New Mexico joins NCAA powers in College Cup
CARY, N.C. -- Maryland and Clemson are giving the NCAA men's College Cup an Atlantic Coast Conference feel.
The top-seeded Terrapins (17-4-2) are in the semifinals for the fourth straight year and face SMU (14-5-3) on Friday. Clemson (15-5-3) takes on New Mexico (17-1-3) in another semifinal in suburban Raleigh, site of last month's ACC tournament.
Maryland, Clemson and SMU are among the sport's traditional powers, while New Mexico is making its first College Cup appearance.
"It's not always the better team that wins, but the team that turns up that day," said Dane Richards, who leads Clemson with 11 goals this season.
Maryland and Clemson were among the eight ACC teams invited to the 48-team NCAA field. The league has had at least one team in the semifinals 28 times since the tournament started 47 years ago.
"You get battle-tested in the ACC, so you learn to play against the best teams in the country on a weekly basis," said Maryland coach Sasho Cirovski, the ACC's coach of the year. "If you can learn from that and survive that then you know you're good enough to go up against anybody."
Clemson coach Trevor Adair agreed.
"It makes you a very good team at the end of the season," he said.
Maryland's seniors are playing the 12th game of their careers at SAS Soccer Stadium.
"We're comfortable with the surroundings," defender Chris Lancos said. "But once the game starts, I don't think it's anyone's advantage."
Forward Jason Garey ranks second in the nation with 20 goals this season, trailing only Campbell's Willy Guadarrama. Garey also is Maryland's career leader in goals with 58.
The Terrapins are 2-6 in NCAA semifinals, and their last victory this late in the tournament came in 1968.
SMU has been overcoming obstacles all season and was surprised to reach the College Cup. The Mustangs played only their first postseason game at home, beating San Francisco before winning on the road at UCLA, North Carolina-Greensboro and North Carolina. It's the team's third straight week making the trip from Dallas to North Carolina.
"North Carolina has kind of been our home away from home," coach Schellas Hyndman said.
A season of upheaval started when one of SMU's returning starters quit the day before preseason practice to turn pro. Last year's leading scorer, Alex Smith, lost his college eligibility after he played in some exhibition games with an English pro team over the summer. After starting the season 2-4-2, another part-time starter quit, Hyndman said. Then a player dropped out of school.
After their weak start, SMU won eight straight games.
"I think the way we started off, people have been considering us an underdog for a long time," defender Jay Needham said.
The only Division I men's soccer program in Texas is making its second College Cup appearance -- the other was in 2000 -- and has been in the NCAA tournament for 12 straight years.
The struggles made the Mustangs stronger, Hyndman said.
"I've had better teams play for me," he said. "But this team has that one special ingredient."
Clemson hasn't allowed a goal in its four tournament games, and the two-time champion Tigers are in the semifinals for the seventh time.
Clemson likes to avoid the kick-and-run, fastbreak style, and instead favors attacking as a unit, Adair said.
The Tigers build around defender Nathan Sturgis, who played this summer for the United States in the Under-20 world championships in the Netherlands.
"They're filled with very confident, quality players," New Mexico coach Jeremy Fishbein said.
The Lobos boast nine seniors. That's more than any other team at the College Cup as professional leagues in the United States and Europe have drawn top players away from powerhouses like Maryland and UCLA.
"We're a very good team but haven't proved ourselves to be a great program. ... That's what we aspire to be," Fishbein said. "Our focus right now is how we play and how we do."
The Lobos' defense is one of the best in the country. They've had 13 shutouts in 21 games and goalkeeper Mike Graczyk is among the nation's leaders, allowing just 13 goals. New Mexico's only loss was in overtime to San Jose State in October.
Forward Jeff Rowland is the team's scoring leader with 16 goals.
With their home in Albuquerque a mile above sea level, one advantage New Mexico can claim is the endurance that comes with playing in oxygen-thin air, Rowland said
"We have been training at altitude for the last four years. I think it gives us a little bit of an edge," he said.