CHESTER, Pa. – Come the College Cup, come the Stanford Cardinal.
The Pac-12 power’s suffocating defense continued to hum in its third straight College Cup appearance. As in 2015, Akron was the victim, as two goals and a shutout provided the recipe for a 2-0 Cardinal victory.
For the 12th time in their Stanford career, Corey Baird assisted on a Foster Langsdorf goal to open the scoring. This one came in the 26th minute, and would be enough. The Cardinal would add a second on the counter attack late in the second half, advancing to the national championship for the third straight year.
"As far as tonight, as a coach you’d be hard pressed to look for a better semifinal performance," Stanford coach Jeremy Gunn said after the win. "I thought our guys were magnificent tonight. We didn’t give them time on the ball. They are an incredible passing team when you scout them. They are absolutely unbelievable the way they pass and move and how they can carve teams apart. Our players were incredible just making life really, really tough for Akron and until the second half, they just never looked comfortable."
Heading into the first national semifinal of the evening, there would be no tactical surprises – and from the opening kickoff, the Stanford machine kicked into gear, pressing high up the pitch, while Akron looked to play its quick passing game to move forward.
A sloppy start from the Zips opened up chances for the Cardinal. Jared Gilbey picked the pocket of Skye Harter, and forced a great save from Akron goalkeeper Ben Lundt.
“We knew they were going to come out and press us hard and we did have a game plan for that but I think it rattled us a lot," Akron forward Sam Gainford said after the game. "We were scared to get the ball in good spots after that so it’s a really play for them going forward. Our attack didn’t handle it well and I think that was the real issue.”
Akron popped up with a half chance in the ninth minute thanks to a great cross from left back Niko De Vera, but Marcel Zajac’s header was wide of the goal.
From there, the Cardinal’s pressure continued to pay off, as they managed to turn Akron over high up the field. Foster Langsdorf nearly capitalized on a chance in the 20th minute, but blazed his shot over the goal. A minute after that, Lundt had to be alert to deflect a shot from Corey Baird wide for a corner kick.
In the 26th minute, Langsdorf struck. After another turnover, Baird buzzed into the right hand side of the box, drilling in a low cross. Just when it looked like Akron defender Daniel Strachan would have a chance to clear it, Langsdorf flew into the frame, heading the ball into the bottom corner.
Akron’s best chance to equalize would come in the 60th minute. With the Zips in ascendancy, soft feet from David Egbo opened up space at the top of the box. Goalkeeper Nico Corti turned the shot wide, but right into the path of de Vera. Corti was quick to his feet, made himself big and denied the follow-up shot.
"[Egbo] did well to create space for himself and got the shot off," Corti said. "I made the initial save and then at that point, it’s just throwing myself in front of it. After the game, my goalie coach Oige (Kennedy) came up to me and said with a pound on the back ‘good second save, you should have held the first one.’ That’s really a good representation of our program…it was well done but we can do better. I trust Oige and he’s right.”
Nursing the slender lead, Stanford continued to absorb Akron’s pressure, and eventually doubled the lead. A Drew Skundrich ball eventually found Sam Werner streaming down the left flank in front of Lundt. Where the German had come up huge before, Werner finished into the upper corner to seal the win.
The commitment to defending kept pace until the final whistle, with Stanford keeping its shot at a third straight national title alive for one more game.
Gutman goal good enough as IU tops UNC
For the nation’s best defense, one goal is all it takes.
Junior defender Andrew Gutman freed himself at the back post and slotted home the long goal of the game off a Trevor Schwartz corner kick, and the quest for nine lives on.
Chances were always going to be at a premium in the second semifinal, and it proved true. The game’s first shot on goal didn’t come until the 36th minute, when James Pyle saved a Cory Thomas effort.
Alan Winn posed the most danger for the bulk of the first half for Carolina, as it possessed the ball but was unable to penetrate Indiana’s stout defense.
"I think in the first half we really wanted to possess the ball but we didn’t go at them," North Carolina head coach Carlos Somoano said. "We didn’t attack; we just connected our passes laterally. It’s not a bad thing when it turns into going forward but we paused when we had to go forward. We needed to take it just a little bit quicker. If we pressed just a tiny bit and passed just a tiny bit quicker I think the game changes."
The Hoosiers grew into the game as the first half progressed, and Trevor Swartz had a long-distance effort stopped by Pyle in the 44th minute.
They would capitalize four minutes after the break. Pyle came out to claim a beautiful curling corner, but he couldn’t get a hand on it. Gutman timed his run perfectly to give the Hoosiers a lead.
"We knew set pieces were going to be our strength and we knew that if we could get one, that’s all we needed because our defense is so sound in the back," Gutman said. "Luckily, Trevor played a great ball and I was just in the right spot."
Armed with the 1-0 advantage, Indiana’s defense absorbed pressure as the ACC side looked for the equalizer. Winning second balls and relieving pressure, IU clung to its lead. Grant Lillard’s aerial presence dominated crosses into the box, and freshman substitute Justin Rennicks helped to relieve pressure in tight spaces.
"Today were some of the biggest minutes [Rennick]’s had in the biggest moment and he looked all ready for it," Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley said. "He’s obviously a youth international, he’s played in big moments. He is a really talented young kid and he gave us an attacking lift when we were a bit off tonight. We said you’ve got to be ready and he didn’t shy from the moment."
Winn finally got free in the 72nd minute and had a chance to equalize, though IU freshman GK Trey Muse was equal to it. With a minute left, Winn created another chance but Lucas del Rosario slotted it wide of the goal.