HOUSTON — For the first time in over a decade, a team will compete for a second straight men’s College Cup title. And Wake Forest, in the title game for the first time in nine years, is the only bulwark standing in the way.
In the second of two College Cup semifinals here at BBVA Compass Stadium, defending national champion Stanford outlasted North Carolina after a scoreless 110 minutes in a wild 10-9 penalty shootout. The first 19 players to take kicks converted, and it wasn’t until defender Alex Comsia skied the 20th over the crossbar that the game ended after 10 pressure-packed rounds.
Earlier in the day, Wake Forest had already punched its ticket with a 2-1 win over previously unbeaten Denver in a considerably more entertaining match. Denver, the only team in the field to not have a national title, equaled out an early Jon Bakero goal with an Andre Shinyashiki tally all in the opening 17 minutes. But the Demon Deacons weathered the storm and got the golden goal off a counter finished adroitly by senior captain Ian Harkes.
The table is set. Wake Forest and Stanford on Sunday here at 1 p.m. CT for the ultimate crown in men’s college soccer.
Stanford made it to this stage last year in strikingly familiar circumstances. The Cardinal fought through 110 scoreless minutes against Akron in 2015 before winning in penalties to advance to the final. In those penalties, sterling keeper Andrew Epstein made two huge saves and a third struck the upright en route to the win. This time around, Epstein didn’t make any saves, but the resulting confidence after last year was unmistakable.
“A little bit of deja vu, yeah,” Epstein said.
Epstein is a key holdover from the 2015 national title team that notably lost Jordan Morris to the Seattle Sounders. Stanford started 2016 shaky, going winless in its first four and mustering just three goals. But they finished strong and shockingly haven’t given up a goal in the entire tournament.
In this particular semifinal, both teams had their chances but few were truly game-threatening. In fact, the only real moment of serious danger in regular time was a stung shot from Alan Winn that Epstein blocked back out into traffic in the 81st minute. With about 90 seconds left, Mauricio Pineda let loose from 20 but his shot crested over the bar and fans were soon treated to their second successive overtime game.
Aside from one brief moment of overtime madness - Tucker Hume forced Epstein to make a point blank save with 13 seconds left - overtime looked more or less like a settled affair. Penalties.
That’s when the experience kicked in and Stanford charged to its second final in as many years.
“As a coach, whether you’re here for the first time or you’re here for the 10th time, you’re thankful,” Stanford coach Jeremy Gunn said. “Soccer is a wonderful game that you can be brilliant and lose and be really bad and win. So, fortunate to still be standing. We’ve come through some incredible battles and we get to fight again.”
The opener was a meeting of familiar men webbed with history. Denver coach Jamie Franks is a Wake Forest alum, and he was an assistant under current Wake Forest coach Bobby Muuss for three years at Denver. Then Muuss left for Wake Forest in 2015, Franks took over the Denver program at the tender age of 29 and both fashioned College Cup teams in two years.
The two met briefly before the match, exchanging pleasantries and soaking in the craziness that they were both on this lofty stage coaching against one another. Franks and Muuss helped turn Denver into a national contender together, and Franks continued the Pioneers’ stunning upward trend in two frankly unbelievable seasons. This was only the team’s second loss in 43 games spanning the last two seasons.
“I just told Jamie how proud I am of him,” Muuss said. “I love him. He’s a member of the Wake Forest family. He’s a part of my personal family for all he’s done for me personally, on and off the field.”
For Franks, who considers Muuss his mentor, the feeling was mutual.
“Being out there with Bobby, he’s one of my best friends in the game,” Franks said. “I’ll be rooting for Wake Forest on Sunday.”
Denver struggled to contain its nerves in the opening 15 minutes of the first College Cup in program history. In the seventh minute, forward Jon Bakero pounced on a misplayed Graham Smith pass deep in Denver’s third, took a few settling touches and fired from about 20 yards. The shot was a beauty, settling into the upper right corner to stake the Demon Deacons to an early advantage.
The match threatened to tail away from the Pioneers even further when their golden man popped up with another golden goal. Andre Shinyashiki, who finished the regular season with three match-winning goals in four games, latched onto a 60-yard long ball and smashed his own rebound past a hobbling Alec Ferrell.
If Denver was shell-shocked to start the match, the Pioneers certainly weren’t anymore.
“I think when they scored the goal, it was a fluke,” Shinyashiki said. “I don’t think we were giving them anything and then they got - for me - a little bit lucky and they got a goal. But we knew we were going to score at all times. We never doubted ourselves. But definitely after the goal we kept rolling.”
Denver’s best chances to snag a lead came in the next 25 minutes. Wake Forest, partially stripped of its ability to play on the ground by the sandy field surface, got away from its build style and succumbed to Denver’s relentless pressure.
But that pressure ultimately wavered as Denver looked to tire visibly as the match wore into its later stages. Once overtime arrived, the Pioneers were simply trying to hang on defensively and nick one on a set piece. And it looked, just after the second overtime period began, they’d have a chance off a corner.
But the in-swinger was mishit, and Bakero dug possession out of a crowd and bore down on keeper Nick Gardner with a wingman and just one defender in the way. Bakero veered his marker to the left as Harkes’ supporting run on the right overlapped. Bakero found Harkes, and the D.C. United academy alum found himself inside the box with a one-on-one with a hard-charging Graham.
Harkes picked his spot at the far post, rolled his effort past Graham and rolled Wake Forest into the final. The irony of a counter pushing the possession-dominant Demon Deacons into their first championship match in nine years wasn’t lost on the team.
“It’s kind of a blur right now,” Harkes said. “We’re just extremely excited. I didn’t expect it to be off a counter-attack, but Jon did a great job breaking up the play and pushing it out in front of us. He went to his left and I saw the open space in front of me so just tried to put everything into it because I’m not that fast, tried to get my legs underneath me. Luckily it went in.”