Men's College Cup Preview: UCLA, UVa face upstarts

By Paul Kennedy
(@pkedit)

UCLA and Virginia, two of the most successful programs in the history of men's soccer, are back at the Men's College Cup. Between them, they've won 10 national titles, and they will go up against two teams, Providence and UMBC, that have never been to the final four. Heck, the Friars and Retrievers had never advanced as far as the round of 16 of the NCAA Division I Men's Tournament before this year.

Friday's semifinals -- Virginia-UMBC and UCLA-Providence -- are a study in contrast. Defense has been the order of the day for UVa and UMBC, which have given up a combined two goals in seven NCAA Tournament games. The UCLA and Providence quarterfinals were both wild affairs: 3-3 (followed by an eight-round shootout) for the Bruins and 3-2 for the Friars.

VIRGINIA-UMBC (ESPNU/Watch ESPN, 5 p.m. ET). The show in Cary, N.C., begins with a matchup between No. 16 Virginia and UMBC. The Cavaliers have won all four previous meetings between the teams, but that past dominance goes out the window on Friday.

What UMBC accomplished in the space of 16 days is nothing short of amazing. It is the first team in the NCAA Division I Men's Tournament to win four consecutive road games and to post shutouts in four consecutive games to reach the College Cup. And the Retrievers weren't playing any slouches. They beat Wake Forest, Maryland, Louisville and Creighton, all teams that have won or played for national championships.

UMBC is very much a Baltimore team with a nucleus of players who grew up in Baltimore and gravitated to UMBC after starting out their college careers elsewhere: Oumar Ballo (CCBC-Essex), Marquez Fernandez (Maryland), Mamadou Kansaye (N.C. State), Malcolm Harris (Denver) and Kay Banjo (Towson).

The Retrievers might be new to the national scene, but they've won three straight America East titles, and have plenty of experience. Coach Pete Caringi starts seven seniors, though the only one who was invited to the adidas MLS Combine is Ballo, who leads the defense.

“It’s been an incredible run," Caringi said. "Just the fact that we had to travel as much as we did and play the schools that have national reputations in soccer. We were obviously the underdog in each step of the way."

Virginia has won seven times in 11 previous semifinals and gone on to win (or share) six of the seven finals in which it has played. One of the four losses in the semifinals came last year when it lost to Maryland, 2-1.

Just a month ago, one would have given the Cavs no chance of returning to the College Cup. They finished eighth in the ACC and got clobbered by Notre Dame, 3-0, in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals. But two weeks off before the NCAA Tournament allowed the Cavaliers to regroup, and their progress to the final four is almost as impressive as that of UMBC.

After a 3-1 win over a good UNC Wilmington at home, they went on the road and won at No. 1 seed and defending champion Notre Dame and beat No. 8 Georgetown in a shootout after getting an equalizer from Todd Wharton in the 90th minute. They've done it without star Eric Bird, who was injured two minutes into the UNCW match.

Besides Bird, who might be available against UMBC, UVa does not have a lot of big names. Its best pro prospect from the 2013 College Cup, Jordan Allen, signed with Real Salt Lake after his freshman season. The player to watch on Friday is Darius Madison, out of the Philadelphia Union academy program (FC Delco).

UCLA-PROVIDENCE (ESPNU/Watch ESPN, 7:30 p.m. ET). The game to watch is the second game, between the Bruins and Friars, the first ever meeting between the two teams.

UCLA is loaded with MLS prospects in German senior Leo Stolz, sophomore defender Michael Amick and freshman Abu Danladi from Ghana via the Right to Dream program, and the Bruins will be the heavy favorites. They are making their 14th appearance in the College Cup. Only Indiana (18) and Saint Louis (16) have made more.

Scoring has not been a problem for the Bruins, who have scored eight goals in three NCAA Tournament games. The problem is, they've conceded six goals. Coach Jorge Salcedo is hopeful UCLA, the No. 2 seed, can put it all together this weekend.

“We want to reach our full potential, individually and collectively," he said on Thursday. "We have seen signs of that throughout the tournament, and we hope this weekend everyone … sees the absolute full potential of our team.”

The Friars have also demonstrated they can also score, putting three goals past No. 3 seed Michigan State in East Lansing last week to raise their season average to 1.91 goals a game, the most of any team in Cary.

Norwegian Markus Naglestad leads the Friars in goals with 10 (including an NCAA record three goals in the space of 120 seconds against Rhode Island in the season opener). The duo of senior Fabio Machado and sophomore Dominik Machado (both products of the New England Revolution Academy program but not related) have a combined 11 goals and 10 assists, while German freshman Daniel Neustadter, whose older brother is German international Roman Neustadter, joined the Machados on the scoresheet against Michigan State.

UCLA has the tradition in its favor -- 15 former Bruins have been named to the last seven U.S. World Cup teams -- but Providence is ready to make its own history.

"From our end," said third-year Friar coach Craig Stewart, “definitely that group this year is no different."
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