Maryland, North Carolina Reach NCAA Men's Soccer Final

Maryland forward Graham Zusi, left, and defender Omar Gonzalez celebrate after Zusi scored the game-winning goal in overtime.
Maryland forward Graham Zusi, left, and defender Omar Gonzalez celebrate after Zusi scored the game-winning goal in overtime. (By Matt Slocum -- Associated Press)
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By Steven Goff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 13, 2008

FRISCO, Tex., Dec. 12 -- The Maryland men's soccer team did not want its NCAA College Cup semifinal Friday night decided in a penalty kick tiebreaker. Not with the way St. John's goalkeeper Neal Kitson was stopping everything struck in his direction, not with the way the Terrapins were missing scoring opportunities and not with the karma that usually sinks dominant teams that fail to finish the job in regulation or overtime.

With time and scoring chances running out at Pizza Hut Park, senior midfielder Graham Zusi ensured that penalty kicks would not be necessary. Zusi scored on a 26-yard free kick with about six minutes remaining in sudden-death overtime to lift the Terrapins to a 1-0 victory and a berth in Sunday's championship game.

The second-seeded Terrapins (22-3) will play No. 13 North Carolina (15-7-1), which upset defending champion Wake Forest, 1-0. In consecutive games last month, Maryland defeated the Tar Heels, 2-1 and 1-0.

In setting a program record with their 15th straight victory, the Terrapins had big advantages in shots (19-3) and corner kicks (7-1) against the third-seeded Red Storm (19-3-3). However, Kitson made several breathtaking saves and the Terrapins hit the post and squandered other opportunities.

"The way [Kitson] was playing, certainly St. John's would have had the advantage" in penalty kicks, Terrapins Coach Sasho Cirovski said. "Since we carried the game, a lot of times history seems to [favor] the team that is a little more fortunate to be there and we were very happy to end it before penalty kicks."

Zusi curled the free kick over the defensive wall and into the left side of the net, just beyond Kitson's reach.

"Sasho told me [Wednesday] I was due for one -- it's about time," said Zusi, who has five goals this year. "I just wanted to give it a chance. You don't want to over-hit those because that's when they get out of control. It went where I wanted it to."

Maryland was far superior in the first half, but didn't generate any high-quality scoring chances until just before the break.

"We knew St. John's would be tough to penetrate and they made it difficult," Cirovski said. "I thought we carried the game -- at times very well, at times it was tough to get a rhythm."

Six minutes into the second half, Kitson lunged to his right to block Zusi's 25-yard drive, but left the rebound for Jason Herrick. Kitson scrambled to cover the near corner, leaving much of the net exposed, but Herrick rolled an eight-yard shot wide of the far post.

Maryland's miss nine minutes later was just as excruciating. Jeremy Hall ran at the St. John's defense and led Zusi deep into the box for an angled shot. Kitson reacted well, getting a hand on the ball and then watched it strike the outside of the far post.

Kitson then made a diving save on Zusi's drive in the 71st minute and a spectacular reflex stop on Herrick's close-in header in the 74th.

"We didn't get frustrated, we kept our heads up, we kept each other up," Zusi said.

Meantime, the Red Storm had nothing to offer, playing so conservatively that a penalty kick tiebreaker was its only hope. "We shut them down in the air and we also shut them down on the ground," said Maryland defender Omar Gonzalez, a Dallas native.

As regulation time faded and fatigue set in, the match leveled off -- a relief to the embattled Red Storm. Neither team threatened in the first 10-minute overtime before Zusi ended it.

"We have great faith in him," Cirovski said, "and he hit it beautifully."

In the first match, North Carolina attacked forcefully and applied pressure all over the field against a team considered one of the best in the recent history of college soccer. Top-seeded Wake (21-2-1) failed to score for only the second time this year.

In the fourth minute, Zach Loyd crossed from the edge of the penalty area to Brian Shriver, who scored on an eight-yard header. Brooks Haggerty preserved the lead with several quality saves.

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