Regardless of what unfolds in the NCAA men’s soccer semifinals Friday night in Chester, Pa., a team from the Washington area will play for the title two days later.
That’s not unusual: Local programs have advanced to the final 11 times in the previous 30 years and, including this weekend, four of the last six seasons.
But the 2013 College Cup carries greater weight because it culminates a record-setting year for the region — nine teams invited to the 48-team NCAA tournament, four among the 16 seeded squads — and features two ancient rivals colliding for the last time as members of the same conference.
After third-seeded Notre Dame faces No. 7 New Mexico at PPL Park, fifth-seeded Maryland (16-3-5) and No. 8 Virginia (13-5-5) will meet for the third time in two months, 78th time since 1941 and last as ACC brethren. The Terrapins are off to the Big Ten next year, a move almost certain to end 59 consecutive years of playing the Cavaliers.
“Maryland and Virginia in the College Cup, it’s a dream scenario,” Terrapins Coach Sasho Cirovski said. “I’ve said it a thousand times: It’s the best rivalry in college soccer.”
He won’t get many arguments.
Aside from their often epic affairs featuring local players well-acquainted with one another, the Terrapins and Cavaliers have enjoyed a wealth of success on the national stage. Maryland won the 2005 and ’08 titles, Virginia claimed four in the early 1990s and another in ’09. They have combined for 17 semifinal appearances since 1991.
Facing Maryland “probably saved me six or eight hours’ worth of preparation,” Cavaliers Coach George Gelnovatch said after the Terrapins upset California in the quarterfinals last weekend. “I know Maryland very well. On the flip side, they know us well, too.”
In the regular season meeting, the sides scored six times in the first 27 minutes in Charlottesville and settled for a 3-3 draw. In the ACC final, a late own goal provided Maryland with a 1-0 victory — the fifth time in six years the Terps or Cavs have raised the trophy in the country’s most competitive conference.
The teams have followed parallel paths: Maryland, which lost to Georgetown in the 2012 semifinals, started 1-2-2; Virginia was 1-3-0. The Terrapins enter the College Cup on a 10-game winning streak with four goals conceded; the Cavaliers have lost twice since mid-September, both by 1-0 outcomes.
Goalkeeping came into focus: Maryland’s Zack Steffen was a prized recruit, and after a turbulent start to his career, has been among the nation’s best. Meantime, Gelnovatch switched starters late in the regular season, and since then, junior Calle Brown (Loudoun County High) has yielded six goals in seven matches with three shutouts.
With only one senior playing regularly, “I felt this team would be a College Cup team in 2014 and ’15,” Gelnovatch said. “So we are ahead of schedule.”
Led by senior forward Patrick Mullins, the Terrapins are on schedule. Mullins (16 goals, eight assists) on Thursday was named a finalist for the Hermann Trophy, college soccer’s top individual prize, for the second straight year. He is seeking to become the first repeat winner since Virginia’s Mike Fisher in 1995-96.
With a freshman goalie and young defensive corps, Cirovski braced for a slow start but felt his squad would ultimately round into form.
“We learned a lot about ourselves,” Cirovski said. “We showed resiliency and character and became a very complete team. We acquired that championship caliber that is so important this time of year.”
College Cup notes: Notre Dame senior midfielder Harrison Shipp (12 goals, eight assists) and UCLA junior midfielder Leo Stolz (11, eight) joined Mullins on the Hermann list. The women’s finalists are Virginia junior midfielder Morgan Brian, North Carolina senior midfielder Crystal Dunn and UCLA junior defender Abby Dahlkemper. Dunn is also seeking to repeat. The winners will be announced Jan. 10 in St. Louis. . . .
The NCAA named the venues for the next four men’s College Cups: Cary, N.C.; Kansas City, Kan.; and Houston before returning to Chester. The women will play in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; Cary; and then Orlando in 2016 and ’17.