College Soccer

NCAA College Cup semifinals preview: Akron vs. Stanford

“National Champions.”

It’s got a certain ring to it, doesn’t it?

Talen Energy Stadium crowned its first College Cup champion in 2013 when Notre Dame defeated Maryland 2-1 in the final. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1976 for the last time Philadelphia hosted the championship. And what a final it was! Who could forget Andy Atuegbu’s 20-yard blast into the top right corner to give San Francisco the 1-0 victory over Indiana in the freezing confines of Franklin Field.

This weekend the NCAA Men’s College Cup returns to the “City of Brotherly Love” with the four best teams in the nation hoping to leave as the 2017 “National Champions.” The final will take place on Sunday at 1pm.

The first step, though, starts with Friday’s semifinal doubleheader.

At 6pm, Stanford University and the University of Akron will do battle with the victor facing the winner of the 8:45pm clash between the University of North Carolina and Indiana University.

So without further ado, let’s preview the first of the semifinal matchups.

Stanford Cardinal preview

Champions with a chip on their shoulder

So that whole thing about being “National Champions” sounds pretty good. Do you know what sounds even better?

Back-to-Back-to-Back National Champions.

And that is exactly the distinction Stanford is hoping to earn this year. Only one other school in history can claim that honor. The University of Virginia, led by then head coach Bruce Arena (the same Bruce Arena who couldn’t get a point against Trinidad and Tobago,) won four championships from 1991-1994.

But despite winning the 2015 and 2016 titles, Stanford came into the 2017 tournament as the 9th seed.

Was it because they struggled in the regular season? Only if you consider a 17-2-2 record and a PAC-12 regular season championship a struggle. By the way, no other team in the College Cup won their regular season conference.

Is it because they lost all the talent that led them to back-to-back titles? Well nine of their 11 starters were around for both of those championships.

So maybe Stanford came into the tournament a little upset about being underseeded. Maybe they were a little perturbed about having to travel across the country to play the No. 1 overall seed Wake Forest, a team they knocked out of the tournament in both of their previous championship runs (including last season’s final), on their home field to secure a spot in Philadelphia.

And maybe that fueled their 2-0 resounding victory in Winston-Salem.

Will that chip on the Cardinal shoulder be enough to secure a third consecutive national title and a place in the history books?

Winning with experience

Stanford’s success can be traced back to the man at the top. Head coach Jeremy Gunn took over a program in 2012 that never won a national championship and was floundering in mediocrity. Now, a national powerhouse resides in Palo Alto.

But the coach from Harrogate, England isn’t the only experienced winner on the team.

Four 1st team All PAC-12 seniors are the heartbeat of the Stanford soccer team.

The first is defensive midfielder Drew Skundrich. The Lancaster, Pa. native transitioned from fullback to the midfield before the start of his junior year, where he has started every game over the last two seasons. Skundrich is a likely first round pick in the upcoming MLS Superdraft because of his ability to shield his back line while sparking attacks from deep.

The next are the two men at the top of the Cardinal offense. Forwards Corey Baird and Foster Langsdorf helped the Stanford attack score the sixth most goals in Division I soccer. While Baird’s six goals and six assists are impressive, it’s Langsdorf who has admirably filled the shoes of former Cardinal Jordan Morris. Langsdorf’s 13 goals and six assists gave him the ninth most points in the nation and warranted him being named a semifinalist for the MAC Hermann trophy, an award given to the nation’s top soccer player.

Yet it is Stanford’s other Hermann semifinalist who is the best player on the team. Center back Tomas Hilliard-Arce anchored a back line that only surrendered .42 goals per game, second best in the nation. He’s the reason Stanford haven’t allowed a goal in their last five matches and haven’t lost since Sep. 23 in St. Louis.

What makes Hilliard-Arce special isn’t the four goals and three assists he contributes going forward, but his ability to shut down the best attackers in collegiate soccer. Wake Forest’s Jon Bakero, who finished with eight more points than his closest competition in the country, will likely win the aforementioned Mac Hermann Trophy. He’s faced Hilliard-Arce three times and come away empty each time.

Akron Zips preview

Attacking with an accent

Some teams might be intimidated facing the back-to-back defending champions.

Akron will not be one of those teams. Head coach Jared Embick has led the Zips to the NCAA tournament in every season he’s coached the team since taking over for Caleb Porter. Embick did so again this season with a 18-3-2 record and a MAC tournament championship. This year, the coach is hoping to end the campaign with Akron’s first national championship since 2010.

The Zips came into the tournament as the 5th seed and made the short trip down to the 4th seeded Louisville Cardinals, where they came away with a hard earned victory in penalty kicks. Sure, Stanford has status, but so did the 10 nationally ranked teams Akron has already beaten. The Zips are their own juggernaut, fueled by a potent attack.

Hilliard-Arce and the rest of the Cardinal defense is a problem. It seems like no forward, no matter how talented they may be, can break down the Stanford back line.

But maybe two special forwards can.

Two special forwards is exactly what Akron have. And they speak with a bit of an accent.

Akron’s forwards Stuart Holthusen and Sam Gainford hail from New Zealand and England, respectively. More importantly, they stoke an offense that has scored 50 goals this season, third most in the nation. Holthusen leads the team with 12 goals while Gainford has found the net 10 times. No other school in the College Cup can claim two double-digit goal scorers and only four other teams in the country can.

Sometimes the question isn’t how many, though, but when.

And boy, are these two clutch. With five game winning goals each, this dynamic duo is all alone in the country. No school matches that mark.

Against Stanford, timing could be key.

“Fresh” at the back

With Akron’s capabilities going forward, it would be easy to overlook their defense. You might not notice that the Zips rank fifth in the country in goals allowed per game.

At the “center” of it all, are two true freshman center backs. Daniel Strachan and Joao Moutinho have played in every one of Akron’s 23 games, allowing a paltry 12 goals this season. Strachan has been stellar, but it is Moutinho who has been absolutely stunning.

A native of Portugal, Moutinho got his start in the famed Sporting Lisbon academy before hopping across the pond. Not only did he earn 1st team All-MAC honors, but he was the only freshman named as a semifinalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy.

Moutinho doesn’t rely on his size to shut down attacks, measuring at 6’0” and 156lbs, but an inherent ability to read the game as it comes toward him. He shines when shutting down attacking lanes and intercepting threatening passes. After he does so, Moutinho may not have an equal in distributing from the back. With three goals and five assists, the Portuguese defender is equally as dangerous going forward.

Langsdorf and Baird may have the edge in experience, but Moutinho and Strachan are immensely talented in their own right.

Prediction

Stanford 2-1 Akron

Goals shouldn’t be expected in this one. Both teams can defend exceptionally well. Akron though, behind Holthusen and Gainford, have the talent to break down a spectacular Stanford defense. What the Cardinal do well, however, is counter. As the Zips press forward and try to unlock their opponent, Stanford will be quick to strike. It’s tough to go against a team that has been so dominant in tournament soccer over the last three years. Until proven otherwise, don’t doubt the champs.

9 Comments

  1. Correction early in the article. Notre Dame defeated Maryland in 2013, not Virginia.

    • Nick Fishman says:

      Ahh, good catch! I had Virginia on my mind looking back at their 4-peat.

      • Easy catch since I’m a Maryland fan and went and froze my butt that day…all in vain (not the first or last time for that to happen at that stadium).

  2. Akron won’t be intimidated, and they won’t be facing a back-to-back champion.

  3. Zips ain’t shook.

    • Doug Snyder says:

      Zips win for sure. 1-0 is my prediction. The family will be traveling Saturday to watch a National Championship on Sunday. If you are around…will buy you a beer.

  4. Watched the broadcast/stream of Wake Stanford.

    Stanford was better. Wake did not match their intensity until late when desperate. Stanford played a deep bunker, and scored a header on the game’s first corner midway into the 2nd half. The defender Nick mentions scored it.

    The second goal also came from not-a-traditional attacker.

    Wake had plenty of possession, but did not unlock Stanford’s defense.

    I watched to see Union academy grads Mark McKenzie and Justin McMaster. McKenzie made shutting down The better Stanford striker look pretty routine. His poise on the ball when under heavy pressure was especially noteworthy. Mc Master’s pace was his most,prominent characteristic as you would expect.

  5. PatrioticZip says:

    Akron plays the prettiest style of soccer I’ve ever seen. Additionally, this team is much better than the team that lost to Stanford in PKs back in 2015. I just hope the Zips are ready for Stanford’s counter-attack.

    Go Zips!

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