This fall marks the fourth time in eight seasons that two teams from the soccer-rich region have advanced to the closing weekend, a foreseeable development given Virginia and Georgetown sat at or near the top of the national rankings most of the season before dodging quarterfinal scares to secure passage to the College Cup at WakeMed Soccer Park.
What makes this year different is the tantalizing possibility of a D.C.-centric championship match. It has never occurred, and only once before was it feasible, in 1963, when Navy did its part and Maryland lost in the other semifinal.
This year, the Cavaliers and Hoyas have followed parallel paths: first and second respectively in goals conceded, one defeat apiece, conference titles and fulfilling homestands from the round of 32 through the quarterfinals.
Each boasts a player among the three finalists for the Hermann Trophy, college soccer’s top individual award. Both teams bused to this Raleigh suburb.
Tall obstacles, though, stand in the way of a showdown, more so for the third-seeded Hoyas (18-1-3), who, in Friday’s first match, will face No. 7 Stanford (14-2-5), the champion in 2015 through 2017.
In the late game, top-seeded Virginia (20-1-1) will play a long-familiar foe, No. 4 Wake Forest (16-4-2), the team the Cavaliers defeated in the ACC semifinals.
Omens are working in Virginia’s favor. The Cavaliers’ past two NCAA titles were won here in 2009 and 2014. They also have won four ACC crowns in Cary, including last month.
“We didn’t even do a walk-through” at the 10,000-seat stadium, said Cavaliers Coach George Gelnovatch, who believes his team is staying in the same hotel as in 2014. “The lay of the land helps, for sure. This place has been good to us.”
The Cavaliers have been good all season, conceding the fewest goals in the land (nine), posting the most shutouts (15) and running off winning streaks of 10 and nine, the current run. In ACC and NCAA tournament meetings with the Demon Deacons, they have never lost (14-0-5), except in a penalty-kick tiebreaker, which counts as a draw.
En route to the College Cup for the sixth time in 13 years, the Demon Deacons suffered their only defeat of the past six weeks against Virginia, 1-0, in Charlottesville.
Though the teams play annually, “this year is probably the first year I can say with confidence they should fear us,” said Cavaliers captain Robin Afamefuna, a senior defender.
Looking at the semifinal as part of a two-game series, Demon Deacons senior Alistair Johnston said there is “nothing better than getting a chance to beat a team that got us in the first leg.”
The Cavaliers did show vulnerability last Friday, squandering two leads against Southern Methodist before prevailing in extra time, 3-2, on Joe Bell’s goal. The only other time they conceded multiple goals was in their only defeat, 2-0 against Pittsburgh in mid-October.
Georgetown has not lost since Sept. 24, an extra-time setback at Louisville. Since then, the Hoyas have conceded seven goals in going 12-0-3, including a 2-1 comeback victory over visiting Washington last weekend.
They are the least-decorated program in the field; their only other College Cup berth was in 2012, when they defeated Maryland and lost to Indiana in the final, 1-0. The other semifinalists have combined for 26 appearances, led by Virginia’s 13 (and seven titles).
This group of players, Hoyas Coach Brian Wiese said, has a different mentality entering the College Cup than the 2012 squad did.
“Each one has gone about their business as if they have” been here before, he said. “Our 2012 team was on this run where it was like, ‘Boy, that’s special, and we’re here, and wouldn’t it be great if we could win again?’ With this team, I will have to work very hard to convince them, if we don’t win Friday or we don’t win Sunday, they were a special group and they accomplished some special things.”
At Stanford, where the women’s team won the title last weekend, the College Cup is a starting point. After winning three consecutive titles, the Cardinal fell in the quarterfinals last year. At that stage this season, it won at No. 2 Clemson in a penalty kick tiebreaker after a 1-1 draw.
Is this Stanford team as good as its championship squads?
“It doesn’t matter because of the culture in place,” Wiese said. “The players are almost incidental. They are every bit as hard to beat. … You have to beat the culture of the program. They all drink the Kool-Aid and become Power Rangers. They form a thing bigger than they all are.”
Notes: Bell, Georgetown senior defender Dylan Nealis, and Clemson junior forward Robbie Robinson were named finalists for the Hermann Trophy. Robinson led the country in points with 45 (18 goals, nine assists). The winner will be announced Jan. 3.
At WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.
No. 3 Georgetown vs. No. 7 Stanford, 6 p.m.
No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 4 Wake Forest, 8:30
Sunday’s final, 6 p.m.
TV: All matches on ESPNU.