Sporting Park is set to host the 2015 NCAA Men's College Cup with the semifinals slated for Friday night and the championship match set for Sunday afternoon. Clemson and Syracuse will square off at 5 p.m. Friday in the first semifinal match. Akron and Stanford will kick off 45 minutes after the conclusion of the first match. Tickets for both matches are available and can be purchase at Ticketmaster.com or at the box office tonight.
To preview this year's College Cup, we spoke with TopDrawerSoccer.com staff reporter / editor Will Parchman.
Jonathan Kaplan: When you look at this year's College Cup, does the fact that any of these teams are here surprise you?
Will Parchman: I wouldn't say surprised, no. Last year was kind of the year of the dark horse, and there certainly aren't any here. Syracuse is maybe the closest thing, but even then, they won the ACC tourney, which is the most difficult conference tourney to win, so they belong here as much as anyone. It's become increasingly rarer to see four favorites make it all the way to the College Cup, but this year there aren't a ton of surprises. All four have serious pro prospects.
JK: Everyone is familiar with Jordan Morris, but which other players in this tournament will MLS fans want to keep an eye on?
WP: Morris has been clutch of course, but keep an eye on Brandon Vincent, his teammate. He's the strongest senior defender in this draft class, and he'll have double the interest because he was converted to left back this year and has done well there. Adam Najem at Akron is an electric midfielder, and I'd frankly be a bit surprised if the Red Bulls didn't try to offer him a Homegrown deal this offseason. Syracuse's attack is based around creative No. 10 Julian Buescher - he's seventh in the NCAA this year in assists - while Clemson's Brazilian midfielder Thales Moreno has had a huge postseason. Tons of individual talent on offer this weekend.
JK: Despite losing MLS-caliber players each year, how has Akron continued to maintain their strong form?
WP: Consistency, without a doubt. When Caleb Porter left for Portland after the 2012 season, Akron plugged in assistant Jared Embick and hasn't missed a beat. They had some huge recruiting successes early in Porter's tenure around 2007-2009, and that set the table for the fluid attacking style you see today. It's a destination program now, without a doubt. As long as Porter's coaching tree stays active and continues to branch off through Embick and others, Akron will play the kind of soccer people pay to watch. They're certainly doing that this year. Any Akron game is worth the price of admission.
JK: Many people feel the growth of the Development Academy has hurt the college game. Do you agree with that assessment?
WP: I don't know how much it's hurt the college game. Certainly you have guys jumping straight to the pros from the U18 level now, but it doesn't happen as often as many thought it would. Yet, anyway. In fact, I'd argue college soccer is as watchable as it's ever been. USL is still in its early days as far as its partnership with MLS is concerned, and I don't think players are all that confident they'll get substantive playing time in the league if they go pro as teenagers. I think you can make a case that playing at Maryland or UCLA or Akron as a freshman is a better development tool than the USL right now. And until players think the value of jumping to MLS - which has not always been the friendliest league to young players - straight out of the DA supersedes the value of playing through a more established route like the college game, I think you'll continue to see quality academy players choose the college route. This College Cup, which features USMNT-capped Jordan Morris, kind of proves that.
JK: What needs to happen for college soccer to appeal to more of a mainstream audience?
WP: Rules changes have to be first. Reverse the clocks (they count down, bizarrely), introduce injury time, eliminate extra time/golden goal in regular season matches and have more restrictive substitution rules. The biggie, though, is lengthening the season to 9-10 months. College players aren't necessarily at a disadvantage because they only play 20-25 games a year. They're at a disadvantage because they can only train full time during the season, which is a scant three-plus months long. That's why the learning curve into the pro game is as high as it is out of college. I think the intensity level during the college season is actually pretty good, but you see pro rookies fade in August and September all the time because they aren't used to the stress of a full season. Those are good places to start.
JK: What is your prediction for this weekend?
WP: I think the Akron-Stanford winner is well placed to kick on and win it all. If those two teams were on opposite sides of the bracket I think that's your final. Clemson will probably nick Syracuse, which has a really young back line, and I like Akron to shade Stanford, which will probably lose the possession battle and have to rely on the counter a bit more than they're used to. In an Akron-Clemson final, I'll take Akron 3-2 in an absolute classic. Both those teams like to play through the midfield and press high, which would make for fantastic theater.