SANTA BARBARA, CA—After the match I walked up to Indiana assistant coach Danny O’Rourke with the intent of thanking him for the season.
Throughout the season, O’Rourke, along with many others on the team provided me with an incredible amount of access and openness in covering what will forever be considered a special season. It warranted a thank you.
I went up to him, and he just apologized.
He apologized for being unable to provide one more game.
This wasn’t supposed to happen.
“Just tonight that ball was not bouncing,” Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley said. “We had all those chances in the second half. We just couldn’t find that bounce that we needed.”
Heading into the College Cup, everything seemingly aligned perfectly for Indiana in its quest for a ninth National Championship.
Indiana entered the season, with an experience unlike any other. Having come off a loss in the 2017 National Championship, the Hoosiers were motivated and hungry.
As every game passed, Indiana looked more and more focused on one thing. There was no taking things for granted. The Hoosiers just wanted to win.
It’s the reason that Indiana became the first team to go 8-0 in the Big Ten. It’s the reason the Hoosiers pushed through the Big Ten Tournament with an unwavering sense of urgency.
Indiana battled all season long behind the backs of an unprecedented senior class of eight, all of which played a prominent role on the pitch.
The Hoosiers were fueled by an elite coaching staff that had seen it all, from varying perspectives. Yeagley has seen success since being a nine-year-old walking around the sidelines of Indiana soccer matches. Assistant coach Danny O’Rourke had won a College Cup, a MAC Hermann Award, and an MLS Cup. Assistant coach Kevin Robson had won two College Cups, had seen the success of this program, and had spent the season mastering the tactics of Indiana’s set pieces.
After Wake Forest’s loss to Akron in the round of the 16, Indiana entered the College Cup as the top ranked team left in the field.
It all aligned for this moment. It all came together for what almost seemed like a forgone conclusion, and then it didn’t.
“It just wasn’t our day,” Indiana defender Andrew Gutman said. “The ball didn’t bounce our way.”
Attending practices all season long, one thing was always evident. This team wanted to out work you.
Indiana senior Trevor Swartz and Andrew Gutman would spend extra time every practice working on set pieces without being told to do so. Senior Timmy Mehl would set up 25 yards beyond net and rifle free kicks after practice without being told to do so. Even the redshirts would be practicing on their own whenever the team went on the road, without ever being told to do so.
It was a team of high character, hard working individuals that deserved success. And yet, on Friday night, they found themselves apologizing to me.
That apology was unwarranted.
“It’s really hard to go all the way and win the championship, and what I told them was that in particular this senior group, I feel they’ll go down as one of the best teams that’s ever wore the uniform,” Yeagley said.
Sports can quickly become a crapshoot. There are no givens and there are no guarantees. The difficulty of putting it all together every night and winning a National Championship is almost unmeasurable. No team will ever be perfect, and Friday showed it.
As odd and uncomfortable as it felt on Friday, Indiana just didn’t have it.
It started with a first half reminiscent of Indiana’s performance against Notre Dame in the quarterfinals. A first half that defied Indiana’s normal tendencies, and seemingly filled with nerves.
“I thought in the first half we were just a little bit out of rhythm and spacing was a little bit off,” Yeagley said.
It continued with an injury that changed the match. Indiana’s captain in the midfield, Francesco Moore, was cringing on the field from the first minute, and the fact that he even tried to play was admirable. Half way through the first half that pain was too much to even utilize as Moore was subbed off for good.
“He’s so important to our team,” Yeagley said. “I wanted him to be a big part of this game.”
It ended with every player on the Indiana roster individually embracing Moore. Each player embracing him, thanking him, and once again apologizing to man that had given this program everything he had.
Those apologies came after a second half that was completely controlled by Indiana. With 11 shots in the half, the Hoosiers put on a mesmerizing display in search of a goal that felt inevitable. An inevitable goal that never came.
“I was surprised we didn’t find one yes, but not stunned,” Yeagley said. “We’ve been around this game a long time. It’s tough to score. It’s the hardest thing in our sport to do.”
During those 90 minutes, Maryland’s Matt Di Rosa and Donovan Pines both scored goals that realistically appeared to be fluky. They were fluky, and yet deserved, on night where Maryland was the better team.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. It was a story that was almost too good to be true.
Last year’s National Championship was supposed to serve as a learning experience and a motivation. Instead, it served as an extra level of pressure. Pressure that was self-created and ultimately detrimental.
“We got to win in it,” Gutman said after beating Notre Dame in the quarterfinals. “This was great getting to the College Cup but really have done anything yet. Like all of us, this is our last chances at it. We are gonna do everything we can to win it this year and make up for what happened last year.”
Now, they’re off to greener pastures. The seniors on this team are set for professional careers and they can all look back and realize that no matter what the result of Friday’s game was, they did something special.
Indiana had a special season that will forever be remembered. The Hoosiers deserved this title, but sometimes you don’t get what you deserve. That’s okay.
“There is nothing that a parent or coach can say,” Yeagley said. “You just need time to let the emotions calm and then realize what you’ve done. All I told them was that I was very proud. They left everything on the field, and it’s going to be a group that they’ll talk about for 15…20…30 years and that’s pretty powerful.”