NCAA College Cup semifinals in Alabama

December 7, 2012

Greetings from Hoover, Ala., which, for the second consecutive year, is hosting the NCAA men’s College Cup at Regions Park in this Birmingham suburb.

Why in the name of Hoosiers and Hoyas is college soccer’s premier event being staged in, relatively speaking, a very un-soccer location? The Alabama Sports Foundation and the University of Alabama-Birmingham submitted the winning bid — it’s that simple. The nomadic event will move to PPL Park, home of MLS’s Philadelphia Union, next year.

UAB does have a soccer program — D.C. United defender Dejan Jakovic played for the Blazers! Alabama A&M and Alabama-Huntsville are former national powers. More than 18,000 are enrolled in the Alabama Youth Soccer Association. Raul and Spain faced Marcelo Gallardo and Argentina in a 1996 Olympic quarterfinal at historic Legion Field. The U.S. national team defeated Guatemala at the same venue in a 2006 World Cup qualifier. Former U.S. national team defender Cat Whitehill is from Birmingham.

The positives of playing in Hoover:

*Warm weather. It was cold last year but mild this weekend (upper 60s and into the 70s during the day). No such guarantees in Philadelphia next December.

*Easy access off I-459 about 15 minutes from Birmingham, abundant BBQ joints and holiday shopping options at the massive Riverchase Galleria near the stadium. Think a deep-south Tysons Corner (without Metro construction and HOT lanes).

*A true neutral venue. None of the four participants this year (Georgetown, Maryland, Indiana, Creighton) or last year (UNC, Charlotte, Creighton, UCLA) are within a short drive.

Okay, now the big negatives:

*None of the four participants — or any of the national powers with realistic hopes of advancing to the College Cup, for that matter — are within a short drive, posing an expensive and time-consuming journey for people who most want to attend. Nonetheless, attendance was good last year and should be again this year, thanks in part to national youth tournaments taking place in the area.

*It’s a baseball stadium — not a soccer stadium or even a football stadium. The minor league Birmingham Barons (Michael Jordan‘s short-lived baseball career crashed here in 1994) and the Southeastern Conference tournament are regular tenants. The configuration and sightlines were built with baseball in mind, not soccer.

Anyhow, here we are, and a new national champion will be crowned by the end of the weekend. Maryland and Georgetown, universities separated by 11 miles, are the highest remaining seeds and, as I explained in my formal story today, have carried the tradition of Washington area teams reaching the final four. Using the soccer game as a peg, columnist Mike Wise writes about the Maryland athletic director’s petty decision not to allow Terps coaches to schedule Georgetown in regular season play.

Upon posting these stories, Wise and I received this wonderful e-mail from loyal reader Everett Merritt:

As a player in the very first Men’s Soccer College Cup in the fall of 1959, I want to thank you for your coverage of the tournament in the Sports Section. While long ago, the privilege of participating in that game, and the whole tournament, was probably the highlight of my sports “career”. The semi-final game was, for a long time, the longest soccer game ever played in the states, totaling 14 periods and played over 2 days! We beat West Chester to reach the finals the next day against St. Louis. The next spring I graduated from the University of Bridgeport and came to the DC area. Of course, I got involved with the local soccer league, first playing for Maggies, then the Washington Internationals, and finally the British Lions in DC’s National Soccer League during the 1960′s. Following that was an exciting period of coaching in Youth Soccer in the National Capitol Soccer League. Then, was grateful that Montgomery County had first an over-35 and then later an over-45 senior league that allowed me to continue participating in the “beautiful game”.

Both semifinals are live on ESPNU: Maryland and Georgetown play at 5 p.m. ET, Indiana and Creighton at approximately 7:30. ESPN3.com will carry the first match in all time zones but the second game in just the Mountain and Pacific zones.

For those who aren’t familiar with college soccer, some rules and procedures are different than pro soccer:

*The clock goes down, not up, and is kept by the game supervisors, not the referee, and is stopped when necessary, so no added time.

*Extra time, if necessary, is two 10-minute periods, not 15-minute periods, and is decided by a golden goal, not played all the way out. In case of a draw, penalty kicks would follow.

*For TV purposes, a commercial break is taken during a stoppage midway through each half.

*There is no limit on the number of substitutions and a player who leaves the field is allowed to re-enter once in the second half.

Yeah, it’s different, one that doesn’t align with FIFA, but college soccer, for most players, is not designed to develop professionals; it’s for fun and to represent your school.

Soccer isn’t the only sport with different rules for college and the pros: College basketball plays two 20-minute halves for a 40-minute game; the NBA is four 12-minute quarters for 48. College football requires one foot inbounds on a pass play; the pros require two. College football’s overtime format is much different than the NFL’s.

If you are watching, enjoy the matches and please submit your in-game and postgame thoughts in our comments section.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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Steven Goff | December 6, 2012