CARY, N.C. – Don't be fooled.
Monday evening may mark Indiana men's soccer's 17th all-time appearance in the national title match across 50 seasons, but despite that absurd one-third ratio, head coach Todd Yeagley had sensed doubt around college soccer, that this year's squad may not make the cut.
"We don't ride on what other people would say, but I do feel there was certainly some doubting," Yeagley said of season expectations, following Indiana's 2-0 victory over Pittsburgh to advance to the national championship. "We put a tough schedule together."
Yeagley is correct.
Through August and September, Indiana played four ranked teams, winning and losing twice. After the Final Four Pittsburgh match, Yeagley claimed that the Hoosiers discovered their winning formula: "a confident keeper, a team that believes in defending as a whole and some special players that can make plays."
Yeagley also revealed that this recipe was absent in August and September, even though Indiana bested two ranked teams — one by two-goal shutout — the other via a two-goal comeback. Regardless of these negating reflections, Indiana is undoubtedly playing its highest level of soccer at the right time: the postseason.
Indiana has strung together four consecutive shutout victories since the start of the NCAA Tournament, its longest win streak this season. Yet, No. 13-seeded Indiana's opponent, No. 3-seeded Syracuse, is currently riding a seven-game winning streak, dating back to the start of the ACC Championship.
"They have some experience, and it took a couple of years to kind of put all that together," Yeagley said Sunday ahead of the national title match. "They've added some really good pieces in two years. I think they have eight or nine transfers. They're a big team, they're physical in the right places. They have some difference-makers starting up top — the two strikers have been an absolute handful."
Yeagley is referencing Syracuse senior Levonte Johnson, and sophomore Nathan Opoku. The All-American scoring duo has torn apart defensive schemes, combining for 21 goals this season. Most recently, both forwards scored in the College Cup semifinal against Creighton — Opoku even assisting Johnson for the 3-2 game-winning goal.
"It's just a team you look at, there's a reason why they won 18 games," Yeagley said. "They're very balanced and good. And there's a lot of belief within their team. So it's gonna be a great challenge tomorrow."
Syracuse's lively transitional attack presents an immense challenge for Indiana's veteran backline. Defenders Nyk Sessock, Daniel Munie, Joey Maher and Brett Bebej started in Indiana's national championship loss to Marshall two seasons ago.
Yeagley forecasted Monday's match behaving close to a boxing match — who will be more efficient in transition moments? But perhaps, Syracuse's attack and Indiana's backline will be the more intriguing battle to watch. Then, it'll fall on Indiana's difference-makers to push goals across. That's Herbert Endeley: who's ball-handling weaved through Pittsburgh's players throughout the match.
"Herb's our game changer," Yeagley said. "You need that element somewhere in your team. Herb will be a very important part of tomorrow and how we break them down. With their shape and their 3-5-2, there's going to be opportunities that their wing backs will not be connected to their backline."
On Monday evening, the Hoosiers could add the ninth star to their crest for the first time in a decade. Yeagley said alumni of the program are contacting him about attending. But Yeagley's mission is the same for those who have worn the jersey, and casual fans alike:
“We know that this means a lot to everyone that one, wore the jersey but second, just Indiana fans. To give to our fans that may not necessarily be a huge soccer lover, but just love IU. We know how much this means to them. And we want to give them a lot of joy.”
The national title match is slated for 6 p.m. Monday, at Sahlen's Stadium at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina. The first-ever meeting between the two programs will be broadcast on ESPNU.