Saturday, December 12, 2009

game preview: Akron

Date/Time: Sunday, December 13, 1 PM


Last matchup: Virginia 5, Akron 1 (1997)

Last game: UVA 2, Wake 1; Akron 0 (5), UNC 0 (4)

History against the Zips: 3-0

Special occasions call for a little extra work, and if playing for a national title isn't a special occasion, I don't know what is. Yesterday's match against Wake Forest was the first time I've gotten to see the soccer team in action all year, so naturally they almost blew it, but as it turned out I could hardly have lucked into a better one. And it sets up the first national championship game for the soccer team since 1997 and the first appearance of a UVA team in a title game of any kind since the lacrosse championship in 2006.

So what kind of team is Akron? Nobody ever thinks of Akron as a powerhouse in anything, because they aren't. But if they do anything well, soccer is it. Last year they were the #5 seed in the tournament and bowed out two rounds shy of the College Cup. They show up sporadically in the upper echelons of the NCAA soccer ranks throughout the years; this isn't even their first crack at a national title, having lost to Duke in the 1986 final. They're no dynasty, but they're no upstart either.

As you might expect from a team that hasn't lost a game all year (or even tied until just yesterday) they dominate the nationwide stat sheet. Offensively, they're #1. Defensively, #1. (We were #1 on defense til we gave up that goal yesterday.) They've scored 58 goals - the only other team to top 50 is Drake, which has played one more game and is skewed a bit by that 6-goal outburst they had earlier in the tournament against BC. Defensively, the numbers are just as gaudy - they've allowed seven goals all season. Frightening.

The obvious comparison is to Memphis's run a couple basketball seasons ago. They too posted a ridiculously good record in a crappy conference and made it all the way to the championship before losing. (Let's hope that part of the comparison holds up.) But the temptation, then and now, is to dismiss the unbeaten record as a product of a crappy schedule. Don't. Akron is legit. The average RPI of the teams on our schedule is 60.08; Akron, despite not playing an ACC schedule, is at 63.17. Not much difference. And they actually had a much tougher run through the tournament, RPI-wise, than we did, despite being the top seed; the only time our opponent was better than their opponent was yesterday.

They also put together a pretty rough nonconference schedule for themselves. They took on just about everyone in the Big Ten worth taking on - Penn State, Indiana, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Michigan. All tournament teams but Michigan, which also wasn't too shabby, and all tournament teams but Indiana (which advanced to the round of 16 anyway) seeded in the top 16. And they beat Tulsa (10th in the RPI and the tourney 8th seed) twice. In fact, if it weren't for Wake Forest showing up three times on our schedule, Akron would have the opponent's-RPI edge. No way of getting around it: Akron's no fluke.

The good news for us is the weather. Not that they're probably not used to the kind of shitty cold-ass rain that's on tap for tomorrow's game, being in Ohio and all, but it should really slow down the game. That's a good thing when we're about even on defense but they have the major statistical advantage on offense.

We have five national titles in soccer. A sixth would look mighty nice in the trophy case. It'd leave us just one shy of Indiana for second most overall. And probably most important of all, it'd give coach Gelnovatch something he very richly deserves. All these wins and yet not one in the title game; tomorrow's a good time to end that.

Bulletized thoughts on yesterday's game against Wake:

- If you watched that game in a vacuum and didn't know anything at all about either team, you'd probably guess that we were the more talented team but had never played together until that day. Wake was the team that looked like they knew each other's tendencies, and where to pass the ball. In between midfield and our own penalty area, they were killing us. Just killing us. Our passing was sloppy and terrible. Hunter Jumper in particular had a really egregious giveaway very late in the game that nearly resulted in the end of the whole thing. Not to single out Jumper, though; the whole team had problems getting the ball past midfield.

- I can't be the only one who watched Jonathan Villaneuva send that ball downfield and thought, "oh goody, let's try that again, it's only failed to work twenty times today."

- Speaking of Villaneuva, he's got to be man of the match, right? I mean, the guy not only set up both goals, he set them up beautifully. Not bad for a guy's first two assists of the whole season.

- OK, it was also Villanueva who let Wake's Corben Bone past him on the goal line for Wake's only goal. But seriously - who scores from there? I can't blame him for figuring that letting Bone run in there without any help, where the ball was likely to end up harmlessly in the keeper's hands, was preferable to a corner kick.

- Surprisingly clean game, wouldn't you say? Not a single yellow card. Big contrast to the first matchup this season when seven were handed out. And I definitely don't think it was because the ref just let 'em play - au contraire, I think it was called a little tighter than it could have been.

- We've now juuust squeaked past Wake three times this season. One has to feel fortunate. Or, if you're a Wake soccer fan, we've ripped out their hearts, stomped on it, and fed it to them. Oh, and we did it to them last season too, in the ACC tournament. So c'mon, what do we have to do to get past Mexico in this guy's estimation? Club the coach's puppy to death? Actually, he appears to be a true red-blooded USA Soccer fan and therefore his sentiments concerning Mexico are proper and correct.

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