is a key part of a very talented and deep Wake Forest midfield.
The Cardinal defense which has allowed a total of only nine goals is anchored by senior center back Tomas Hilliard-Arce (3g, 3a) and redshirt sophomore back Tanner Beason (4g, 3a). Redshirt senior Nico Corti, who assumed the goalkeeper role this year due to the graduation of All-American Andrew Epstein who was a four-year starter, has performed well between the pipes with a 0.45 goals against average.
Senior Kevin Politz, who was named the 2017 ACC Defensive Player of the Year, has been at the heart of the Wake Forest backline; however, he has not been in the lineup recently due to injury. Sophomore Andreu Cases Mundet, who emerged last year when he had to take the place of All-American goalkeeper Alec Ferrell who was injured during the latter part of the 2016 season, has recorded a 0.42 goal against average this year while anchoring a Demon Deacon defense that has allowed a total of only eleven goals against a very competitive slate of opponents.
Bottom Line – This is a classic “something has to give contest” in that both teams match up well with each other with no apparent weaknesses. Stanford will be more direct in their approach. Wake Forest on the other hand is as good as anyone in the country in terms of knocking the ball around to create space that they can exploit. Both teams will have to remain organized and avoid getting flat on the defensive side of the ball.
It is true that big time playmakers come up with big plays in really big games so it is highly likely that Langsdorf and Baird and Bakero and Twumasi will figure prominently in the outcome of the contest either through a goal or assist. Give Stanford a slight edge up top, give Wake Forest an edge in the midfield, give Stanford an edge in the backline, and Wake Forest a slight edge in goal. Stanford will have an advantage out of set pieces and Wake Forest an advantage in terms of possession.
Combine all of that and you have the makings of a nail-biter that could very well go either way.
#5 seed Akron (18-3-1) vs. #4 seed Louisville (13-2-4)
Where – Dr. Mark and Cindy Lynn Stadium, Louisville, Kentucky
When – Friday, December 1, 2017 – 7 p.m.
Background – Louisville is one of three teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference in the Elite Eight. The Cardinals are no stranger to the Elite Eight having played their way into it five times in the past eight seasons and for the second year in a row. Last year Stanford defeated the then #4 seeded Cardinals 2-0 in the Elite Eight despite Louisville having a 12-6 advantage in shots. Louisville will be seeking to return to the College Cup (Final Four) for the first time since the 2010 season when they were topped by Akron 1-0 in the national championship contest.
Akron is one of only five programs to qualify for a berth in the NCAA Tournament in each of the past ten seasons. The Zips last advanced to the College Cup in 2015. Akron has fared well against ACC teams with wins over Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Notre Dame this year.
The Skinny – The old saying that the best defense is a good offense will likely come into play in this match. Both teams are at their best on the defensive side of the ball when they have a total team effort that begins with pressure up-top. This matchup has the potential to have more shots than any of the Elite Eight contests. Akron has averaged 14.5 shots per game as compared to 7.3 for opponents. Louisville has averaged 11.8 shots per contest while holding opponents to an average of 7.6.
Both teams have shown the ability to score in multiples during a short span of time. Lapses in play will therefore be costly. Both of these teams will seek to control the tempo of the contest as neither wants to have to play from behind and chase the game.
Key Factors – Junior midfielder Tate Schmitt (9g, 3a), senior forward Mohamed Thiaw (8g, 2a) and senior back Tim Kubel (6g, 7a) have been the big producers on the offensive side of the ball for Louisville. All three have big play ability. The play of redshirt freshman netminder and freshman back Ziyad Fekri looks to be an X-Factor for Louisville on the defensive side of the ball.
Akron is powered on the offensive side of the ball by senior forwards Stuart Holthusen (12g, 3a) and Sam Gainford (10g, 5a). Look for that duo to press the attack for Akron. Sophomore Nick Hinds (6g, 4a) and redshirt senior midfielder Manuel Cordeiro (2g, 5a) are among others who add additional punch to an Akron offense that has netted a total of fifty goals. The play of freshman center back Joao Moutinho and freshman back Daniel Strachan looks to be an X-Factor on the defensive side of the ball for Akron.
Bottom Line – This contest will no doubt have ebbs and flows which means that the team that is able to maintain their composure and play through the pressure will prevail. The ability to put together a full ninety minutes of play is a requirement when two teams with the talent and tradition that these programs have clash with a trip to the College Cup on the line.
Whoever scores first and is able to take their opponent out of their rhythm will have a huge advantage. Look for the teams to play conservatively at first but then again both are very capable of coming out from the get-go and trying to secure the upper hand. Fasten your seat belts for what looks to be an action-packed match as one would expect when a number four seed and a number five seed tangle.
#7 seed Michigan State (13-3-3) vs. #2 seed Indiana (17-0-5)
Where – Jerry Yeagley Field at Bill Armstrong Stadium – Bloomington, Indiana
When – Friday, December 1 – 7 p.m.
Background – These two Big Ten teams met back on October 29 in East Lansing in a contest that ended in a 1-1 tie. Both goals in that one came out of a penalty kick.
Indiana has earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament thirty-one straight seasons and have advanced to the College Cup eighteen times. However, this is the first year that the Hoosiers have advanced to the Elite Eight since the 2012 season.
Michigan State is making its third Elite Eight appearance in the last five seasons and the first since the 2014 season. The Spartans’ season has come to an end in the Elite Eight in all three of those appearances.
IU head coach Todd Yeagley has done an excellent job this year of reengineering the Hoosier attack and in merging his newcomers in with returning players. Michigan State head coach Damon Rensing has also done a great job of merging together the individual talents of his players into a unified and very determined team.
The Skinny – Both teams have been solid on the defensive side of the ball. Indiana has allowed a total of only five goals while Michigan State has allowed twelve. Four of the twelve came in a 4-1 loss to Akron back on September 27. Indiana has been impressive on both sides of the ball all year having found the back of the net forty-seven times while allowing only five goals.
Key Factors – Forwards Ryan Sierakowski (8g, 3a) and DeJuan Jones (7g, 5a) have provided the firepower in the Michigan State attack having a combined eight game-winners among them. The Michigan State backline of Jimmy Fiscus, Michael Pimlott, Brad Centala, John Freitag, and Michael Wetungu and goalkeeper Jimmy Hague are capable of keeping the Indiana attack in check but the flood gates could open it they have to chase the game.
Freshman forward Mason Toye (10g, 2a) has been a difference maker on the offensive side of the ball for the Hoosiers contributing five game-winners. Midfielders Cory Thomas (7g, 3a), Trevor Swartz (3g, 7a) and Autin Panchot (4g, 4a) are among those who add balance to the attack and have made IU a much more difficult team to contain than at times in the past.
The Indiana backline of senior Grant Lillard and juniors Andrew Gutman, Rece Buckmaster, and Timmy Mehl is experienced and among the best if not the best in the country. Freshman Trey Muse has been solid in goal for Indiana but he could be the X-Factor for Indiana should the game be decided by a penalty kick shootout.
The Bottom Line – In order for Michigan State to prevail they will have to play their best game of the year which will require a total team effort on both sides of the ball. The Spartans margin for error is small. That means that Sierakowski and Jones will have to make an impact up-top and keep the Indiana defense from settling in and others like midfielders Giuseppe Barone and Ken Krolicki and defender Brad Centala will need to add balance to the attack.
Michigan State has tended to come out weak at times this year. They will have to avoid that if they hope to leave Bloomington with a win. If they allow Indiana to get the upper hand early on it could be a difficult evening for the Spartans.
On the other hand, Indiana has never trailed in a game all year. While that is a good thing, it could also prove to be problematic should they fall behind and have to chase the game.
If the Hoosiers play to their potential they should prevail. However, if Indiana is unable to put Michigan State away and the contest goes to a penalty kick shootout the playing field is even.
Fordham (14-5-3) vs. #3 seed North Carolina (16-3-1)
Where – WakeMed Soccer Park – Cary, North Caolina
When – Saturday, December 2 – 6 p.m.
Background – It is a real accomplishment but not a surprise for North Carolina to be playing in and hosting a contest in the Elite Eight. The Tar Heels have advanced to this point in the NCAA Tourney in eight out of the past ten seasons. UNC mentor Carolos Somoano, the active winning percentage leader among Division I head coaches, continues to do an excellent job of attracting talented team oriented players to Chapel Hill.
Fordham, the only non-seeded team in the Elite Eight, has had a banner season during which they secured their first ever win in the NCAA Tournament by topping St. Francis Brooklyn in the first round of play and have advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time in the history of the program via a 1-0 win over #11 seed Virginia in Charlottesville and by advancing past #6 seed Duke in a penalty kick shootout after the contest was tied 2-2 at the conclusion off regulation and overtime.
The Skinny – No one expected Fordham to still be standing at this point in the Tourney. The Rams showed a ton of grit in coming from behind twice to top St. Francis Brooklyn 3-2 on the road in overtime, by defeating Virginia 1-0 while allowing the Cavaliers only five shots, and by twice coming from a goal down to knot the score in the contest with Duke.
Accordingly, Fordham is playing with house money so to speak which could give them the edge if it enables them to settle into their rhythm early. On the other hand, North Carolina has been here before so that experience could give them the advantage in terms of not getting caught up in the pressure that goes with playing for the right to earn a trip to the College Cup.
Fordham has already advanced past two seeded teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference so that should put the Tar Heels on notice that this is a very talented Fordham team which they can’t take lightly.
Key Factors – Janos Loebe (7g, 9a) and Jannik Loebe (8g, 4a) are the go-to guys in the Fordham attack. Both have big play ability. Senior back Matthew Lewis, sophomore back Joergen Oland, and junior goalkeeper Rashid Nuhu anchor a bend but don’t break Ram defense.
Ten different players have scored two or more goals for a multi-dimensional Tar Heel attack that has produced a total of fifty-one goals and features Alan Winn (10g, 2a), Jelani Pieters (9g, 7a), Cam Lindley (7g, 12a) and Zach Wright (3g, 10a). Redshirt junior James Pyle who missed a large portion of the season due to injury is back in the lineup to anchor the UNC defense and to give the Tar Heels a veteran presence in regard to NCAA Tournament play in goal.
The Bottom Line – The Tar Heels are very effective at changing the point of attack in order to create the space they need to attack at speed and find a seam in the defense that they can exploit. North Carolina midfielder Cam Lindley is the catalyst in the center of the park for the Tar Heels.
The Loebe brothers add playmaking ability to the Fordham attack. The Rams have demonstrated that they can come from behind to win. As a result, North Carolina can’t take their foot off the gas if they expect to prevail.
The longer the Rams hang around in the contest the greater their chances of an upset. Having said that, the Tar Heels need to play with patience, and take advantage of the scoring opportunities that will come their way, while keeping their shape in the back to avoid allowing a goal out of a counter attack as Virginia did.
Look for North Carolina to attack from the get-go and pull away as the contest progresses unless they give up an early goal in which case they could become the third team from the ACC to fall prey to Fordham.