The NCAA College Cup in Kansas City, Kans., will crown the NCAA men’s soccer national champion this weekend. Starting Friday, Akron will take on Stanford after Clemson faces off against Syracuse.
The weekend before the College Cup semifinals, Akron head coach Jared Embick and his players were in the stands at MAPFRE Stadium to watch Embick’s predecessor at Akron, Caleb Porter, lift the MLS Cup as coach of the Portland Timbers.
“I thought it was appropriate for me to be there for him in the biggest moment of his career and support,” Embick said.
Porter, hired as Portland coach in 2013, won a national championship as Akron’s coach in 2010 with a 1-0 win over Louisville. Over Porter’s tenure as coach at Akron, the program has produced several thriving professional players. Two Akron products were involved in last Sunday’s MLS Cup: Portland’s Darlington Nagbe and Columbus’ Wil Trapp.
On Friday, Embick will take his team to Kansas City, Mo., where the Zips will face Stanford in the first College Cup semifinal since Porter left for Portland.
“Obviously, [Akron is] not exactly the same but we’ve shown that from Caleb’s time to mine, the program’s strong and we’re here for the long run,” Embick said. “I have ability, too, and this is my chance to validate that and do good things for the program and myself.”
MORE: DI Men's Soccer Bracket
Embick, an associate head coach under Porter, joked that no one wanted to take the job from him.
"I always said I didn’t know if I’d want to be the guy to follow Caleb because of his huge popularity and the expectations that come with it,” Embick said.
But after taking over as coach at Akron, Embick has posted the best winning percentage in school history, winning 73.3 percent of matches. Akron goes into the College Cup semifinal against Stanford with the hope that the team won’t see anything new. The Zips have managed to win in many different ways this season: a dominant 6-1 win over Rutgers in the tournament’s Second Round, a blown lead against UCLA in the last 15 minutes on the way to a 4-2 loss during the regular season and a 3-2 double overtime win over Creighton in the tournament’s quarterfinal.
“We have a lot of confidence, we’ve played a very difficult schedule,” Embick said. “There’s not a lot we haven’t seen or dealt with, and I think that will come in handy for us in games where there’s high emotion and a lot at stake. We have a lot of experiences to draw upon and you need to believe that you can handle anything.”
Embick’s possession-based system, led by midfielder Richie Laryea with 11 goals, faces a powerful Stanford side that brings to the College Cup semifinal one of the most powerful forwards in college soccer. Jordan Morris has already made United States senior national team appearances and returns to Sporting Park, the stadium where he won two Olympic qualifying games against Cuba and Canada in October with the U-23 United States national team. Morris leads teams remaining in the tournament in goals per game with .69.
“He brings that wonderful drive and competitive nature and he brings all of his individual abilities as a top class soccer player,” Stanford coach Jeremy Gunn said. “He’s got lightning pace, he can score in a variety of different ways [and] he can create for other players.”
For Stanford, potent offense is the key to success and the options the Cardinal possess are plenty. Stanford has two players, midfielders Eric Verso and Corey Baird, in the top 10 assists rankings in the country with 11 and 12 respectively.
“Our biggest strength is our balance as a team,” Gunn said. “We’re built to be able to defend very, very well as a group and we’re very tough to break down when were defensive. Attacking-wise we’ve got so many different weapons that can score goals from so many different areas.
“I think teams that play against us are going to have to look at us in all different ways to find the best gameplan as to how to match up against us.”
Gunn’s Stanford team is making its first appearance in the College Cup semifinal since 2002.
“It’s a tremendous achievement,” Gunn said of progressing to the semifinal. “We’ve been together these last four seasons at Stanford and we’ve had some wonderful steady progress forward. Each team has managed to surpass the team before and so this is a great combination of the work that we’ve all been doing.”
On the other side of the bracket, the two teams with the highest national rankings going into the tournament among the last four teams remaining will face off. Syracuse went into the tournament ranked No. 3 in the nation with Clemson at No. 2. On the way to the semifinal, Stanford defeated first-ranked Wake Forest in the tournament.
It is a good time to be on campus in Clemson, South Carolina. Coach Dabo Swinney and the Clemson Tigers have dominated the college football rankings all season, but this year Clemson’s soccer team has also progressed to the same stage. Clemson soccer coach Mike Noonan appreciated the buzz that came from both.
“There has been a lot of excitement generated around this campus,” Noonan said. “With all of our recent success, Clemson is a football school in two different ways.”
With a 3-1 penalty shootout win over Maryland after a 1-1 draw following regulation, Clemson advanced to its first College Cup since 2005 and its eighth College Cup appearance in school history.
Ranked second in goals scored in the tournament with 9, Noonan said his team has relied on attacking strength to overwhelm opponents. The Tigers’ attack is backed up by a strong defense that is led by goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell, whose save percentage of .806 is the highest among goalkeepers remaining in the tournament.
“We’re a team that plays with a lot of flair,” Noonan said. “We’re going to put the ball in a lot of different spots to shoot and we’re going to create a lot of chances near the goal.”
Against Syracuse, Noonan pointed out that his team will need to play exceptionally well when transitioning from offense to defense and must stay strong on set pieces.
“We work on set pieces all of the time," Syracuse forward Ben Polk said in a team press release after Syracuse’s 1-0 quarterfinal win over Boston College. "We know our roles.”
Polk scored on a header off of a corner kick in the 79th minute for the match’s only goal. The Orange dominated the match with 16 shots to Boston College’s 6.
The last time these two teams faced off wasn’t long ago. Polk scored twice in a Nov. 11 ACC tournament semifinal match that ended 2-0 in Syracuse’s favor.
With the win, Syracuse has brought itself to the College Cup for the first time in school history. Leading the way for the Orange has been midfielder Liam Callahan and Jordan Buescher with 9 and 11 assists, respectively. Buescher ranks at no. 8 in the nation in assists.
“We're delighted to be able to play a little bit more soccer," Syracuse coach Ian McIntyre said in a team press release. "There's only one more week left in the season and to still be playing is something special.”