Can anyone beat Stanford?
That’s the question heading into the 2017 men’s College Cup, set for Talen Energy Stadium on Friday, December 8.
MORE: Division I Men's Tournament Bracket | Scouting the pro prospects at the College Cup
Four of the best teams in the college game will be there from four separate conferences. All four sides have won at least 17 games, while Indiana is the lone undefeated team. Dating back to 2010, the four College Cup teams have combined to win five of the past seven national championships. Any of them have a good shot at walking away with another national title.
Below is a preview of Friday’s semifinals, with all times listed EST.
Men’s College Cup (ESPNU)
Stanford(m) (17-2-2) vs. Akron(m) (18-3-2), 6 p.m.
A rematch of the 2015 College Cup match in Kansas City, it would be no huge shock to see a repeat play out on Friday night: a 0-0 draw that heads to PKs. Stanford triumphed that day on the way to the first of its two straight national titles, and the teams look rather different heading into this clash. The styles remain the same, of course. The Cardinal thrive in knockout soccer, sitting deep, looking to hit on set pieces or on the break. Getting seeded at No. 9 likely gave them a chip on their shoulder, and they responded with last weekend’s 2-0 win away from home against Wake Forest. Tomas Hilliard-Arce is the marshal at the back still, as he can close out his college career with three straight national titles. Foster Langsdorf creates problems for the best center backs, and he’ll be a test for freshmen defenders Daniel Strachan and Joao Moutinho. Stanford’s direct style is sure to test that pair, while Bryce Marion’s runs through the center of the park can stretch the Zips. Waiting for a mistake and then pouncing on it is one of the keys of the Pac-12 side’s success, not to mention the defensive structure and ability to minimize mistakes.
Akron’s question heading into this test is going to be finding the right balance. Always looking to play on the front foot, opening themselves up and throwing numbers forward is going to open up chances for Stanford to counter. Currently third in the country in goals scored, the Zips can find the back of the net through a variety of sources. Sam Gainford and Stuart Holthusen are in scintillating form, and if there is anyone out there that can figure out a way to score against Stanford, those two might be able to find a way. The Cardinal are sure to press at least in certain pockets of the field, and how Akron’s midfield, led by Manual Cordeiro and Pau Belana, can adjust to that, could go a long way in determining the winner.
Prediction: Stanford 1, Akron 0
Indiana(m) (17-0-6) vs. North Carolina(m) (17-3-1), 8:45 p.m.
In some ways, North Carolina is the one overlooked side in this group, as the Tar Heels return to the College Cup for a second straight season. Last year, the ACC program fell on penalty kicks against Stanford, and it’s a wrong that they’d love to avenge if the opportunity arises. The highest-scoring offense in the College Cup, UNC’s 53 goals has come from a variety of sources. Seniors Alan Winn and Zachary Wright provide a good deal of the finishing in the final third, while central midfielder Cam Lindley is the team’s engine room. The Indiana native is going to be critical facing the local Division I power, as his deft passing and vision has to be sharp in order for the Tar Heels to beat the Hoosiers.
No team’s been as good defensively as Indiana this season, conceding just six goals in 23 games. Grant Lillard’s imperious presence at the back makes it difficult to see the Tar Heels finding a goal from a set piece. Generally strong at the back in most seasons (especially the past four years with Lillard) a flurry of freshmen recruits has helped to jump-start the attack. Mason Toye stands out the most as the team’s leading goal-scorer, while Griff Dorsey offers dynamic play from wide spaces. Twelve different players have contributed goals this season, as the collective effort leads to opportunities for the Hoosiers. The tactical battle is going to be fascinating down the IU left flank; defender Andrew Gutman’s arguably the most dangerous attacking outside back in college, and if he can pull UNC apart, it bodes well for IU’s chances of coming one step closer to a ninth national title.
Prediction: Indiana 1, North Carolina 0