Only eight schools are left standing in the 2014 Men's NCAA Soccer Tournament as the road to the College Cup at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina continues. College Soccer News takes a look at each of the four contests on tap this weekend, discusses the critical success factors, and ventures a prediction.
The Game – #16 seeded Virginia (12-6-4) vs. #8 seeded Georgetown (14-4-4)
The Date and Place – Saturday, December 6. Shaw Field in Washington, D.C.
Conferences – Virginia (ACC) – Georgetown (Big East)
The Road – Virginia defeated UNCW 3-1 at home and number one seeded Notre Dame on the road. Georgetown slipped past Old Dominion 2-1 in overtime at home and topped number nine seeded Syracuse 3-2 in overtime.
The Skinny –
Virginia is a veteran team with plenty of big game experience. The Cavaliers are seeking to advance to the College Cup for the second consecutive season. The Cavaliers found a way to top UNCW and Notre Dame without the services of midfielder Eric Bird who was injured in the first minute of their game with UNCW. Bird is the Cavalier team leader and the guy who has been at the heart of their offense throughout the season. Not having a healthy Bird in the lineup takes a bite out of the Cavalier attack and means that others like his replacement redshirt freshman Pablo Aguilar, sophomore midfielder Nicko Corriveau and junior forward Darius Madison will have to fill the void in order for Virginia to have a chance to prevail. Virginia will likely stick with the same or at least a very similar game plan against Georgetown that they executed to perfection in their win over Notre Dame in the Sweet Sixteen. Look for Virginia to seek to contain on defense and not allow Georgetown to control the tempo of the game. The Virginia backline of seniors Matt Brown and Kyler Sullivan and redshirt freshman Sheldon Sullivan can't get caught ball watching and will have to play pretty much mistake proof soccer in order to win. The Cavaliers have great touch on the ball, they are quick, and they play well together as a team. Last year Virginia had all that plus a level of toughness that played a key role in enabling them to advance to the College Cup. They have exhibited that same toughness in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament which is a real positive. Virginia will need to focus on halting the Georgetown attack while seeking to strategically create and then finish the limited number of scoring opportunities that are likely to come their way.
Georgetown on the other hand has to press the attack while staying in shape defensively and remaining alert and ready to quickly transition when Virginia counters at speed. The Hoya attack may be the most intimidating in the NCAA Tourney with forwards Brandon Allen and Alex Muyl and midfielders Arun Basuljevic and Austin Martz all very capble playmakers who would likely be the best player for most team's offense. Juniors Keegan Rosenberry, Cole Seiler and Josh Turnley and sophomore Hermann Trophy semifinalist Joshua Yara and senior goalkeeper Tomas Gomez anchor a Georgetown defense that has only allowed a total of fourteen goals to date. Georgetown is a highly regarded and very good team with two good NCAA Tourney wins this year to advance to the Elite Eight but a case could be made that the since the 2012 season when they advanced to the National Championship game they have tended to not play to their potential in the really big contests. In 2013 Georgetown was eliminated in penalty kicks in the Big East Conference semifinals and the sixth seeded Hoyas were upset by eleventh seeded Michigan State in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. This year Georgetown fell to Xavier 1-0 in the semifinals of the Big East Conference Tournament.
Prognosis – A case could be made that both teams are peaking at the right time but clearly the loss of Bird hurts Virginia's chances even though it seems to have galvanized their resolve. Georgetown seems to be equally determined to win and they now have the X-Factor of restarts on their side with two in the win over Syracuse after going all year without scoring out of a corner. Virginia is not great at chasing the game and will have to make this a 1-0 game in order to survive. We're going to hedge a bit by saying that this one could go either way but all things considered the multi-dimensional threat of Allen, Muyal, and company on the offensive side of the ball and the home field advantage should give Georgetown the edge they need to come out on top and punch their ticket to the 2014 College Cup.
The Game – UMBC (14-5-4) vs. number twelve seeded Creighton (16-3-2)
The Date and Place – Friday, December 5. Morrison Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska
Conferences – UMBC (America East) – Creighton (Big East)
The Road – UMBC advanced past Wake Forest after a scoreless contest in penalty kicks, they defeated number four seeded Maryland 1-0 on the road, and they topped number thirteen seeded Louisville 1-0 on the road. Creighton defeated Oregon State 1-0 at home and topped Xavier 2-1 at home.
The Skinny –
UMBC is sailing in unchartered waters having never advanced this far in the NCAA Tournament before. With that said, UMBC has beaten three good teams thus far and is a very well coached team under the direction of Pete Caringi Jr. The Retrievers have not allowed a goal in their three NCAA Tournament games to date. UMBC is a very dangerous senior driven team with a lot of players on their roster who have been winners for a number of years. They have a belief that they won't lose and talented and experienced players like back Oumar Ballo, defender Marquez Fernandez, midfielders Mamadou Kansaye and Geaton Caltabiano and forward Kay Banjo who are the real deal. Red-shirt sophomore Billy Heavner who became a starter midway through the 2014 season has been very impressive in goal. Veteran UMBC head coach Pete Caringi stated, "These guys are used to winning. I am not surprised. We are a very confident team and don't feel like we're done."
Creighton is probably the most consistent team in the country. They know what they need to do to win and are solid everywhere in the starting eleven with a stellar defense that has allowed only eleven goals to date. They're extremely organized with great spacing everywhere on the field. No one has a better resume when it comes to the NCAA tournament time that Creighton head coach Elmar Bolowich and his team's always have a tendency to play well in big games. Fabian Herbers and Timo Pitter are prime time playmakers on the offensive side of the ball and account for half of the thirty-two goals the Bluejay attack has produced so far this year.
Prognosis – Creighton is always tough at home and is built on being tough to score against. Whoever scores first has to be a heavy favorite and frigid temperatures could make playing difficult in this one. Cinderella UMBC will not be intimidated and will seek to keep dancing but they have the challenge of doing so on what many believe to be the nation's toughest dance floor. The big issue is whether or not Creighton can solve UMBC's packed in defensive scheme. If the Retrievers pack it in and have no mental lapses, they could knock a goal in on a counter and leave Omaha with a win. All things considered, it is hard to see Creighton losing this one in the friendly confines of Morrison Stadium. Give UMBC their due for what they have accomplished but look for the Bluejays to prevail and to advance to the College Cup for the third season in the four that Elmar Bolowich has been the head coach at Creighton.
The Game – #11 seeded Providence (15-4-2) vs. #3 seeded Michigan State (12-4-6)
The Date and Place – Saturday, December 6. DeMartin Stadium in East Lansing, Michigan
Conferences – Providence (Big East) – Michigan State (Big Ten)
The Road – Providence defeated Dartmouth 3-0 at home and U.C. Irvine 1-0 at home. Michigan State topped Oakland 1-0 at home and advanced past number fourteen seeded Washington in penalty kicks after the two teams ended overtime tied 2-2.
The Skinny –
Providence is also sailing in unchartered waters having never advanced to the Elite Eight in the history of the program before. The Friars have had a banner season under the direction of head coach Craig Stewart who is just in his third season at the helm of the program. However, Stewart is no stranger to the big stage having taken Division II Franklin Pierce University to the Final Four at the Division II level. Providence won the Big East Championship for the first time in the history of the program this year and their fifteen wins has established a new single season high for the program. This is a very well organized team with a very balanced and multi-dimensional attack that features Markus Naglestad (10g, 2a), Mac Steeves (9g, 2a), Fabio Machado (5g, 7a) and Julian Gressel (5g, 5a). The Friars have only been average on the road this year, but with that said they're riding a five game win streak during which time they have only allowed two goals.
Michigan State displayed mettle and composure in one of the biggest comebacks of the tournament when they came back from two goals down to tie Washington and eventfully prevailed in a penalty kick shootout, but up until the last twenty minutes of regulation they didn't look very sharp. With that said, the Spartans have recorded thirteen clean sheets with a defense anchored by junior goalkeeper Zach Bennett and backs Jimmy Fiscus, Zach Carrol and Ryan Keener. They also have one of the premier defensive midfielders in the country in Falai Alashe who can really control a game. Junior midfielder Jay Chapman and forwards Adam Montague and Tim Kreutz power a balanced Spartan attack that has scored a total of twenty-nine goals.
Prognosis – This one has grind potential with no prisioners taken. Both of these teams pride themselves in rugged play designed to disrupt their opponents rhythm. As a result it will be interesting to see which team will be able to play with poise and settle in and establish their own rhythm. The potential exists for this to end up being a back and forth game with both teams holding the ball for long periods of time. Michigan State has the advantage of "being there before" and the Spartans are focused on getting over the Elite Eight hump and into the College Cup. But don't expect Providence or their head coach Craig Stewart to be starry eyed as Stewart will have his team composed and ready to play. Providence is on a nice run but Michigan State will be the toughest test for them so far in the tournament. The Spartans will need to play better than they did against Washington. If Michigan State can put together a full ninety minutes of solid play they should come out on top and advance to the College Cup but if they don't they could be in trouble. Look for Providence to keep it close in the early going but for Michigan State to take control in the second stanza and secure the win.
The Game – North Carolina (15-5-1) vs. #2 seeded UCLA (13-4-4)
The Date and Place – Saturday, December 6. Marshall Field at Drake Stadium. Los Angeles, California
Conferences – North Carolina (Atlantic Coast) – UCLA (Pac-12)
The Road – North Carolina defeated James Madison 6-0 at home, they defeated number ten seeded Charlotte 2-1 on the road, and number seven seeded Clemson 2-1 on the road. UCLA defeated San Diego 2-1 in overtime at home and number fifteen seeded California 3-2 at home.
The Skinny –
North Carolina – The Tar Heels lead the country with forty-nine goals. Fifth-year senior forwards Andy Craven (14g, 5a), Tyler Engel (7g, 5a), and Rob Lovejoy (5g, 8a) are proven finishers. North Carolina is playing its best soccer of the year right now and is playing like they have something to prove. If the Tar Heels are on their game they have the ability to beat anyone in the country. Backs Jonathan Campbell, Boyd Okwuonu, and Walker Hume and goalkeeper Brendan Moore give North Carolina a defense that is as tenacious as any in the country.
UCLA – The Bruins have played two very close games in the tournament thus far and only in the first stanza of play against California did they really look like the dominant UCLA team that they are capable of being. Senior midfielder Leo Stolz is considered by many to be the best player in college soccer this year. Stolz has the ability to take control of a game and could very well be the difference maker from here on out for the Bruins. The fact that the three players who scored the goals for UCLA in their win over California, Chase Gasper, Brian Iloski, and Jordan Vale, scored their first goals of the year tells you that this team is finding ways to win. Freshman forward Abu Danladi is a force on the offensive side of the ball and adds an additional dimension to UCLA's attack. Earl Edwards, Jr. gives the Bruins a very composed, talented and experienced presence in goal.
The Prognosis – UCLA topped North Carolina 1-0 when the two teams faced each other in Chapel Hill back on August 31. That one has no real meaning at this time. The UCLA – UNC matchup is the most intriguing and potentially the most exciting contest in the Elite Eight. The Bruins will be playing at home, a place they've only lost once the entire year. UNC knows that a win puts them into the College Cup which will be played near Chapel Hill at the WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina. That no doubt is extra motivation for the Tar Heels. This one shapes up to be a real battle and could come down to which of the big play guys on both teams is able to come up with the big play needed to give his team the edge. On the offensive side of the ball that would be midfielder Leo Stolz and forward Abu Danladi for the Bruins and forwards Andy Craven, Rob Lovejoy and Tyler Engel or midfielder Omar Holness for North Carolina. Both teams have outstanding and extremely talented goalkeepers, Brendan Moore for North Carolina and Earl Edwards, Jr. for the Bruins, who are very capable of making the big saves needed to keep their teams in a match. Look for both teams to push the tempo and seek to maintain possession in the attacking third to take advantage of the talent they both have up-top. With three fifth-year senior attackers and a fifth-year senior goalkeeper playing with senior desperation the Tar Heels are going to be tough to beat. Traveling cross country is a big disadvantage but chances are pretty good that North Carolina will pull off the upset.