HOUSTON (AP) Stanford got off to a rough start this year, but rebounded in a season where everyone wanted to take the Cardinal down to make it back to the College Cup.
After winning the first national championship in program history last season, No. 5 Stanford continues its title defense in the second semifinal on Friday night against No. 9 North Carolinas. In the first semifinal, No. 2 Wake Forest faces undefeated No. 6 Denver.
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Stanford had with three ties and a loss in its first six games before winning 13 of its next 16 games to win a third straight Pac-12 championship and return to the College Cup.
“I think it was kind of a wakeup call seeing how hard we were going to get played and I think we adapted to that as the season progressed,” said defender Tomas Hilliard-Arce, who was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year last month.
Stanford hopes to become the first team since Indiana in 2003-04 to win consecutive national championships. Coach Jeremy Gunn’s team is the first to return to the College Cup the season after winning the national championship since Wake Forest returned in 2008 after winning it all in 2007.
Stanford lost some key players from last season, including MLS Rookie of the Year and the reigning Hermann Trophy winner Jordan Morris. But it returns six starters from last season’s team. Five of those players were named to the All-Pac-12 first team last month, and one was on the second team.
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“We had some great players leave after last year and I think some people wanted to write us off this year,” Gunn said.
Stanford is led by Co-Pac-12 player of the year Foster Langsdorf. The junior forward has led the team’s attack this season, scoring 15 goals, including one in each of Stanford’s three tournament games. In their 10 Pac-12 games, Langsdorf scored 12 goals.
North Carolina comes to Houston for its first College Cup appearance since winning a national championship in 2011. The Tar Heels also reached the national semifinals in 2009-10.
Some things to know about the College Cup.
H-TOWN CONNECTION: The Tar Heels come to Houston with many connections to the area. Three Houston Dynamo players, defenders Jalil Anibaba and Sheanon Williams and goalkeeper Tyler Deric, played at North Carolina, while head coach Carlos Somoano is from nearby Seabrook, Texas. The Tar Heels leading scorer, Tucker Hume, said players from the Dynamo have reached out to them and that they’ll be at Friday’s game.
“My formative soccer years and experiences were done right here in Houston,” Somoano said. “So for me it’s very special to be back here.”
YOUTH MOVEMENT: After losing key players from last season, including three who were selected in the top 12 of the MLS SuperDraft, North Carolina has had to rely on its youth in 2016. The Tar Heels have 12 players who have appeared in all 20 games this season, six of whom are either freshmen or sophomores. Sophomore forward Nils Bruening leads the team in goals with eight, while redshirt sophomore goalkeeper James Pyle has allowed just 10 goals this season.
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“They’ve been a bit of a revelation for us,” Somoano said. “It’s just fascinating to see how they evolve through the year. They’re not the same players now than they were in August.”
FAMILIAR FACES: Denver head coach Jamie Franks and Wake Forest’s Bobby Muuss have plenty of history. Muuss was an assistant coach for the Demon Deacons during Franks’ freshman season in Winston-Salem and was the coach at Denver from 2007-14, with Franks serving as his assistant for three seasons. When Muuss took over at Wake Forest before the 2015 season, Franks took his place at Denver.
“I love Wake Forest . but at the end of the day, these are my boys,” Franks said. “These are my kids, and Wake Forest is standing in our way.
WAKE EYES REDEMPTION: Last season, Wake Forest was the No. 1 team in the country with a 17-2-2 record before falling in the quarterfinals to the eventual national champions Stanford in overtime. This season, the Demon Deacons enter the College Cup with an 18-2-3 mark with a pair of shutouts in wins over Coastal Carolina and Virginia Tech.
DOMINANCE REWARDED: Since Franks took over as the Denver head coach, the Pioneers have lost just one game, a defeat to SMU that ended the 2015 season. The team feels its 35-1-6 record under Franks it has not received enough credit, mostly because the Pioneers play in the Summit League. This is Denver’s first appearance in the College Cup and the players are embracing their underdog role.
“It’s more a historical thing than an actual thing because no one in our locker room is surprised to be here, we expected to be here,” sophomore forward Andre Shinyashiki said.