Akron-UVa will be a balanced title game
Undefeated Zips and the Cavaliers set to meet in men's soccer national championship
CARY, N.C. -- Jonathan Villanueva well remembers Virginia's trip to the 2006 men's College Cup semifinals in St. Louis.
UCLA trounced the Cavaliers 4-0.
Virginia's 2-1 overtime win against No. 3 seed Wake Forest in a national semifinal on a frigid, 31-degree evening Friday at WakeMed Soccer Park was much the opposite. A complete effort offensively and defensively mirrored the style of play that dictated much of the Cavaliers' season early on: grind, then attack.
"In '06, our exit wasn't a very good one," senior midfielder Villanueva said after Friday's win, "so we really wanted to come out here as seniors and put in a good performance."
The Cavs' defense, which had recorded 11 straight shutouts coming into Friday's game, was relentless in frustrating the Demon Deacons. Even the Cavs' injured players off the bench were a threat, demonstrating a depth that will match well against No.1-seed Akron in Sunday's national championship game (ESPN2, Sunday at 1 p.m. ET). The Zips (23-0-1) remained undefeated on the season and advanced to the title game after beating No. 5 seed North Carolina 5-4 on penalty kicks after an 0-0 tie in Friday's second semifinal.
Against Wake Forest, the Cavaliers' defense showed why it has led the nation this year in fewest goals allowed (.30 per game) and will be an ultimate battle for the Zips' No. 1-ranked offense, which entered the College Cup averaging 2.52 goals per game.
Virginia freshman forward Will Bates, who led the team with 12 goals in the regular season, provided the bulk of the Cavs' first-half offensive drives Friday.
"We told ourselves that we got through the hardest part early [in the half], and we knew it'd slow down once everyone got tired," Bates said. "So then we came back and started attacking."
"We weren't really giving them pressure, knocking them around, and we knew we needed to do that to shut them down," said sophomore Brian Ownby. He helped do just that, coming off the bench in overtime to score the game-winning goal.
The Cavs also remembered what coach George Gelnovatch had preached all season: grind, grind, grind.
Virginia's offense dictated the early second half with a quick-passing strategy. In the 54th minute, Villanueva took a shot and Wake goalie Akira Fitzgerald dove for the save. Fitzgerald didn't recover fast enough, though, and Cavs sophomore Tony Tchani knocked the deflection in for the game's first score.
The sequence illustrated another element of the Cavs' play: If their opponents commit an error, however small, they'll make them pay for it.
"They defend very well as a team and they play off of your mistakes," said Wake Forest coach Jay Vidovich after his team's loss.
A Wake Forest goal by Corben Bone in the 69th minute tied the game at 1-1, ending the Cavaliers' streak of not having been scored on in 1,176 minutes, 51 seconds of play.
Before the overtime period began, Bates said Gelnovatch told the Cavs "This is nothing new. We've been here all year. Grind it out; let's make it happen."
Ownby -- who started only six games this season after starting 14 last year and being named to the ACC's all-freshman team -- worked as a sub because of a sports hernia. He came in off the bench Friday and earned his chance to make a mark after Villanueva took the ball downfield, setting up Ownby's lob into the goal to win the game in the 92nd minute.
"I basically kicked it as hard as I can, as far as I can," Villanueva said of the pass to Ownby. "I knew that he's faster than anybody else that I know, so I figured he'd catch up to it wherever it went."
Strong defense ultimately earned the Cavaliers offensive opportunities, a style of play the Zips will balance well. Among other statistical toppers, Akron entered its first College Cup since 1986 with a nation-leading 17 shutouts -- one more than Virginia.
While their win streak ended Friday at 23, the Zips held onto their unbeaten streak by pushing offensively against the Tar Heels throughout regulation and two overtime periods and emerging victorious from the penalty-kick battle.
"We had a lot of possession, we defended very well, recorded our 18th shutout and have only given up seven goals all season long," Akron coach Caleb Porter said after the game, in which Akron was up a man after the 70th minute, when North Carolina's Brett King was ejected due to his second yellow card. "People have focused on our attack, but a championship team attacks and defends well."
It's hard to identify a weakness in what Porter calls the deepest Akron team he's coached in his four seasons. They held possession much of the game against the Tar Heels and illustrated why sophomore forward Teal Bunbury leads the nation in scoring with 17 goals.
Freshman goalkeeper David Meves played all 110 minutes and showed that even the Zips' rookies are short on flaws. His aggressive style will match up well against Cavaliers junior goalie Diego Restrepo, who set a single-season school record for shutouts this year with 15.
Virginia will need every bit of Restrepo's talent against Akron's relentless offense. The Zips will pound at Virginia's defense in much the same way Wake Forest did at the start Friday. The test Sunday will be whether the Cavaliers can hold off the Zips until their usual second-half offense kicks in.
The Zips last went undefeated in the regular season in 1968, only to lose to in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Should they win Sunday, they'll become the first team in 35 years to go undefeated and win a national championship.
And while many predicted the Zips would struggle against any of the College Cup's three ACC teams, which they had yet to face this year, the national championship matchup now stands with Akron versus the lone ACC survivor.
"This team doesn't feel inferior to anybody," Porter said. "We respect the ACC -- it has tremendous teams and top programs -- but we've believed all year long that we're as good as anybody."
Anna K. Clemmons is a writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.
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