Without much hesitation, I'd say that the weekend's Akron vs. North Carolina NCAA Division I semifinal was probably the best college game that I've seen. And that's in nearly 50 years of watching. I put that probably in there, because there are some ifs and buts to be considered. Firstly: I'm using the criteria of college soccer to judge the game -- I'm not comparing it with youth soccer generally, or with, say, the Under-20 World Cup.
If we must have college soccer, then this was as good a display of the strengths it possesses that you could ask for. We got 110 minutes of superb commitment, stamina, effort, speed, athleticism and -- again within the college criteria -- skill. It was exciting, for sure -- but it suffered ultimately in that it couldn't come up with even one goal, and so collapsed into what has to be an anticlimax: the shootout. Not an anticlimax for the winners, Akron, of course. But for everyone else, a let-down, like drawing the "winner" out of a hat.
Akron a worthy winner, nevertheless? Not really. There was nothing to separate these teams, really and it came down to one blown shot by Jordan Graye. As so often in the accursed shootout, it was a player who had played very well in the real game who made the fatal mistake.
But I think I'd probably be writing a very similar opinion had North Carolina won. Yes, for me, Carolina was the better team -- that is, it played the more attractive soccer. But it couldn't score -- so Akron nipped in and whisked away the prize.
Akron coach Caleb Porter played at Indiana University. And no doubt he learned a good deal about coaching from Jerry Yeagley. Which is why Akron plays like Indiana. With one notable difference; Yeagley usually managed to find a playmaker. Often they were foreign players -- Angelo Di Bernardo, Armando Betancourt and Aleksey Korol -- but Brian Maisonneuve was a good American example.
Porter has no playmaker, no organizing mastermind to vary the pace and to upset the predictability. Indeed, one might even wonder whether a playmaker could survive this frantic pace. North Carolina has Michael Farfan, but we saw nothing like the best of him as he was caught up in the pell-mell activity, almost compelled by the insistent rhythm of the game to quick-fire first-time passes.
At that particular game, Akron is better. Its passing was, on the whole, quick and crisp and accurate. With one drawback. It was almost always predictable. Nine times out of 10 you would have little difficulty predicting where the next Akron pass would be going. That may not make defending against them easy, but it makes it more straightforward.
In the final, Virginia certainly made it look pretty standard stuff, defending stoutly for 110 minutes, barely allowing Akron a clear shot on goal. At the other end of the field, Virginia also found it impossible to score.
So the brainless "defense wins championships" mantra yet again showed its threadbareness. In the end it came down to scoring goals, even though they were fake shootout goals -- and the 2009 College Cup closed, after 220 minutes of scoreless soccer, with another shootout. And once again the losing team's outstanding player became the goat. Blair Gavin had the miss this time, crucial and cruel, that doomed Akron.
The same question -- did Virginia deserve this win? Again -- not really. Akron did enough to win, but its luck ran out in the semi. If anything, the trophy should be split down the middle.
Then again, maybe Virginia does deserve it on the grounds that it was the only team out of the four that actually won a game -- its semi, when it beat Wake Forest, 2-1, in overtime. But the final game was as even as you can get. The shootout decided against Akron this time, so Virginia is the champion. Neither deservedly nor undeservedly - that is the sort of judgment-defying limbo that the shootout spawns.
To return to an overall look at college soccer. The pluses are all those largely physical qualities that I mentioned earlier on. And they are impressive. But they are not enough. College soccer simply has to find a way to start playing a more thoughtful, much more skillful game. If, that is, it is going to produce pro players for MLS.
MLS Commissioner Don Garber should be concerned at what he sees here. Because it is deceiving. The colleges are still producing plenty of average-to-good defenders and midfielders. Very few top level-forwards, and no creative midfielders. It's been that way for as long as I can remember. Working on the possibly already fictional notion that the colleges will supply the American base of MLS teams, this does not bode well for the future of MLS as a league that needs to play entertaining soccer.
But ... maybe we're seeing the first glimmer of a change in attitude here, for, just maybe, the presence of Michael Farfan on North Carolina and Jonathan Villanueva on Virginia offers a shimmer of hope that the colleges are, years later than they should have been, interested in recruiting Latino players -- by which I mean particularly the creative midfielders and forwards.
This blind spot has marred the college record for decades. On these four finalist teams, there were over twice as many African-Americans as Hispanics. Given that American blacks do not play soccer in significant numbers, but Latin Americans very definitely do, that needs some explaining. How the colleges and their coaches explain it, I do not know. But someone ought to tell us what is going on.