By Paul Gardner
The contrast at the College Cup bordered on the grotesque. From the sheer excitement and the unbridled, non-stop attacking action of the Maryland-Georgetown semifinal, the event quickly collapsed into the trite defensive boredom of the Indiana-Georgetown final.
The final, of course, was exactly what we have come to expect in these games. College soccer rarely does itself any favors in this tournament by giving us teams that emphasize defense. The fact that Indiana was coming off two 1-0 wins was warning enough. Indiana’s goalkeeper (well, it would be the goalkeeper, wouldn’t it?) Luis Soffner, later put it succinctly: “We always said that defense was going to win the championship ... we had great team defense from front to back, and it paid off."
Indeed. Congratulations, then, to Indiana’s defense. And let us now turn back to that epic semifinal, the game that reminded those of us who doubted it would ever happen, that college soccer does have something to offer -- as an enjoyable, skillful game to play, and as an exciting, entertaining game to watch.
The rock-bottom qualities of the college game have always been physical -- running, stamina, physical commitment, hustle. All of which are needed to play the sport effectively -- but when they come to dominate, when they actually replacethe more sophisticated and subtle skills, they end up distorting the game into a risible and tedious parody of itself.
A fate that college soccer has always invited by its steadfast refusal (or, if you like, its inability, in the face of NCAA indifference) to pursue a more adventurous version of the sport.
Suddenly, last Friday night, Maryland and Georgetown lit things up with something I never thought to see in the college finals -- a game in which both teams were committed to all-out attacking soccer.
Before I get too carried away, this was still college soccer, with all its mistakes and its naivetes. This was not Barcelona. But it was a game that showed that the college game can be about something more than the wanton expense of energy allied to tactical smart-assery.
The skill level of the players, obviously, varied quite a bit -- but it was never less than good. What made this game rather different was that, although it was played at the standard college helter-skelter pace, there was a fair amount of midfield play -- something that allowed playmakers and other creative types like forwards to display their skills. Again, this is not something that college soccer has been noted for. But here, we got a good look at players like Maryland’s Schillo Tshuma and Patrick Mullins, and Georgetown’s Brandon Allen, Steve Neumann and, particularly, Andy Riemer who, had I been asked, I would have voted the game’s MVP.
All of them with plenty of freedom to show off their skills in a wide open game, a game free of the choking grasp of defense, a game in which the creative players could breathe their skills into the action.
I’m quite uncertain of the coaches’ contributions to this festival. They made the key first moves, of course -- Sasho Cirovski recruited the Maryland players, Brian Wiese those of Georgetown. But the game itself looked like one that had gotten away from the coaches. I mean -- eight goals. We know that high-scoring games scare the heck out of coaches. “I blacked out after halftime,” said Wiese -- presumably he was joking, but the thought of a coach fainting away on the sideline at the sight of so many goals is not to be dismissed. Four-four games just don’t happen when the coaches are keeping a firm grip on things.
In a game where everything changed so rapidly and dramatically with almost every play, it would have been impossible for detailed coaching instructions to have any meaning. This was a time for player improvisation -- and for the coaches to go with that. The players performed splendidly -- so I can assume that the coaches played their role, too.
But this wonderful game finished -- for me -- in an unacceptably trivial way. No fault of the players or the coaches -- I’m referring to the shootout. There are many reasons for disliking this ugly tiebreaker, all well-enough known. One that isn’t often discussed is the brutal way that it usually forces a single player to bear the weight of his team’s loss. On Friday, Helge Leikvang took the fateful last kick for Maryland -- and saw his shot saved. My sympathies to Leikvang -- he didn’t deserve that, no player deserves that.
No doubt Sasho Cirovski will feel that he didn’t deserve his fate either -- to end up as the losing coach after his team, in the closing minutes of regulation time, had come so close to scoring the winning goal. But he and Maryland had their slice of luck early in the game when Tshuma’s opening goal was allowed to stand. It should have been nixed by an offside call against Tshuma.
Maybe Cirovski -- and, for his loss in the final, Wiese -- can both feel some satisfaction for the way that their teams played in their semifinal. A thoroughly invigorating game with one clear winner -- the sport of soccer, and particularly college soccer.