Momentum versus mystique. Tradition versus form. This was not always the College Cup Final you envisioned, not in the second round or the third round or the fourth round or the semifinal of the NCAA Tournament, but it is the Cup Final nonetheless.
Georgetown, never once a participant in its sport’s final four until Friday afternoon, put four goals and enough penalty kicks past Maryland to defeat a team everyone but the Hoyas believed undefeatable in the first semifinal.
Composed and collected, Indiana dispatched of quiet Creighton by a wide figurative margin than the 1-0 scoreline suggested, sending the Hoosiers’ decorated program clear of Saint Louis — they are now the most oft-appeared championship game participant ever. In title game berths, Indiana has no equal.
Seven national championships on Sunday afternoon will meet none. The No. 3 seed in the tournament (Georgetown) will meet No. 16, a team perhaps in its best offensive form preparing for one running on inarguably its best defensive form.
Layer after layer forms Saturday’s Final, and starting at 2 p.m. Eastern, those layers will begin to fall away, as the Hoyas and Hoosiers compete for the ultimate prize.
“It’s great for a storyline. We’re proud to be in our 14th final and 18th College Cup. That’s all historical pieces to it and it helps our proud tradition grow deeper and richer,” IU coach Todd Yeagley told reporters Saturday. “But these (players) know and the players before them knew that what goes on between the lines is where that piece is made. Georgetown, nor (our) players, better be thinking about those pieces at that time.
“It’s about that we have to do our job and win this game. Then the result will take care of itself and the mark will be left.”
There was once a time when an opportunity like this was the right of every IU soccer player. Until 2008, no four-year class had finished its time in Bloomington — since the program’s inception as a varsity sport — without competing in at least one national semifinal.
But this is a height to which the Hoosiers have not ascended since 2004, when Mike Freitag’s first team took the core of Jerry Yeagley’s last team and won the program’s seventh national title out west.
This group always appeared to possess the talent for this moment, but at times, it did not play to that belief. The spine is solid, from two senior captains anchoring and directing defense to a skilled, deep central midfield, to one of the top goalscorers in the entire country.
Indiana, at its best, plays anyone off the field, and these Hoosiers have been at their best since rebounding from a disappointing end to the Big Ten season and a crashing out of the Big Ten Tournament. After putting four goals past Xavier in their final home game, Indiana won in South Bend, and then in Chapel Hill, two destinations never kind to road squads at this time of year.
For their toiling, they now stand nose to nose with an opportunity to set into stone their own place in the history whose shadow they train under each day.
“Any player that steps foot on the field at the beginning of the year, that’s their goal in mind,” said Eriq Zavaleta, Indiana’s prolific goalscorer. “This team has really rallied together and played well together to get here. We’re excited for the opportunity to be able to play in the national championship.”
In the way is Georgetown, the class of the Big East outside of the now-fallen Irish, seen by those who built this year’s tournament bracket as the third-best team in the tournament.
Without the weight of Indiana’s tradition, the Hoyas might seem a heavy favorite, because of their two prolific forwards and a 19-win campaign to this point, not to mention the 4-4, decided-on-penalties thriller against the Terrapins on Friday.
Brandon Allen and Steve Neumann have combined to score 26 of their team’s 43 goals, and Neumann has assisted on 13 more. His hat trick highlighted that end-to-end all-D.C.-area semifinal.
Yet in the chess match Sunday comes perhaps the most important layer, the thickest intrigue, as Indiana and Georgetown will likely try to outdo one another in mirroring ways. Both teams favor five-man midfields in some form, with target strikers up top. Both enjoy pushing their fullbacks up the field for extra width and attacking options. Both will try to press and possess, dictating the game to their liking.
“In our system, we encourage and we need our outside backs to join the attack and help us, whether it’s giving penetration, service or support in deep channels,” Yeagley said of IU’s two starting fullbacks, Patrick Doody and Matt McKain. “They’ve been good for us all year, but really have come together – in the Notre Dame game in particular. We needed them to be really strong based on that match up. They were fantastic and led to one of the goals for Eriq.”
So Sunday will be a battle of midfields dueling for possession, of fullbacks fighting for width while retaining the safety of their own defenses, of prolific forwards attempting to crack back lines hell bent on the only clean sheet that will ever matter after tomorrow.
For Georgetown, it is all new, a journey deeper into the unknown. For Indiana, it is old hat, though remarkably, it would be Todd Yeagley’s first national championship as a player or head coach (he has won two as an assistant).
Indiana seized early this season on the Twitter hashtag #Q48, meant to signify the quest to add an eighth star — one for each national championship ¬— to the arc of triumphs that currently umbrella the program’s IU logo.
“The last few weeks it’s shown our team has definitely come together. We’re playing tremendous team soccer,” senior goalkeeper and captain Luis Soffner said. “Our mentality has been the ‘#Q48,’ the quest for eight, the eighth star. It’s been our team motto all year. We’ve kind of embraced it and so has Bloomington and all of our supporters.
“We’re really excited we could have the opportunity to make it here and to move onto the final. It’s been our goal from day one and we’re real excited to get that opportunity.”
To the Hoyas, Sunday is a dream and a payoff for focus and hard work. To the Hoosiers, it is an expectation attached to the shirt each player will wear onto the field.
Momentum versus mystique. Tradition versus form. One Sunday holding history in its palm, ready to hand it away.
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