For the eighth time in the program’s storied history, the Indiana men’s soccer team hoisted the College Cup, courtesy of a thrilling 1-0 victory over Georgetown on Sunday afternoon.
The No. 16-seed Hoosiers’ improbable run through the NCAA Tournament ended in storybook fashion, thanks to a Nikita Kotlov goal in the 64th minute. In a game that was decidedly defensive in nature, the lone goal was more than enough.
Kotlov benefitted from great individual play by sophomore fullback Patrick Doody, who kept the ball moving deep in the left corner of the field and delivered a looping cross towards the back post. Sophomore forward Eriq Zavaleta, Indiana’s leading goal scorer on the year, kept the play alive by beating Georgetown goalkeeper Tomas Gomez to the ball and heading it towards Kozlov, who sent it home into the empty net.
“It was a good ball to the back post, and Zavaleta is a big target forward,” Georgetown coach Brian Wiese said. “It’s a ball that as a keeper, once he decided to go for it, he had to go, and he just barely missed it and it led back for an easy finish. It was a frustrating goal to lose but (Gomez) made big plays that kept us in the game.”
The Hoyas (19-4-3) entered the tournament as the third overall seed and scored four goals in their semifinal battle against Maryland, but couldn’t break through against the Hoosier defense. Led by senior goalkeeper Luis Soffner, who won the Most Outstanding Defensive Player on the weekend, Indiana’s rearguard held their opponents scoreless in their last three matches.
“We said from the beginning that our defense is going to win championships,” said Soffner, who was credited with two saves but played an excellent all-around game. “The guys in front of me have done great to not even let the ball come near me.”
That’s not to say that Georgetown didn’t have its chances. The most breathtaking opportunity occurred with just over a minute remaining, when Hoya defender Tommy Muller flicked a header toward the back post. Luckily for Indiana, the ball connected with the crossbar and was eventually cleared.
After that, the celebration was on, as the hundreds of Indiana fans that made the journey to Hoover, Ala., serenaded their team with cheers and chants.
“It was amazing to see that here, with the fans and all the alums coming,” Kotlov said. “We have an amazing fanbase, and it feels better to be a part of them now, and being a part of the history of IU men’s soccer.”
Both teams struggled to find an offensive identity in the first half, as defense was the name of the game. Soffner made the game’s first big play, stopping a shot from point-blank range from Tyler Rudy in the 16th minute to keep the Hoyas off the scoreboard.
The Hoosiers had their first big opportunity in the 23rd minute, as junior A.J. Corrado broke free and had a good one-on-one opportunity against Gomez. The Hoya keeper stood his ground and stuffed Corrado’s low attempt, keeping zeroes on the board.
The Hoyas were the aggressor early on, maintaining possession for many of the game’s first minutes, but their inability to convert was costly. Georgetown had three first-half corner kicks, but the Indiana defense, led by Soffner and fellow senior Caleb Konstanski, was simply too good.
Indiana came out stronger in the second half, pushing more on offense, and it finally paid off with the Kotlov goal at the 63:03 mark.
The Hoosiers had several opportunities to add a second, thanks to the strong play of freshman Femi Hollinger-Janzen, whose offensive relentlessness earned him an All-Tournament Team selection. Kotlov nearly added a second goal in the 83rd minute, but a Georgetown defender’s sliding, last-gasp effort kept the ball from finding its target.
Indiana’s national title was their first since 2004, and came in a season when few expected they could pull it off. The Hoosiers finished the regular season losing three of their last six contests, and seemingly had no momentum entering the tournament.
It was far from an easy road once they entered postseason play, as the Hoosiers were forced to knock off perennial powers Notre Dame and North Carolina on the road just to advance to the College Cup.
“After the Michigan State game (in the Big Ten Tournament), I think something just clicked in that we wanted this bad, and ever since, Notre Dame and all these games, we’ve been clicked in, and everyone was playing their role consistently,” Kotlov said. “It was perfect timing.”
Perhaps that will make it even sweeter for third-year head coach Todd Yeagley, who won his first title as a head coach. Yeagley was a four-year standout at Indiana and Hermann Trophy winner as a player, but never hoisted the trophy due to the dominance of Virginia in the early-to-mid 1990s. The biggest smile on the field postgame might have been on Yeagley’s face, watching his players celebrate.
“Words are hard to explain emotionally what we shared in the locker room, and what that team shared on the field,” said Yeagley.
This Indiana team need not worry about words. Now, they can just point to the trophy.