It's Maryland. The Terps Edge Akron 1-0 to Win The 2018 National Championship

Santa Barbara proved to be a worthy venue for the 2018 National Championship contest.  In addition to a great environment, the sky was clear and the field was in great condition. The weather was not a factor in the match. 

This one was special because it featured two teams that stayed the course despite some early season challenges.  Both teams displayed a lot of grit to get to Sunday's Championship game. Both could have taken their eye off the prize and settled for an average campaign but instead played through the challenges they faced and grew stronger from them. Clearly neither Akron or Maryland fall into the Cinderella category since both programs have had a lot of success on the national scene but both had to dig deep to reinvent themselves midway through the season in order to punch their ticket to Santa Barbara.    

Every team in the country has a tipping point of some sort during the season that either propels or derails their progress.  In retrospect, the tipping point for both Akron and Maryland occurred on October 16.  For Akron,  it was a 1-0 win over then highly ranked Creighton followed by a 2-1 wake up call loss on the road to Northern Illinois that ignited the Zips.  For Maryland, it was a 1-0 win at College Park over highly ranked Denver in which the Terps seemed to come together as a team on both sides of the ball.

In the Championship Contest Sunday night, both teams applied pressure in an effort to create space that they could exploit.  A possession and attack oriented Akron side sought to break the code on the Maryland defense by switching the point of attack and through diagonal runs.  Maryland sought to put together combinations that would unlock the Akron defense but for the evening their approach was more direct as they sought to find an open seam that they could run into.

This one could have gone either way but in the end Maryland made the plays that they needed to make on both sides of the ball to secure the programs' fourth national title and third (2005, 2008, 2018) under head coach Sasho Cirovski.  "I could not be more proud of this group," Cirovski stated.  "We talked about this being a big moment for our program. They were pushed and hardened after a challenging schedule. And now, they're jewels." 

It was a total team effort for a Maryland side that didn't allow a goal during the entire tournament.  Nonetheless, the impact of center back Donovan Pines, senior midfielder Amar Sejdic, sophomore back Ben Di Rosa, senior defensive midfielder Andrew Samuels, and freshman forward William James Herve warrant comment.    

Pines was the enforcer on the defensive side of the ball for the Terps much like Brandon Vincent was in 2015 and Tomas Hillard-Arce in 2016 and 2017 for Stanford.  Pines also created havoc when he pushed forward for Terp corners or free kicks.  Sejdic, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the College Cup,  was the catalyst on the offensive side of the ball for the Terps. 

In every College Cup someone unexpected steps forward to make several big plays.  DiRosa was that guy this year.  Samuels deserves mention simply because the contribution that he makes is so vital and should not be overlooked.   Herve, who hails from France, was the newcomer in the group. The shake and bake that he brought to the pitch added a needed additional dimension to the Maryland attack.

It was a disappointing loss but another highly successful season for an Akron team whose run to the Championship Contest featured wins over Wake Forest and Stanford on the road and a win over Michigan State in the semifinals of the College Cup. 

Akron head coach Jared Embick and his staff once again did a great job of retooling a team that lost four out of its five top goal scorers from the 2017 squad as well as several key defenders.  Embick pretty much summed things up when he stated, "We struggled, learned, fought and never gave up.  We showed that adversity is rewarding." 

Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski was making his ninth appearance in the College Cup.  Cirovski is a competitor but throughout the weekend he was relaxed and truly seemed to be enjoying the experience of being with his team once again on the biggest stage in college soccer.  It was clear that he was confident that his team was prepared to play. That alone was a good reason to Fear the Turtle.


It is Maryland and Akron for the National Championship on Sunday - Only Two Teams Left Standing

Akron (15-6-2) and Maryland (12-6-4) will face each other on Sunday night with the 2018 National Championship on the line.  Both teams advanced to the national finals with convincing wins Friday night.  

Akron dominated Michigan State 5-1.  This one-side match had a totally unexpected margin of victory.  Akron’s high-powered attack totally overwhelmed a Spartan defense that had previously allowed an average of only 0.77 goals per game including only two in their four NCAA Tournament wins.   

The contest remained scoreless until the fifteenth minute when Akron forward David Egbo sent the rebound of Morgan Hackworth’s header back into the frame to give the Zips the early lead that they never relinquished.  Michigan State had opportunities to score early in the match that might have created a different pace in the contest had they been able to finish them.  But they didn’t.  When Akron is able to gain the upper hand, they are very capable of scoring in multiples as they demonstrated Friday night. 

Freshman defender Carlo Ritaccio scored in the thirty-second minute to give Akron a 2-0 advantage at intermission.  Skye Harter made it 3-0 when he clinically drove a shot into the upper right-hand corner of the frame from outside the box in the fifty-third minute.  Junior forward Marcel Zajac made a nice move off the dribble to find the angle he needed to make it 4-0 in the sixty-fifth minute.  Sophomore defender Patrick Nelson converted a header out of a corner kick for Michigan State in the seventy-ninth minute to prevent the shutout.  Redshirt freshman Braden Petno added the fifth and final Akron goal of the evening in the eighty-fifth minute of play. 

Michigan State (14-5-4) is a much better team than the score indicated but for the night this one was all Akron.  The fact that this Michigan State team was able to advance to the College Cup leaves a legacy of success and experience that will benefit the program in future seasons.

In the second semifinal Friday night, the third time proved to be a charm for a Maryland side that had been on the short end of a 2-1 loss to Indiana in regular season play as well as in a match with Indiana that was decided by a penalty kick shootout in the Big Ten Tournament.  

The Terps came out of the gate on the front foot displaying the trademark Maryland fifteen minutes of very high pressure.  It proved to set the pace and it was clear from the get-go that the Terps were going to bring the heat.  

Indiana weathered the storm and it appeared that the momentum might switch to the Hoosiers but that was not the case.  Maryland abruptly gained the upper hand in the thirty-seventh minute of the contest when sophomore Matt Di Rosa came off the pine and scored out of a corner kick to give the Terps a 1-0 lead.  The goal gave Maryland both a physical and mental boost.

The Hoosiers had to chase from that point forward and a bend but don’t break Maryland defense anchored by backs Donavan Pines, Johannes Bergmann, Ben Di Rosa and Chase Gasper and goalkeeper Dayne St. Clair was able to keep Indiana from finding the back of the net.  Pines, who was a factor on both sides of the ball for Maryland, scored the insurance goal out of a free kick in the seventy-ninth minute of the match. 

It was a heartbreaking end for an Indiana (20-3-1) team that has been outstanding all season. The Hoosiers appeared, particularly in the second half of play, to be just one pass away from breaking through on several occasions. 

The landscape of college soccer can change.  One of the storylines of the evening has to be the fact that just a few weeks ago it seemed highly unlikely that Akron and Maryland would be the last two teams standing.  Regardless, both advanced to the final because they beat the best. 

Akron’s road to the championship contest included a 1-0 win over number one seed Wake Forest in Winston-Salem and number nine seed and three-time defending national champion Stanford 3-2 on the road.  Maryland’s path included a 2-0 win over number six seed Duke in Durham and a 1-0 win over number three seed Kentucky in Lexington as well as the 2-0 win over number two seed Indiana.

The runs that both teams made were impressive but nonetheless improbable.  Akron finished regular season play in the MAC in the number four spot behind West Virginia, Bowling Green, and Western Michigan.  Maryland finished regular season play in the Big Ten in the number five spot behind Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan State and Michigan.  That’s not where either program normally finishes in regular season conference play.

Akron was 7-6-2 overall at the end of regular season play and 10-6-2 after the MAC Tournament.  Their resurgence began just before the MAC Tournament and now includes nine straight wins.

Maryland was 7-6-3 overall at the end of regular season play and 8-6-4 after the Big Ten Tournament. Their resurgence began during the latter part of October. The Terps have won eight out of their last ten games with one tie and one loss.       

Perhaps the turnaround that both programs have experienced can be explained in part by the fact that both programs began the season with significant gaps to fill in key roles which created a learning curve.  It is also significant that despite the losses, neither team played poorly in the early going nor was there a lack of effort or talent.  The difference between winning and losing can be very small, particularly when you have a dance card that included the level of competition that both Akron and Maryland faced.    

Some teams are not able to recover when they begin the season with less than impressive win-loss records.  It clearly helped that both Akron and Maryland have winning traditions, are well coached, and had talented rosters.  Adjustments were made, the newcomers settled in, the veterans set the pace, and things began to fall into place.

Soccer can be a cruel sport.  Veteran Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski and Akron head coach Jared Embick would likely be among the first to tell you that.  Both have enjoyed a lot of success but both know that things don’t always work out as expected. 

Fortunately, regardless of the outcome Sunday night, 2018 will be a season in which things have worked out well for both Akron and Maryland.  Both have overcome adversity - stayed the course - and it has paid off for them. 

The contest will be carried live from Santa Barbara on ESPNU at eight pm eastern standard time.  It should be a dandy.       

Seven Intangibles That Will Have An Impact On The Outcome Of The College Cup

The Tale of the Tape provided a statistical comparison of the four participants in the 2018 College Cup.  Now it's time to take a look at seven important intangibles that can come into play when the margin for error is small.  

Senior leadership – It can be a difference maker when playing on the biggest stage in college soccer.     

Akron – Defenders Morgan Hackworth and Adbi Mohamed and goalkeeper Ben Lundt are among the seniors in the starting lineup. 

Michigan State – Goalkeeper Jimmy Hague, forwards Ryan Sierakowski and DeJuan Jones, midfielder Robbie Cort and backs John Freitag and Connor Corrigan are among the seniors who provide leadership.  

Maryland – Forward Sebastian Elney, midfielder Amar Sejdic, defensive midfielder Andrew Samuels, and defender Chase Gasper are among the Terps who are in key roles.  

Indiana – Defender Andrew Gutman and defensive midfielder Francisco Moore are among a large group of seniors who set the pace for the Hoosiers.

Freshmen in Key roles – They now have a year of starting experience under their belts but nonetheless this is their first rodeo. 

Akron – Defenders Carlo Ritaccio, Marco Milanese, and Poi Hernandez and midfielders Colin Bioro (3g, 3a) and Sam Tojaga (0g, 3a) have been starters.

Michigan State – Midfielder Jack Beck (3g, 2a) and forward Farai Mutatu (3g, 3a) play key roles.   

Maryland – Midfielder William James Herve (3g, 3a) is the lone freshman in the starting lineup.

Indiana – Defender Jack Maher is the lone freshman in the starting lineup.

Momentum – Having the wind at your back is always a plus. 

Akron – No one has had a more difficult road to Santa Barbara than the Zips who had to top number one seed Wake Forest in Winston Salem and three-time defending champion Stanford on the road to punch their ticket to Santa Barbara.  That is a real confidence builder.

Michigan State – This is the first time since the 1968 season that the Spartans have advanced to the College Cup.  This senior lead team is focused on making the most out of the opportunity that they have been provided.  Michigan State is playing their best soccer of the year.  

Maryland – The Terps are back on track and playing Maryland soccer.  They are peaking at the right time. This is a team that is eager to establish that it is wise to Fear the Turtle.

Indiana – The Hoosiers were defeatded 1-0 in overtime last year by Stanford in the National Championship contest. Indiana has taken things one step at a time to get back to the College Cup.  They have had a banner season to date.  A National Championship has been the end goal all year.

Overall Experience - Composure is a plus.

Akron – This is a relatively young Akron side with only five upperclassmen in the starting lineup. 

Michigan State – This is a veteran Spartan team with ten upperclassmen in the starting lineup including six seniors.

Maryland – Nine of the starters are upper classmen with seven of them multi-year starters.

Indiana – Seven seniors are in the starting lineup.  Nine starters returned from the team that played for the national championship last year.   

Combinations – They impact possession and create scoring opportunities.

Akron – Forwards David Egbo and Marcel Zajac and midfielder Skye Harter work very well together.

Michigan State – Forwards Ryan Sierakowski (8g, 5a), DeJuan Jones (5g, 5a), Hunter Barone (3g, 3a) and midfielder Giuseppe Barone (3g, 10a) are a fine tuned machine.  

Maryland – Midfielder Amar Sejdic (6g, 0a) and forwards Paul Bin (4g, 2a), and Sebastian Elney (3g, 2a) do a great job of putting together sequences that create scoring opportunities.

Indiana – Midfielders Trevor Swartz (1g, 16a), Austin Panchot (5g, 4a), and Griffin Dorsey (5g, 5a), back Andrew Gutman (11g, 9a) and forward Justin Rennicks (6g, 0a) are often involved in possessions that create scoring opportunities.  

Hunger.  Being talented and hungry makes a team dangerous. 

Akron – No one thought this Akron team would still be standing at this point in the tourney.  They are a team with a continued appetite to show just how good they are.   

Michigan State – The Spartans have had a bit of an up and down season that included a 2-1 loss to Akron back on October 9.  They are now on a roll and look to be hungry for more success.   

Maryland – The Terps were disappointed when they lost to Indiana in the Big Ten Tournament in a game that required penalty kicks to determine who advanced after the contest was tied 1-1 at the end of 110 minutes of play.  Maryland is salivating to have another shot at the Hoosiers.

Indiana – It is pretty simple.  This team is determined to claim the national championship.

The play between the pipes.  No position has a greater impact on the outcome of the College Cup than the goalkeeper.  All four netminders are outstanding goalkeepers.        

Akron – Senior Ben Lundt.  Three-year starter.  6’6” netminder   A 2018 Second Team All-MAC selection.  Played in the College Cup in 2017.

Michigan State – RS Senior Jimmy Hague.  Three-year starter. 6’4’’ netminder.   A 2018 Second Team All-Big Ten selection.  Eleventh best goals against average in the country .655.  First appearance in the College Cup.

Maryland – RS Junior Dayne St. Clair.  Two-year starter.  6’4” netminder.  Nineteenth best goals against average in the country .715.  First appearance in the College Cup.  

Indiana – Sophomore Trey Muse – Two-year starter. 6’4” netminder.  2018 Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year.  Third best goals against average in the country .478.  Played in the College Cup in 2017.