On Saturday morning, I joked with someone via e-mail that the University of Louisville would beat UCLA in the NCAA quarterfinal matchup by the not very realistic scores of 5-3, 5-4 or 6-5, given both teams’ propensity for flowing, attacking soccer and the expected inclement weather.
If I had have known of anybody offering odds on this game, I would probably be walking around the streets of Southern Indiana right about now with a wheelbarrow stuffed high with notes featuring the faces of various presidents.
Such a thought faded rapidly from the mind to be replaced with joy. The emotion was shared thousands of times over at Cardinal Park by the Louisville fans who braved the elements, even if they couldn’t feel too many of their bodily parts at the end of 90 minutes of play.
The Cards have reached the Men’s College Cup — their Final Four — for the first time in their history, courtesy of a thrilling come-from-behind 5-4 victory, the clincher arriving with just 52 seconds of play remaining from the boot of Aaron Horton.
Despite the snow and freezing temperatures, there was a record 5,467 attendance — plus hundreds of others on the ‘Ville Hill’ and in cars outside the soccer grounds — to see the Cards earn themselves a trip to the warmer climes of Santa Barbara, Calif.
This is a team that had won only one NCAA tournament game before this year. It is a squad that went into the postseason with the burden of No. 1 on its shoulders.
Having fallen 2-0 and 3-1 behind, top-ranked Louisville (19-0-3) showed the sort of refuse-to-lie-down-and-die attitude that accompanies teams who just don’t know how to lose.
Ken Lolla’s charges will now take on No. 4 North Carolina at 8:30 p.m. Friday at Harder Stadium.
Before they depart for the Men’s College Cup, supporters are invited to a send-off for the team at the KFC Yum! Center at 5 p.m. today. The first 500 kids at the event will get a free Louisville soccer T-shirt, while the coaches and players will be available for autographs.
The Tar Heels have won all of their three NCAA tournament games this year on penalty kicks against Georgetown, Michigan State and SMU.
They are no strangers to the Men’s College Cup, most recently falling to Akron on penalties last year and advancing to the final in 2008.
The second semifinal on Friday will feature No. 3 Akron (a team coached by Lolla from 1993-2005) against No. 10 Michigan at 11 p.m. The championship game will take place at 4 p.m. Sunday. All three games will be shown live on ESPNU or ESPN2 and online at ESPN3.com.
Exemplifying how the game of soccer can provide a roller-coaster ride of emotions was FIFA’s announcement last Thursday that it would be Qatar, not the United States, which will host the 2022 World Cup, while Russia was awarded 2018.
The fallout from the picks of oil rich countries with gargantuan budgets has been as entertaining as the actual decisions themselves.
The English have not been taking it very well (Google “England” and “World Cup 2018” for yourself), while the United States’ bid team was despondent but more gracious.
Both nations had technically superior assessments compared to their respective rivals. But FIFA made it clear that it doesn’t pay much attention to the reports that itself demanded.
Whatever the accusations of bribery, vote trading and backroom politics, the fact is that FIFA has chosen to continue its theme of establishing legacies and breaking new ground.
Russia will become the first Eastern European nation to host the tournament, while choosing Qatar — a nation the size of Connecticut with a population of just more than 1.5 million — means the World Cup will dip its toes in Middle East territory for the first time.
Russia’s selection is not a major surprise. It has always been a fairly decent soccer nation and, as Europe’s biggest emerging soccer economy, it should be given the chance to show what it can do.
The choice of Qatar, however, is head-scratching to say the least. Classified by FIFA itself as “high risk,” much has already been made of its searing temperatures in the summer, while it will basically be building infrastructure from scratch to host the biggest sports event on the planet.
All 12 stadia — nine to be built from scratch –will be within a 20-mile radius encompassing its capital, Doha. Then after the tournament, they’ll be dismantled and transported off to countries that need them.
So the decisions might be seen by FIFA as all very brave and noble, but let me put this to you: Four horses are running in four different races on the same card. Only one has ever run on the course (Brazil), although he hasn’t run for a while (1950) and there are real concerns about whether he’s ready or not to do this again.
One other has run over the distance (South Africa in hosting the Rugby World Cup). The others might be half decent, because a lot of money has been invested in their breeding (Russia and Qatar), but no one really knows how they’ll take to the course and distance.
Let me ask you — Would you stick your hard-earned loot on all four sluicing home to victory?
One has already made it successfully home, of course, with South Africa hosting a decent World Cup this year. However, experience sadly tells me you’d be foolish to believe all four longshots will romp it. Which is why I can’t help feeling these decisions are going to come back and haunt FIFA somewhere along the line, and judging by the worldwide reaction in recent days, there won’t be too many shedding a whole bunch of tears if that happens.
And me? Well, I’ve always wanted to go to Russia and the Middle East, but I’m not expecting any full wheelbarrows in my backyard to help me get there.