CARY, N.C. -- The DI men’s soccer final four teams squared off Friday night with the opportunity for history to be made. Two underdogs had the chance to prove they belonged and win the first championship for their respective schools. Instead, two teams accustomed to appearing in the finals moved forward into Sunday's championship match, which will pit Virginia against UCLA.
The table is set with two of the sport's elite powerhouses going head to head on Sunday at noon ET from WakeMed Soccer Park. There are a combined 10 national titles coming into the game; Virginia will be looking for its seventh, while UCLA is aiming to take home its fifth. The two teams took very different routes to get there, however.
Virginia made it with a 1-0 win against UMBC. The feel-good story leading up to the College Cup, UMBC made its name with a stifling defense that didn’t allow a single goal the entire tournament. Five minutes into Friday’s semifinal against Virginia, that streak was broken. The Cavaliers struck early and it was all that they needed as they settled in and did what they do best: defend the ball. Darius Madison played the hero and set the tone right from the get go.Madison scored on an assist from Pablo Aguilar from about six yards out on the left side. UMBC red-shirt sophomore keeper Billy Heavner came out to defend, and Madison snuck it past him as it crossed into the net. The goal changed the whole tone of the game.
“I think it did wonders for us,” Madison said. “We’re always a defensive team first and it allowed us to sit back, relax, and focus on our technique.”
Following the goal, Virginia was able to sit back and defend the UMBC attack for essentially the next 85 minutes. For much of the second half, UMBC controlled the ball on Virginia’s side of the field, but the Cavaliers were able to close every passing lane and force questionable shots. The Retrievers had nine corner-kick opportunities on the night, but converted none.
“The corners, a couple of them got a little hairy, especially in the first half,” Coach George Gelnovatch said. “I think in the second half we dealt with them much better. But the corners were coming as a result of the crosses, us trying to clear them, and statistically speaking if you have a team that’s committed to defending like we are and you’re crossing the ball all the time, I like our odds. It’s just the way it is. We did a very, very good job dealing with that.”
After Virginia punched its ticket to the finals on Sunday, the Hoos had to sit back patiently and await their opponent. The second game of the evening was quite the opposite of the defensive war of attrition in Game 1. UCLA and Providence were in an offensive slugfest that took almost two overtimes to decide. In the end, Providence’s magical run came to an unexpected halt 3-2 in double overtime.
There was a lot of action on both ends in the first half. Providence threatened twice, once a Mac Steeves shot that was defended by keeper Earl Edwards, Jr. and once the fancy footwork of Fabiano Machado was saved in an almost own-goal by the Bruins. UCLA sent five shots at the Friars (four on goal) that Keasel Broome was able to defend all but one.
Freshman Abu Danladi, who put together a solid debut season finishing second on the Bruins in points, tore through defenders down the right side of the field and gave it up to recently substituted Larry Ndjock. Ndjock sent a bullet at the Friars keeper, but Broome blocked it down only to see Ndjock stick with his shot and send his own rebound through the net for the first goal of the game with two minutes left in the half.
Fifteen minutes into the second half, the fireworks began. It became an all-out offensive battle with both teams relentless in front of the other’s net. Providence got the show started tying it up.Mac Steeves had been a menace for Providence throughout the first half. In the second half, he and teammate Thomas Ballenthin used their hulking size to their advantage. Senior co-captain Phil Towler got the ball to Ballenthin, who crossed it to the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Steeves, who headed the ball in over a Bruin defender. It was the break the Friars were looking for and the momentum swung.
Just nine minutes later, Steeves struck again. Once again, Ballenthin assisted, crossing it from the left side. The ball would bounce around and ricochet off a Bruin's head right to an awaiting Steeves, who fired it off of Bruins Michael Amick and past Bruins keeper Earl Edwards, Jr. for the late 2-1 Friars lead.
“We scored some good goals all year through combination play,” Friars head coach Craig Stewart said. “Tom Ballentine is an attacking full back who looks to advance and he has a great left foot sending in a great ball with a great finish.”
But the show wasn’t over just yet. Brian Iloski of the Bruins pushed and pushed the ball deep into Providence territory and got it to the trusted foot of Danladi. He and Ndjock teamed up again for the equalizer. Danladi chipped it and it was deflected into the air, where Ndjock was waiting to head in the game-tying goal with under 10 minutes left in regulation.
Regulation ended in a tie, as did the first overtime session. Halfway through the second overtime, with the ball flying around the front of the Friars net, Bruins defenseman Chase Gasper fired the ball toward net. The ball flew through the air and deflected off Friars senior co-captain Brandon Adler past Broome for the decisive goal.
“We have great motivation for [Sunday’s] national championship game,” UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo said. “UCLA has very high standards -- we expect to win, we prepare to win. Now the we are here and get to participate in the national championship game tomorrow. We are excited about the opportunity, look forward to the game, and are really excited to play against the University of Virginia. We have a great admiration for their soccer program and the six national championships that they have won.
“You see a group this year,” Salcedo continued about his Bruins, “that is extremely unified, a team that understands what their roles are, a team that has an incredible will to win, a group of guys that absolutely care for each other on and off the field. They’ve been a huge delight to be around.”
The Bruins players and coaching staff know they will have there hands full. While UCLA has been in high-scoring duels thus far, they are now taking on one of the tightest defenses in the nation.
“Looking at Virginia,” Bruins defenseman Michael Amick said, “obviously they have talent up top. They are going to go forward, they are going to try and get after us with speed, and quality of play, so we will be ready for that tomorrow.”
“If I could have picked one team to play against it would have been Virginia,” Salcedo said. “The history we have against them in tournaments, the absolute respect I have for their program, they’re one of the best programs in the country and so are we. We like to get closer to their six championships by winning one tomorrow.”
In order for the Bruins to win, they say they need to attack and score first. Falling behind against a defense like Virginia could inevitably turn the tide of the game. That means UCLA’s defense will need to step up.
“I definitely think there are places that we need to improve,” Edwards, Jr. said on the defensive struggles in the postseason. “But luckily our attack has been able to step up for us and score more goals than we’ve given up. That being said, I think we are still staying strong to a lot of our strengths, not giving up as many goals as we could have. We’re still making plays and keeping the team in games. I think we are aiming for shutouts and we would like to get that result tomorrow but I think we’ve been doing what we need to do to get the job done.”Cavaliers coach George Gelnovatch is back in his comfort zone. Just last season the Cavaliers were in the College Cup, but they were bounced in the semifinals.
“It’s tough thing to do, this back-to-back College Cup year,” Gelnovatch said. “In the semifinals we were pretty disappointed. A lot of us are still here remembering that, we felt like we did enough to win that game. And that feeling we had afterward -- that’s been a lot of the discussion in the locker room. Now we’ve taken it a step further and put ourselves in a position for a national championship. It’s a special opportunity.”
Eric Bird, one of the leaders of this Cavaliers team, has been injured since their first game of the tournament. He was able to return for ten minutes on Friday night. If he could play in Sunday’s championship bout, it would be a tremendous lift for the Cavaliers.
“Fitness level it feels pretty good,” Eric Bird said on his injury. “I haven’t gotten a lot of game minutes, but in the ten minutes it felt good. I feel like the final game will be based on pure adrenaline so I’m counting on that to get me through.”
Though Bird was a spectator for much of the semifinal matchup, he continued to be the vocal leader to the Cavaliers. He sent a message to Darius Madison, who had struggled with injuries of his own for most of the season.
“I think [last night’s goal] was huge for Darius, because he’s a guy that relies greatly on his confidence and scoring a goal, especially early in the game can help him move forward.” Bird said. “I told him before the game, wipe the slate clean, let’s talk about tonight. The lights are shining bright and its your time to shine. He stepped up to the challenge and did excellent last night.”
The Cavaliers have made it this far on their shutdown defense. Calle Brown has come into his own as strong goal keeper and he knows that it is on him and his four backs to step up and deter the potent Bruins attack.
“[UCLA is] a dynamic team and we have to be ready for them.” keeper Calle Brown said. “[Virginia left back] Scott Thompson is a very comfortable person, steady, really good on the ball and is stout on defense. Sheldon [Sullivan] has been fun to play with this year. He’s fast and strong and doesn’t lose tackles and doesn’t get beat over the top very often. Matt Brown is basically the leader of the defense back there. And then Kyler, we call them the Ironmen of our team. Him and his brother [Sheldon] are very similar -- fast, strong, don’t get beat over the top and make very good tackles on the ball.”
Gelnovatch and Salcedo will likely have more chances at more championships in the future, but they both know the magnitude of tomorrow’s game.
“It’s a culture of winning,” Salcedo said of UCLA. “112 championships is an incredible feat. When you go into our hall of fame and see the athletes and 112 trophies its awe-inspiring. As the leader of the soccer program you want to do everything you can to uphold the tradition we have at UCLA.”