PITTSBURGH — For the second time in three years, the University of Charleston men’s soccer team captured the NCAA Division II men’s soccer championship, beating California State Los Angeles 2-0 Saturday at Highmark Stadium.
Senior forward Freddy Tracey scored twice while senior goalkeeper Alvaro Unanua Dean came up with six saves, but it was mostly resilience that pushed Charleston over the finish line at the end of a grueling season and tournament to earn yet another national title.
“I don’t think it’s going to really sink in for a while,” said UC head coach Dan Stratford. ”It was a struggle today. At this point in the tournament, you do what you have to do to get over the line, and we did that. The collective bond, energy and selflessness that this team has is better than any I’ve ever coached. Sometimes, that’s enough, and we came up big in key moments of the game.”
Cal State started with some deep advances, but struggled to connect anything in the final third as Charleston’s back line and defensive shape were keeping the lanes clogged.
Charleston then took advantage of a ball that bounced its way in the 9th minute.
The game’s first big moment initiated with a long, vertical Charleston ball over the top that brought Cal State LA’s goalkeeper Alexander Brems off his line to the edge of the box.
Tracey was right there to pressure the goalkeeper, got to the loose ball, then broke behind Brems and into the box for an uncontested tap-in to give Charleston the 1-0 lead.
“Going into the match, we talked about how the first goal was going to be the death,” Stratford said. “We watched Cal State prior to this match and saw how good they are defending with a lead. They’re incredibly difficult to break down. To get on them and open things up more really allowed us to be in control.”
After the goal, Charleston started to get into an even better rhythm in playing the ball through its stellar midfield, then started to use the space on the left side of the attack that Cal State LA was leaving exposed.
“We saw that, and that’s where we’ve had the most depth, and quality. We wanted to exploit them,” Stratford said.
Throughout the first half, this would be the primary channel the Golden Eagles’ exploited in the Cal State formation, continuing to send numerous crosses, a handful coming from the left foot of Jesus Cabanas.
Still, as Stratford aptly pointed out, Cabanas’ crosses were probably coming a little too soon in each progression, and despite a half dozen services into the box, Charleston couldn’t create another shot on goal for the remainder of the first half.
Cal State LA nearly found the equalizer in the 36th minute, coming on another sequence from a long, vertical bouncing ball into the box.
CSLA’s Carl Solli bolted toward the ball after getting behind Williams N’Dah, but as the UC defender closed in on him, the forward made a few nifty moves, creating a shot inside near post that was saved by a diving Dean.
“[Cal State LA] ended the first half on the front foot, and had belief,” Stratford explained. “The theme at halftime was you still have a chance to leave here with no regrets, even though we didn’t play our best that half.”
Charleston continued to control possession in the second half but had a hard time putting away Cal State LA, which created a few more fairly decent chances to break through for the equalizer.
There was a rare giveaway in the midfield in the 58th minute, as Cal State’s Morten Bjoersthol advanced and found room for a bouncing shot attempt from 22 yards that tricked up Dean for a quick second, but the UC keeper recovered to pounce on the ball.
Dean finished the match with six saves and came through in his team’s two biggest matches in yet another clean sheet for his Golden Eagles side.
“[Dean] wasn’t tested a lot this year, because our defense has been outstanding,” Stratford said. “In these last two games, he’s saved his best for last, in the biggest moments.”
Finally, UC put together a vintage special attacking moment in the 74th minute.
Taking advantage of a Cal State turnover at midfield, Charleston connected seven passes from the center of the field through that same left channel the Golden Eagles were exploiting all match long.
And this time, Cabanas was a bit more patient, taking a few touches up the end line, then exercised precision with a hard, lining ball toward the near post.
Tracey made sure his teammates effort to build up a quality run into the box was rewarded as he beat his man and Brems to the ball to redirect it into the back of the net.
That second goal by Tracey brought his team leading total to 13 for the season.
Charleston’s second goal with a little more than 15 minutes remaining slammed the door on Cal State LA’s chances.
Charleston’s impressive season was built on its ability to wear teams down with sharp possession, using its depth and an absolutely stringy defense, which only allowed eight goals in 25 matches.
“You have the two best statistically defensive teams in the nation. With what we’ve been able to do from an attacking standpoint, that’s where I am most proud,” Stratford said. “Defensively we’ve held our own, but we scored 87 goals this season.”
A talented side that put impressive skills on display, and with tremendous defense, this team thrived in battling when it wasn’t at its very best, and is once again the best Division II men’s soccer program in the nation.
“We worked hard all year for one goal, and we achieved our goal,” sophomore midfielder Christopher Allen said. ”I am so happy with what we did. Resilience is the key word”