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.