After 110-plus minutes of play, a few dozen shots and seemingly countless rounds of penalty kicks, everything in Stanford men’s soccer’s NCAA semifinal game came down to one moment.
Leading 8-7 in PKs despite an early deficit, Stanford had the opportunity to advance to the national title game with one more miss from its opponent, Akron. Nate Shultz stepped up for the Zips, the 10th player to face Stanford goalkeeper Andrew Epstein so far in the shootout. The whistle sounded. Shultz tiptoed up to the ball and, while angling his hips the other direction, sent the kick — and Akron’s hopes for leveling the score — towards Epstein’s right.
All season long, Epstein had been lurking in the shadows, quietly excelling at his job in the shadow of some of his other teammates such as USMNT star Jordan Morris and Brandon Vincent.
But tonight was his night to step into the spotlight.
With the nation’s eyes on him and his team’s national title hopes on the line, Epstein guessed correctly, diving to his right and saving the ball, sealing Stanford’s national semifinal win and a spot in its first national title game since 2002, where it will look to win its first-ever NCAA championship.
Stanford advances to College Cup final by winning on penalties, Akron’s Nate Schultz does NOT want to be consoled pic.twitter.com/m6geo9spQH
— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) December 12, 2015
“For four years, it’s been a constant motivation, constant goal [to get to the national title game] so it’s huge for us seniors to get to play as many games as possible,” said senior co-captain Brandon Vincent. “We are doing that here. We couldn’t have done it without all of our teammates. Everyone on the field for all 110 minutes was huge.”
However, it didn’t simply take the efforts of the 13 players who saw time — or the two overtime periods after regulation ended in a scoreless tie, for that matter — to get Stanford to the final. Ten Stanford players, two of whom hadn’t even seen the field in the 110 minutes of play, had to step up for the Cardinal during their penalty shootout. While Drew Skundrich, who shot first, saw his shot go just wide left, putting Stanford at an early 1-0 deficit, Vincent, Mark Verso, Morris and Erico Verso converted on each of theirs, which, combined with an Epstein save off the kick from the Zips’ fourth shooter, extended the shootout another few frames.
When Slater Meehan missed his shot in the seventh round of kicks, Stanford’s hopes of getting to the title game rested on the outcome of Akron’s next shot, from Goncalo Soares: Luckily for Stanford, his shot hit the post to Epstein’s right and bounced out, keeping things equal.
“We missed the first, which is not how you want to start, but we know what we have to do with the rest,” Epstein said. “The first save I made against 10 [Adam Najem], he kind of looked at me the whole way and I was able to freeze him at the last step.
“When the ball hit the post at the end, I was over the world.”
Adam Mosharrafa, Brian Nana-Sinkham, Sam Werner and Corey Baird, who would end up being the final shooter, all sunk their shots; thus Epstein’s save off Shultz’s kick gave Stanford the shootout victory.
“I didn’t think about it and went and read him the best I could,” Epstein said. “When the ball hit my hands I was tearing off toward midfield, just so excited to see these guys coming the same way.”
Way before the penalty kicks happened, in the first half in fact, things also pointed in favor of a Stanford victory: The Cardinal maintained most of the possession and held the Zips to 0 shots, the first time since September 2014 that Stanford prevented its opponent from notching any shots at half. In addition to this, Stanford’s attack had several decent opportunities to score that it seemed that the team was bound to net the ball at some point and maybe even keep the Zips off the board the rest of the game.
Most notably sophomore forward Foster Langsdorf had two close shots — two of the team’s three shots that half — within a minute of each other, but both were saved by Akron keeper Jake Fenlason, who ended the day with 6 saves.
Langsdorf also nearly netted the game-winner in the first overtime, when he received a beautifully-placed cross from Vincent. He shot it point-blank with his defender crashing into him, but Fenlason made a diving catch to keep things scoreless.
The second overtime also featured a shot each from Morris and freshman forward Amir Bashti, the first of which was blocked while the second was shot right to the Akron keeper.
In the second half and in both overtimes, it took a staunch Stanford backline and bold Epstein to hold off Akron’s attack, which had picked up its pace after halftime. A shot from Akron’s Richie Laryea off a fastbreak in the 80th minute sailed right over the crossbar, and when Laryea stuck again near the end of the first overtime with a pretty open shot at goal, Epstein blocked his shot with a kick, sending it out of bounds.
“We are pretty good as a team in the front six of stopping teams from getting into the back four, but Akron passed it so well that they kept getting through our midfield and testing our back four,” head coach Jeremy Gunn said. “What is special about our team is that there are great attacks out there, some great defenses, but we’ve got a really good balance.”
“Akron is good on the ball and broke our pressure a lot of times, but it’s a credit to us for rolling up our sleeves and getting the job done,” Vincent said. “We are sticking to the task and not giving them many chances on goal and that’s a big part of our back line being successful and Andy [Epstein] coming up big when he needs to.”
Both teams in Sunday’s NCAA final will have had advanced to the game off of penalty kicks. While this is the second time in NCAA history that both semifinals were decided by penalty kicks, it is the first time that both games were scoreless at the end of regulation.
After such mentally and physically draining soccer, both teams will have the chance to rest before Sunday’s showdown. But that certainly doesn’t meant that things will get any easier from here.
“It’s tough, no doubt about it,” Gunn said. “Playing Friday, Sunday is difficult. It is a physical test, but I don’t think they’ll be complaining getting ready for the game. Every player will be excited. It will be a battle of mental strength.”
Stanford men’s soccer will compete for its first national title on Sunday, Dec. 13 at 11 a.m. PT.
Contact Alexa Philippou at aphil723 ‘at’ stanford.edu.