FRISCO, Texas -- An ACC-heavy field at the NCAA Men's College Cup has been whittled down to an all-ACC final.
Two very familiar teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference will clash at Pizza Hut Park outside Dallas (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET, ESPN2) to settle the silver anniversary version (50 years) of college soccer's championship tournament. But there was a little shakeup in the order of things heading into the final.
It will be North Carolina against Maryland. The Tar Heels, losers of five straight heading into the tournament, found their balance just in time for the NCAA Tournament and battled their way into Sunday's final by upsetting Wake Forest, the tournament's top seed and defending champion.
While it may count as a surprise that Elmar Bolowich's Tar Heels are still around after Friday's pair of 1-0 semifinals, the same won't be said for Sasho Cirovski's Maryland Terrapins. Cirovski, born in Yugoslavia and an immigrant to Canada at age 8, has developed quite the college soccer power in College Park, Md.
His Terrapins, seeded No. 2 this year's field, have missed the NCAA tournament just once since 1993. And the program has been a recent stopping point for U.S. international Maurice Edu, dynamic Columbus Crew winger Robbie Rogers, touted young Real Salt Lake goalkeeper Chris Seitz and others.
Cirovski's skillful Terrapins certainly dominated outmanned St. John's on Friday, pummeling the defensively postured Red Storm with a 19-3 margin in shots. Heralded Maryland flank attacker Jeremy Hall was a bit quiet, but not so with slashing attacker Graham Zusi, Maryland's midfield engine and the best player on the field Friday.
|2008 College Cup|
North Carolina vs. Maryland Pizza Hut Park, Frisco, Texas
1 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Zusi was responsible for summoning the best of Neal Kitson's nine saves in St. John's goal, including two or three real showstoppers. But with penalty kicks looming after 14 minutes of overtime, Zusi's outstanding free kick from just beyond the 18 finally put Maryland through – and also rescued Sunday's final from a St. John's appearance. The fast and physical Red Storm, essentially playing with five defenders and without many offensive ideas Friday, are all about bogging down the opposition.
Omar Gonzalez, Maryland's All-ACC center back, had little to do, as St. John's could manage precious little possession time. The Terrapins won their 15th consecutive match in front of a small crowd that included several MLS head coaches and player personnel directors.
"Our defense, we talk every single time, off the field before the game, we all tell each other what we want each other to do," said Gonzalez, who is from Dallas. "On the field, we make sure we're talking, that we're staying compact, staying focused through the game and not letting them get very many chances."
Sunday's final in Frisco, where the weather should be warm with only a slight chance of showers, should be a more fluid affair.
The Terrapins (22-3) have already beaten North Carolina (15-7-1) twice this year, both by one-goal margins. Maryland, which won its second NCAA title in 2005, prevailed 2-1 as the teams met in College Park in the regular season. Just a few days later, Hall's early goal decided the match as the Terrapins eliminated North Carolina from the ACC Tournament. Maryland is undefeated (6-0-1) against the Tar Heels since 2003.
So there will be few surprises for either team.
"I think it will be a lot more wide-open game Sunday," Cirovski said. "It just comes down to execution and attention to details."
So, how did the 13th-seeded Tar Heels pull off Friday's big upset? With an early, opportunistic header from leading scorer Brian Shriver and committed defending from center backs Ryan Adeleye and Sheanon Williams. Plus, it didn't hurt that first-choice goalkeeper Brooks Haggerty has recently rejoined the lineup.
Haggerty missed the bulk of the season with concussion-related problems. He returned to the lineup in time for the regular-season finale, and then delivered postseason shutouts against Jacksonville and Northwestern. (The Tar Heels also defeated the University of Illinois-Chicago in the NCAA Tournament en route to their fourth College Cup appearance.)
"We made it difficult for Wake to get into their rhythm," Bolowich said of Friday's surprise win. "We pressed high, we pressed effectively. The players were moving well off one another, and with one another, and that did not allow Wake to get into their normal, comfortable playing rhythm."
"The question was, could we do it for 90 minutes?" said Bolowich, now in his 20th season at Chapel Hill. "Could we hold up and not run out of gas, and then open up the gaps that we need to capitalize? And of course, in the second half, we had some of those letdowns, but we made up with a lot of heart and some great individual plays."
Maryland defenders will have more to deal with Sunday against North Carolina. On Friday, Tar Heel midfielders capably provided variety in the attack, sometimes playing into hold-up man Billy Schuler and sometimes looking to spring Zach Loyd along the right flank. It was Loyd's crisp cross that Shriver turned into his 14th goal of 2008.
On the other side, the Terrapins' offense runs through Zusi, a senior from Longwood, Fla. He's not a classic playmaker in a passing sense. Rather, he produces by making late, darting runs into the penalty area and by a bold willingness to shoot from long range.
Steve Davis is a Dallas-based freelance writer who covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at BigTexSoccer@yahoo.com.