They're back. 363 days ago, the North Carolina Tar Heels had their season ended in the semifinals of the College Cup in heartbreaking fashion, losing on a penalty shootout to Stanford. They have been working towards redemption all year. Sound familiar?
The Tar Heels (17-3-1) stamped their ticket to Philadelphia last week with a 2-1 victory over Fordham, the tournament's Cinderella story, at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary. Goals from seniors Zach Wright and Alan Winn completed the Tar Heels' sixth trip to the College Cup in the last ten seasons.
Carolina is two wins away from bringing a third national championship back to Chapel Hill. But if they are to finish the job, they will need to overcome two teams from the formidable trio that will join them in Philly.
Here is a preview of the Semifinals:
#3 UNC vs. #2 Indiana
Friday, December 8th 8:45 pm ET
Watch on ESPNU
This is the ultimate Offense vs. Defense battle. Carolina comes in as the #2 ranked offense in America, and by far the highest scoring team still standing. The Tar Heels boast an impressive collection of attacking talent, from Hermann Trophy candidates Cam Lindley and Alan Winn, to Zach Wright and Jelani Pieters. Lindley and Wright both finished in the top 10 in assists nationally, while Pieters and Winn combined for 20 goals on the season. The Tar Heels can put points on the board as well as any team in the country.
But that explosive offense will receive its toughest test of the season when the Heels face the Hoosiers on Friday. Indiana (17-0-6) is the only undefeated team in the country and boast one of the greatest defenses that college soccer has ever seen. The Hoosiers have allowed just six goals (SIX!) all year, allowing just .26 goals per game. The Indiana defense is led by Hermann Trophy candidate Grant Lillard, their brilliant senior defender, while the attack features Mason Toye and Trevor Swartz.
The Hoosiers reached the College Cup by outlasting conference rival Michigan State in a penalty shootout. Indiana carries a tremendous soccer legacy with it: The Hoosiers boast eight National Championships and are coached by Todd Yeagley, son of the legendary Jerry Yeagley, who was the Godfather of Indiana Soccer. Jerry started the Hoosiers' varsity program and led them to five national championships in his thirty-year reign. Todd has won one of his own since taking over the job and leading him onto the field that bears his father's name.
The obvious question going into Friday's matchup will be if Carolina can find their way through Indiana's impenetrable defense. Conversely, will Indiana sit back and wall up against the Tar Heel attack, or will they push the fight out into the open field? One thing's for certain; the last thing either team wants is another penalty shootout.
#9 Stanford vs #5 Akron
Yup, they're back too. The Stanford Cardinal, two-time defending National Champions and breakers of Carolina hearts, have returned to the College Cup, looking to become the first team in over two decades to three-peat as National Champs. A win for Stanford would also give the school a rare Double: The Stanford Women's Team won the National Championship last weekend, topping UCLA. They will face the Akron Zips, the scourge of the MAC Conference, who will be looking to win the program's second title.
Stanford (17-2-2) returned to the College Cup by knocking out top-ranked Wake Forest in the quarterfinals. The Cardinal shut down the Demon Deacons' attack, the best in the nation, and finished them off 2-0 on their own field. Such a result has to chill the hearts of Carolina fans; The Tar Heels fell to the Demon Deacons 2-1 earlier this year in a game in which Carolina played well but simply looked outclassed by Wake. In addition, the Demon Deacons may have been the only team in American that wanted to beat Stanford more than the Heels: They were defeated by them in the National Championship game last year and fell to them in the quarters the year before. That a talented and motivated Wake team could be beaten on its home field makes one thing clear: The Champs are still the Champs.
The Cardinal are led by seniors Foster Langsdorf up front and Tomas Hilliard-Arce at the back. Both have hoisted two National Championship trophies and will look to go out on top with a three-peat. Stanford excels at both ends, ranking ninth in the nation in goals, and second in goals allowed. But their biggest strength is mental: No team has played in more big time games than they have.
Akron may not have the pedigree that Stanford does, but the Zips (18-3-2) are no pushovers. They rank in the top ten in both defense and offense and have won their conference six consecutive times, and ten times in the last eleven years. They defeated Louisville in a six-round penalty shootout to reach their second College Cup in three years under Head Coach Jared Embick. Freshman Joao Moutinho leads the defense with skill and savvy beyond his years and the offense is led by goalscoring seniors Stuart Holthusen and Sam Gainford. Akron is a melting pot of international players: Of the 31 players on the roster, 15 were born overseas, and eleven countries in total are represented on the Zips.
So that's the field of four. And what a fantastic four they make. All four teams finished the season ranked in the top ten. All four teams have won a National Championship in the last seven years (Akron 2010, UNC 2011, Indiana 2012, Stanford 2015 and 2016). All four teams have players under consideration for college soccer's highest honor. Three teams feature top offenses, while the fourth is the best defense in years. This weekend in Philly should be quite the show.
UNC 1, Indiana 0 (OT)
Stanford 2, Akron 1