After several years of boringly vapid finals it can be safely said that the College Cup is now firmly established as the sport’s most over-rated annual event.
The warning that the final game was going to be a bore was sounded loud and clear in the two semifinals. At least the matchups held some interest. Two veteran teams, UVa and UCLA against two teams, University of Maryland Baltimore County and Providence, appearing for the first time.
But a deeper difference was apparent. The new teams were livelier, more adventurous, sometimes even fun to watch. While UVa and UCLA seemed to coast arrogantly along, relying on their superior pedigree to make the difference.
That was, more or less, the way it panned out, though both teams were lucky to win. Providence took UCLA to overtime, where the Bruins triumphed thanks to a horrendous own-goal from Providence. While Virginia got an early goal and made it stand up for the rest of the game with a lot of solid defensive play.
It seemed to me that the wrong teams had triumphed. UMBC and Providence, the teams that had tried to play enterprising soccer, had lost. So there loomed a final that promised little more than the standard college fair -- energy, commitment, work rate, defense -- a game that would be low on just about all the qualities that you can rely on to spice up a soccer game.
So it proved. No goals, pitifully few shots, so not much goalmouth action. The big culprit was UVa, which spent most of this overtime game playing with everyone behind the ball. If you admire relentless defensive soccer, then this was for you.
If, on the other hand, you despair to see soccer in which players are so chained to defensive play that they not only stifle their opponents but destroy their own enterprise at the same time, then this was a game to forget.
Advance notices and much chatter from the TV commentators told us that UCLA’s German midfielder Leo Stolz was the guy to watch. So I did, and was not impressed. There was so little in this final that resembled good soccer. Both coaches, George Gelnovatch at UVa and Jorge Salcedo at UCLA are experienced guys who know what real soccer is, so how on earth can they be satisfied with the threadbare imitation that was on display in this game?
Is college soccer ever going to get its act in order? Will it ever stop relying so heavily on athletic prowess? Will the day ever come when we can watch a soccer final that features soccer subtlety, skill and artistry -- from both teams?
The feeling persists that a UMBC-Providence final would have been much more interesting, much livelier. If UVa and UCLA gave us all they’re capable of, then my hope would be that we’ve just seen the swan song of the traditional college powers, and that fresher challengers -- like UMBC and Providence -- are ready to have their say. New teams that might, at long last, be able to transform college soccer into a sport that not only looks like real soccer, but is played by teams whose players accurately reflect the talent -- all of it -- that is available in this country.
I suppose that is grasping at straws, but what else is one to do when confronted, year after year, with a sport that seems incapable of improving itself, or of simply moving with the times?
It remains to offer some sympathy to the TV guys, Glenn Davis and Taylor Twellman, who struggled along, trying to inject some life into an inert experience. Twellman let his guard slip once -- when Davis announced that highlights were coming up, Twellman asked “Do we have any?”
But neither commentator seemed aware of the statistical study that has been done on shootouts showing something like a 60-40 winning advantage for the team that kicks first. Presumably Virginia won the toss (we didn’t get any shots of that). They kicked first. And they won. A suitably synthetic ending to a largely unreal game.
No doubt some of these players will turn up in the MLS SuperDraft in January, and that is a sobering thought. I suppose a few defenders will be considered good enough for the pros, but the players who really matter, the creative players, where were they?
Once again, college soccer has shown us that it does not -- and after all these years, that presumably means cannot -- produce creative players.