KANSAS CITY, Kan. -- The 2015 NCAA men’s soccer national championship match was set Friday night at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kans.: Stanford vs. Clemson.
Stanford defeated Akron in the night’s second semifinal match, which dragged past regulation and two overtime periods and pushed both teams through 10 rounds of penalty kicks, where Stanford progressed to its first national title game in school history by winning the shootout 8-7. After 110 minutes, the teams played to a 0-0 draw.
“It was an unbelievable, super tight game,” Stanford coach Jeremy Gunn said. “We weren’t giving [Akron] good looks and for the better part of the game I thought we were the better team.”
While Clemson’s Andrew Tarbell played the hero for Clemson in its 4-1 penalty shootout win in the other semifinal, Stanford’s Andrew Epstein powered his team to the win after five rounds of sudden death penalties. Epstein made two saves during the shootout, the last save diving to his left and sliding into his teammates’ arms in celebration.
“I just kind of didn’t think about it and went and read him the best I could,” Epstein said of his last save. “When the ball hit my hand, I was tearing off to midfield.”
But things didn’t start out well for the Cardinal. Defender Drew Skundrich missed the goal wide left on the first kick of the shootout. Epstein made the save to get Stanford back in the shootout. From that point, confidence built for Stanford.
“Once it got to sudden death, every PK our team had I thought this is it we’ve won now because of the confidence we had in [Epstein,]” Stanford midfielder Corey Baird said. “We’re very confident in him.”
Over the 110 minutes that the teams played, Gunn’s strategy was to keep with what the Cardinal had used to progress to the tournament semifinal: quick, direct attacking play.
“Always, we always want to attack,” Gunn said about the point in the game which his team tried hardest to score in order to avoid overtime or penalties. “If you look at the way we play, we definitely want to look forward and so no one really wants to go to penalties. We’re ready for it and we work hard for it, but we always want to score that winner.”
Akron coach Jared Embick’s strategy was to play patiently. Embick said mistakes in the first half prevented his team from making the impact it wanted to make in 110 minutes.
“We thought going in that the longer the game went the more open it would get and then we’d have some chances,” Embick said. “We’re just disappointed in the first half [that] we didn’t play very well. We wasted 45 minutes of trying to create and gain momentum. As you can see, in these tight games, you need all 90. We let 45 slip away.”
While Akron had won a national title in 2010, Stanford progresses to its third national championship in school history with the win. The Cardinal had only reached the semifinal for the first time since 2002.
“For four years, it’s been a constant motivation, a constant goal so it’s huge for us seniors to get to play as many games as possible,” Stanford defender Brandon Vincent said. “We are doing that here. We couldn’t have done it without all of our teammates. Everyone on the field for all 110 minutes was huge. I’m just so excited to be here.”
Stanford advances to College Cup final by winning on penalties, Akron's Nate Schultz does NOT want to be consoled pic.twitter.com/m6geo9spQH— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) December 12, 2015
Gunn repeated Vincent’s words that Stanford’s goal was to spend as many games together as possible. Now, the Cardinal are guaranteed one more.
“You try to set goals that you want to have and this group was flat out,” Gunn said, “let’s play as many games as we can together. We’ve done that and now we are in the final and want to get greedy and win it.”