So College Cup 2015 is upon us, and we're lucky enough to host it in Kansas City.
The first pair of teams to kick off were #2 Clemson again #6 Syracuse.
Clemson is in the NCAA College Cup for the first time in the last 10 years, and, it's worth noting for us here in SKC nation, it is Amadou Dia's alma mater.
Both teams enter with a similar style of play, keeping the ball on the ground and building through the midfield. For Clemson, the midfield play tends to center around Thales Moreno, who's tallied 7 of his 14 points on the season in their last three NCAA games, and also bagged the winning PK that sent Clemson into the College Cup semifinals. But Clemson's midfield also includes out with a strong cast of starters and a deep bench.
With this, Clemson leads the nation in assists, with 52 on the season, and also lead in assists per game, with 2.4. 17 of their players have registered an assist, and they can boast a squad with 12 goal scorers.
Syracuse is making it's first ever College Cup appearance after winning the 2015 ACC tournament. In fact, the last time these two teams saw each other, Syracuse beat Clemson 2-0 in the ACC Tournament semifinal match, and then went on to beat Notre Dame 1-0. During that tournament, Syracuse allowed just a single goal in four games.
Syracuse also boast an offense ranked sixth in the nation in total points with 134.
In fact, all time, Syracuse is 237-16-7 when scoring three or more goals, including a current winning streak of 50 matches. How's that for a statistic!?
It was a warm and sunny when kick off came. Incredibly so for December, truthfully.
Here's how the teams lined up.
Syracuse starters - Hendrik Hilpert, Liam Callahan, Louis Cross, Juuso Pasanen, Ben Pol, Julian Buescher, Noah Rhynhart, Chris Nanco, Miles Robinson, Kamal Miller, and Oyvind Alseth.
Clemson starters - Andrew Tarbell, Kyle Fisher, Patrick Bunk-Anderse, Oliver Shannon, Paul Clowes, Iman Mafi, Diego Campos, T.J. Casner, Aaron Jones, Thales Moreno, and Austen Burnikel.
Clemson started strong, playing down their right side through Diego Campos, who looked dangerous initially. Syracuse absorbed pressure early as a chance from Clemson in the third minute went just wide.
As the game matured through the first half, Clemson continued to move the ball through midfield and started planing down both sides, with Diego Campos continuing to be a threat. For the first fifteen or so minutes Syracuse seemed content to absorb pressure, staying compact and looking for chances to counter. Eventually, Syracuse began to enjoy more possession and started to probe, finding some success along their own right flank with several over-the-top and through balls, and in the 21st minute, some nifty footwork from Syracuse's Ben Pol lead to a shot that Clemson keeper Andrew Tarbell initially spilled, almost leading to a rebound goal, but Tarbell recovered well to keep the match scoreless.
Although Clemson had started out the aggressor, by the 25th minute, Syracuse had three chances at goal, while Clemson had none.
Syracuse continued to enjoy some good spells of possession and Clemson didn't do themselves any favors, with several turn-over in the midfield which lead to dangerous runs. A number of time Syracuse was able to whip the ball across the face of goal, and Clemson was somewhat fortunate there was no one there for a tap in.
Clemson continued to attack down the right side, but met with little success.
Towards the end of the first half, Clemson substitute Michael Melvin had a good shot on goal, which was met with an equally good save, leading to a corner, which was a dangerous in-swinger that was punched away at the last moment.
The first half ended scoreless, and as the sun went down, the temperature dropped. It was very MLS Cup 2013, actually.
The second half started with an early foul and free kick for Syracuse, which lead to what looked to be an incidental handball from Clemson in the box, which wasn't whistled (rightly so, from my vantage). Syracuse came out of their defensive shell somewhat and the game began to get a bit sloppier, as well as a bit chippier, with a sequence of rapid fouls form both sides.
A good run from Chris Nanco in the 58th minute lead to a foul about 30 yards out in a good position, but the direct attempt on goal went just high and wide.
A short time later a deep throw in for Clemson lead to a high rising header directed on goal, but straight to the keeper.
Clemson continued to give the ball away in the midfield and Syraucse continued to whip in good crosses across the face of goal, with no one home to convert.
By the 74th minute another sequence of fouls lead the referee to assert himself somewhat more, calming and warning players more frequently.
One of the best chances came in the 75th minute as another good Syracuse cross lead to a header that Andrew Tarbell just managed to punch away.
Chris Nanco for Syracuse had looked threatening all half, and in the 81st minute was nearly played through alone on goal, but was flagged for being a hair offside.
Another flurry from Syracuse occurred near the end of the half, but once again Andrew Tarbell came up big, making a diving save, recovering, and easily catching the rebound. Then just moments later he laid out full stretch to parry away a shot from distance.
Syracuse looked to be the better team in the second half but were unable to find a goal, and regulation ended 0-0.
Clemson was more aggressive out of the gate and quickly earned a corner, which nearly turned into an Olympico, but Syracuse's Hendrik Hilpert was able to push over the top of the cross bar.
The first yellow card of the match was issued in the dying minutes of the first extra period to Aaron Jones of Clemson, and shortly after, the first extra period ended.
The second period was a bit of a mirror image of the first, with Syracuse coming out of the gates more dominant. Chris Nanco got through one-on-one against Andrew Tarbell but wasn't able to score as Tarbell was quick off the line to make a great save. Minutes later Nanco's deft footwork lead to a good chance and a deep throw in, but Clemson was able to clear the ball and reset. By the end of the second period, play had slowed down and players were bunching.
And, once again (third time this season), I was forced to endure penalties. At least, for this one, I had nothing personally invested. I don't think my heart could take it, and I don't envy players or fans on either side.
Iman Mafi for Clemson stepped up first and converted.
Then, Oyvind Alseth's penalty for Syracuse was saved by Tarbell. Michael Melvin for Clemson converted his next, as did Julian Buescher for Syracuse. Thales Moreno took a very good penalty to put Clemson up 3 - 1.
Oskar Sewerin stepped up and absolutely blasted a shot that, unfortunately for Syracuse, curled left and missed the target. And then, with the match on the line, Clemson's T. J. Casner calmly converted his kick to give Clemson the 4-1 win on penalties, sending them into the College Cup Final on Sunday.
Some quick game notes :
Despite the loss, this was the 9th shut out of the season for Syracuse. It was also the 9th shutout of the season for Clemson.
Andrew Tarbell made a season high eight saves.
Clemson will play for it's third national title, having also won in 1984 and 1987.