LOUISVILLE, Ky. — West Virginia and Clemson possess two of the more prolific offenses in college soccer.
For as offensive-minded as both squads are, each has also managed to be a top-tier defensive team, which only adds to the intrigue of Friday’s Final Four match at 6 p.m. inside Lynn Family Stadium.
The first of two national semifinals will be televised by ESPNU and followed by Oregon State vs. Notre Dame. The two winners will meet Monday for a National Championship.
The No. 5 Mountaineers (17-2-4) finished unbeaten in 12 home matches, have already set a single season program record for victories and are making their first College Cup appearance against one of the more established programs in the country.
“For some time now, it’s kind of been historic moment or accolade after accolade, whether it was the 16-win mark, getting to the Elite Eight and making it to the Final Four,” WVU head coach Dan Stratford said. “I wanted the attention to be on the cumulative of that. The wholistic being that we want to win a National Championship and we have this incredible platform to do so.”
No. 9 Clemson, champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference, is appearing in its 10th College Cup and pursuing a fourth National Championship, with the most recent one coming two years ago. The Tigers (13-3-5) are unbeaten over their last 12 matches and were forced to do something the Mountaineers were not during their run to the College Cup — win away from home, which Clemson did in the round of 16 at New Hampshire.
“You’re expecting to play good teams at this time of the year. It’s no surprise Clemson is good, but so are we,” WVU goalkeeper Jackson Lee said. “We’re here as well. We have nothing to lose and neither do they.“
Clemson leads all of Division I with 57 goals and its 2.71 goals per game are second to Duke.
West Virginia, with 47 goals, ranks No. 5 nationally and 19th with 2.04 goals on average.
“It should be pretty exciting for the fans. Both teams like to score goals, do score goals and they come in different ways,” Clemson head coach Mike Noonan said. “West Virginia is a very good counter-attacking team. We get goals from a lot of different places. It should be exciting for the fans, because I think it’s going to be a pretty open game.”
Forwards Yutaro Tsukada and Marcus Caldeira have been offensive catalysts for the Mountaineers with 12 goals apiece, though their seasons have taken a different trajectory in terms of production.
Caldeira recorded a hat trick in WVU’s win against Marshall on October 18, giving him 12 goals at that time. He’s been held scoreless in his last nine matches.
“It’s hard when he’s been spoiled with 12 goals as quickly and early as he had,” Stratford said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a little frustration. He also understands there are other ways for him to affect the game and really have a positive influence on the outcome. He’s doing a lot of those parts of his game really, really well.”
Tsukada, whose nine assists are five more than the next closest teammate, has accounted for half of WVU’s six goals in the NCAA Tournament, including one in each match. A native of Tokyo, Japan, Tsukada has scored in six of the last seven matches and has seven goals over that span.
“He can do things with the ball that I’ve not seen at this level and never had the luxury of coaching before,” Stratford said. “You almost get frustrated because there is so much in there and you want to unlock it and tap into it every single time.
“He has improved in terms of his consistency and one of the things we challenged him with this year was making sure he really stepped when it counted in the big games. If there was criticism of a year ago, his best moments were in games that were perhaps a little more comfortable for us and I challenged him to be more impactful in the big games. If seven in the last seven games doesn’t show that, I don’t know what does.”
That duo has the Tigers’ full attention.
“You have two scorers in double digits for goals and one is a real good provider of goals as well, so they’re a handful,” Noonan said. “The two of them together play off each other very well, but it’s not just those two. They may have the end product, but they have good players around them.”
The status for one of those players, Luke McCormick, remains up in the air after the fifth-year midfielder left an Elite Eight win over Loyola Marymount 1 minute into the second half with an ankle injury. McCormick, with seven goals, is the team’s fourth-leading goal scorer, directly behind Sergio Ors Navarro’s eight.
West Virginia will try to solve a Tigers’ team that’s yet to allow a goal in NCAA Tournament triumphs over Charlotte, New Hampshire and most recently, Stanford.
The challenge awaiting West Virginia’s midfield, backline and Lee is a stiff one in that the Tigers, like the Mountaineers, strive to dictate the game through possession and their ability to capitalize on scoring chances.
Clemson has been exceptional when it comes doing just that and a big reason why is the production of midfielder Ousmane Sylla, whose 12 goals and 10 assists are both teams bests.
Sylla did not score against Stanford, but had five goals in four matches leading up to the Elite Eight win.
Forward Alex Meinhard is second on Clemson with seven goals to go with five assists, while a trio of Tigers — Nathan Richmond, Tyler Trimnal and Mohamed Seye — have five goals apiece. Richmond, however, has played in one match since November.
“Clemson is a good offensive team, but I know how good we are on defense. I know how good the guys in our back are and how good the guys in our front are, so we have all the ambitions from our guys,” WVU defender Frederik Jorgensen said. “I know our abilities to do what we can do and that’s why we’re here today.”