The No. 3 Akron Zips (17-3-2) beat the No. 11 SMU (15-3-4) in a third round thriller in the NCAA men’s soccer tournament at First Energy Stadium-Cub Cadet Field in downtown Akron, Ohio. With the win, the Zips head to the quarterfinals with a date with No. 12 Creighton on Saturday, December 4th. It is the first time Akron reaches the quarters since they won the national title in 2010.
Akron were aided by a first half goal from Goncalo Sores and each of the other two goals in the match were scored from own goals, as Akron’s Brad Ruhaak put in one at the 31st minute and SMU’s John Lujano gave Akron the lead just minutes before halftime.
“I thought we were very good on the day,” Akron head coach Jared Embick said after his club won their fifth straight match. “I know we had the own goal and it got scary, but I felt that we were close to breaking the game open. Most importantly, we didn’t give up much the other way and the second half performance was outstanding.”
The Zips were coming off a 6-1 beat down of Rutgers in the second round of the tournament while SMU defeated Denver 1-0 in overtime last Sunday in Colorado.
“I think we all had the belief in our potential,” the Akron coach stated. “We’re capable of more and better and that’s what we’re going to try to bring out.”
Akron led the charge in chances in the first half hour, as the Zips gained a ton of chances from the corner, as SMU nearly put a ball into their own net, then Akron hit the post, but all was still tied 25 minutes into the half. The first goal of the game (and the only scored into the opponent’s net) came from the maestro of Stuart Holthusen, as he dribbled the ball down the left goal line, took a shot in close proximity, but the bounce landed on the feet of Sores, who blasted the ball home for the 1-0 Akron lead in the 26th minute.
Akron pushed for their second of the match, but it was SMU who were able to equalize. After Akron was deep in the SMU third, the Mustangs pushed on the counter and were able to get their second corner of the night. On that corner, Ruhaak made a quick play to head the ball, but hit it towards his net and senior keeper Jake Fenalson was unable to get to the ball before it was too late. SMU had tied it at the 31st minute of the match.
“It was a good service,” Ruhaak said of his header. “It bent at the last second and I deflected it the wrong way. It was kinda unlucky.”
But the Zips would get a bit of a good bounce themselves, as Akron’s forward Richie Laryea crossed the low pass into the box from the corner of the 18-yard box, but as the pass traveled across the goal, it knocked off SMU defender John Lujano, and that too went into the wrong net, and Akron were fortuitous and led 2-1 just minutes before the half, in the 42nd minute.
“For our guy, he was only in the game for three minutes and he was facing his goal, in a bad direction and it comes off his foot. I feel for those guys (Ruhaak and Lujano), it’s not the way you want the game to go down, but it’s part of the game,” first-year SMU head coach Kevin Hudson said of his team’s misfortune.
When Embick was asked about how abnormal a pair of own goals is in a high quality match, his response was simply: “Yeah, it is.”
“But I’m glad that it evened out,” he said with a chuckle.
Akron led the offensive stats in the first half, 17-6 in shots, 9-3 in corners, and most importantly, led 2-1 into the break.
Sean Sepe was nearly the hero again, as he put the ball into the net, but he used his hand to do so on a broken play, it looked like that Sepe was being dragged down in the box when he was fighting for the header. Akron certainly held the advantage with 20 minutes left to play and they continually held on to the ball.
It was really SMU goalkeeper Michael Nelson who kept the Mustangs in the match. Most of his nine saves were pure brilliance.
“He’s a big-time goalkeeper,” Hudson said of his star. “He’s fantastic and I don’t expect anything less of him. There’s a reason he’s the goalkeeper of the year in the conference. He had a great day and you can’t blame him for anything.”
The Zips nearly pushed themselves to a 3-1 advantage, but just couldn’t get to that breathable margin. SMU did not allow the Zips to score, but Akron had a plethora of chances, finishing with 19 corners on the day.
“It was a battle in the box,” Akron’s corner taker Adam Najem said. “I was hoping someone could get their head on it. Everyone was in the right positions, we just weren’t lucky to get one. The more we dominate the ball, the more pressure we put on our opponents.”
Now Akron are closer to getting their goal of another national championship.
“We’re moving on and we have to get back to work and get ready for the next game,” Embick concluded.
Creighton upset No. 5 North Carolina earlier in the weekend, beating them 1-0.