The programs descending on the College Cup this weekend in Hoover, Alabama, enter not only with championship aspirations, but also some of the most compelling story lines in college soccer this season.
First, there’s Indiana, the storied program which despite making its first appearance in a College Cup since 2004, is the second-most successful team of all-time with seven national titles.
Then Maryland, right on Indiana’s tail as one of the top programs of all time, the three-time national champions enter Friday with a relentless attacking lineup. Maryland’s opponents, Georgetown, are the debutants of the quartet, making a first-ever appearance at this stage.
Rounding out the field is Creighton, guided by German maestro Elmar Bolowich. Making his fifth consecutive appearance at a College Cup (second straight with Creighton) Bolowich is title-hunting once again in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Blue Jays, which lost seven starters from last year’s semifinal squad.
Despite the differences, one thing is held in common right now: every team has a chance to win the national title this weekend. That notion aptly sums up how even this season has been in men’s college soccer.
“I think that this year the field of tournament teams was really, really condensed,” Bolowich told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “There’s not a wide fluctuation of exceptionally great teams or lesser teams, I think we had a lot of parity this year.”
Perhaps Maryland holds the edge on the rest of the quartet, with a gaudy record (20-1-2) and an offense that few teams have been able to stop (60 goals in 23 games).
All season long the talk in College Park has been focused on three things: winning the ACC regular season title, the ACC tournament, and then the national title. Two of those goals have been achieved, but with those expectations comes, lots of pressure, and a tentative Terps side struggled through a second round battle against Brown – the only tournament matchup to this point that had head coach Sasho Cirovski worried.
“I thought we were very anxious that game, I didn’t recognize how much pressure they had on them,” he told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “But every game forward we got better and better, and it’s not an issue now…[the players] come to Maryland knowing there’s a big bulls-eye, and they know that the standards are almost ridiculously high.”
“No one’s really been able to figure these guys out, and when you watch them play you understand why,” Wiese said. “They’re super athletic, very deep, they play fun, attacking soccer, they really try to impose their will on everybody they play. It’s a great challenge.”
A former assistant coach under current Notre Dame head coach Bobby Clark at both Stanford and Notre Dame, Wiese has been the architect of Georgetown’s rise over the past few seasons. The program is in uncharted territory at the moment, progressing this far for the first time in its history, a lot of that success on the shoulders of core seniors Andy Riemer, Ian Christianson, Jimmy Nealis and Tommy Muller.
Although they are new comers, crashing the College Cup party, the Hoyas aren’t adopting the approach of just being happy to make it this far – they are looking to be playing on Sunday.
“Right now, it’s tough to sort of reflect on it, because the mindset is there’s still work to do,” Wiese said. “While you get a lot of people say ‘this is great, no matter what happens, it’s been a great year,’ well, we’ll be really bummed out if we lose on Friday. For us big picture, it’s great, I think that the task at hand for us is to try to keep the focus on the job. We’ve still got hopefully two games on the weekend if we handle things right.”
Contrasting Georgetown’s newcomer status most drastically are the Hoosiers. Head coach Todd Yeagley grew up watching the program win national championships under his father Jerry, eventually joining the program as a player in the mid-90s, and taking the reins as the head coach in 2009.
In reaching the College Cup this year, Yeagley has the team there for the 18th time in the team’s history, and first time since a title-winning appearance in eight years, when Yeagley was an assistant.
Getting the program, which obviously means so much to him on a personal level, back to the College Cup for the first time as a head coach holds immense significance to the former Columbus Crew standout.
“You want to put your mark on the program, and obviously as an assistant coach I was able to achieve that, and as a head coach, helping lead the team to this point is a great feeling,” he said. “There’s just so much pride and love for this place, it’s hard to put into words how great it feels to have Indiana on that field.”
But as he has done so many times before, Bolowich pushed the right buttons at the right time, something that is familiar to see from him during tournament time. Although he did acknowledge that this group has surprised him the most of previous semifinalists he’s coached, secure back-to-back upsets on the road against Akron and Connecticut.
“It was probably the most unlikely appearance this year of all the five consecutive ones that I’ve had, but certainly I feel deserved.” he said. “We grew a lot in the season . . . the team really came together through the end.”
No matter how the action ends up on the field, off it, there is plenty to watch for as the College Cup kicks off for the 54th time on Friday night.