Creighton’s soccer team was supposed to be NCAA tournament road kill by now.
A lot of people who follow college soccer figured the Bluejays’ season would end a week ago when they faced a powerful Akron team on the Zips’ home field. Before last Sunday, you needed but one finger to count the number of teams that left Akron celebrating a victory in the past five seasons.
The fact that Creighton made it two by winning the penalty-kicks shootout provides the Bluejays with an extra shot of confidence heading into Sunday’s quarterfinal showdown at Connecticut.
“We know we just played one of the best teams in the nation,” Creighton midfielder Brent Kallman said. “We’re ready to compete with anybody.”
Now, Connecticut is all that stands between Creighton and a return trip to the Birmingham, Ala., suburb of Hoover to play in the College Cup. That’s where the Bluejays’ 2011 season ended with a shootout loss to Charlotte in the national semifinals.
The winner of Sunday’s noon match at a sold-out Morrone Stadium in Storrs, Conn., will find itself one of the last four teams standing. Connecticut expected to be in this position, having returned eight starters that came within one win of qualifying for last season’s final four.
Creighton hoped it might be here, but the Bluejays faced a massive retooling after losing eight starters from last season. After maneuvering their way around some early-season potholes, they settled down to build an unbeaten streak that spans more than two months.
The latest of their 13 matches without a loss came in dramatic fashion on Akron’s home field. The Zips took an early lead and held it until freshman Timo Pitter tied the match with a goal in the 83rd minute. After two scoreless overtime periods, Creighton won the shootout 5-4 to advance.
The Bluejays were able to do so, Creighton coach Elmar Bolowich said, because they never stopped believing.
“A lot of people had written us off, thinking it was going to be our last game of the season,” Bolowich said. “But our players always believed that they could do it, especially when that game got closer and closer to the end.
“Akron couldn’t get that second goal that probably would have clinched it for them. The longer it stayed 1-0, we kept saying that all we need is one play for one of our guys to get an opportunity and convert it. That’s what happened, and I think after that Akron started panicking. They didn’t want it going to PKs.”
Bolowich figures what happened in Akron won’t stay in Akron. He believes the outcome will have some carryover that the Bluejays will take into Sunday’s match against the seventh-ranked Huskies.
“We have a lot more confidence that we can go on the road, play without a crowd that favors us and get a result,” he said.
Actually, the Bluejays have been good all season when they’ve played away from Morrison Stadium. Creighton is 6-1-1 in true road games and also notched a pair of neutral field victories in winning the Missouri Valley tournament.
Connecticut is 12-0-1 on its home field this season, and the Huskies (17-3-1) have allowed just four goals in those 13 matches. They, too, needed some late heroics to advance past the third round.
Nicholas Zuniga’s first career goal produced the 2-1 overtime victory against New Mexico. Connecticut trailed until Mamadou Diouf scored his 15th goal of the season in the 76th minute to produce the tie that forced overtime.
The win advanced the Huskies to the quarterfinals for the 15th time in program history and the fifth under coach Ray Reid.
“There are years when we’ve played teams off the field and we went home,” Reid said after the match. “I’m tired of reading on Monday morning that it’s a strange game and that it’s not a fair game with us being on the wrong end of it.
“This is what it’s about right now. I got a text from a fellow coach that just said, ‘Survive and advance.’ That’s what it’s about.”
Creighton can attest to that. Akron outshot the Bluejays 31-11 a week ago but will be watching the remainder of the tournament. The Zips let the Bluejays hang around and paid dearly for failing to collect what could have been a clinching second goal.
“In the second half, you could feel that match start to turn,” Kallman said. “The roles kind of got reversed and we were able to press them. We had some close calls and they were in our box a lot, but we were able to keep it close.”
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