On a field hidden in the backyard of the campus, the American University soccer team yesterday demonstrated skills befitting any fall sports classic and, in so doing, moved within a step of the national championship.
American controlled the midfield with short, crisp passes, outplayed Hartwick for much of the NCAA semifinal and Fernando Iturbe headed in a goal in the 77th minute to lift the Eagles over Hartwick, 1-0, before 5,300 at Reeves Field.
American (19-2-2) will play for the championship next Saturday at 10 p.m. EST in the Seattle Kingdome against the winner of today's Evansville (Ind.)-UCLA match.
"I think we're ready," said Eagles Coach Pete Mehlert. "This team has proved it's among the best in the nation."
Hartwick (17-3-1), of Oneonta, N.Y., a perennial contender for the national title, was eliminated last year in the semifinals.
Yesterday, the Warriors mounted their greatest offensive threat in the final 10 minutes, but failed to score. The crowd exulted. The students ran onto the field, hoisted high-scoring striker Michael Brady, Iturbe and Mehlert on their shoulders and chanted, "Seattle, Seattle, AU, AU."
"They deserve to go," said Hartwick Coach Jim Lennox. "AU asserted itself from the beginning. They were first to every ball. They completely dominated us for 80 to 90 minutes. I enjoyed watching them play."
American's goal came when wing Barry Henderson crossed a long ball to Brady, who was guarded doggedly throughout and had a defender right behind him. With his back to the goal, Brady headed it backward to Iturbe, who had come rushing down field. Iturbe headed it on one bounce, into the left corner of the net.
"I was too far from goal to shoot," said Brady, who was just inside the 18-yard line. "I saw Fernando making a run to the corner and I flicked it over to him."
Iturbe was inside the six-yard line when he knocked it in, out of the reach of Hartwick goalie Mike Harrison. "I know whenever the ball is played to Brady or (Glen) Buchanan in the air, they're going to get a piece, so I'm always around," said Iturbe, who missed much of the season with a knee injury and had only two goals.
"As soon as I headed it, I was waiting to get punched in the face, because the keeper ran to punch it out," he said.
Although the Eagles controlled play, they only took seven shots on goal; Hartwick took six. "In a semifinal, you're not going to get many chances," Lennox said.
Iturbe had another good chance to score. With 7:04 left in the first half, Buchanan, a 6-foot-2 stopper from Annandale, headed Adrian Gaitan's throw-in. Iturbe took the ball and got off a shot, but Harrison made a diving save to knock it clear. "I took my time and I did it well," Iturbe said. "I looked from the ground upward to see the ball in the net, but it wasn't there."
Both Iturbe's success and his near-miss were the result of American's strong play in the midfield. "The goal had to come because we were creating chances," Iturbe said.
David Nakhid, John Diffley and Gaitan were too quick and too skillful for the Hartwick players. They advanced the ball to the forwards with a tight passing game.
American also created chances by building from the back. Sweeper Keith Trehy, Buchanan, and outside backs Troy Regis and Serge Torreilles made Hartwick's offensive surges seem uncoordinated. Once the Eagles' back line gained possession, they easily moved it into the midfield.