IU men’s soccer’s journey to the NCAA Championship didn’t begin in the second round matchup against St. Francis College or even in February with the first game of the season. It began much earlier, starting with a bond this team will share with no other.
On Aug. 11, IU was on the field practicing when it found out about the cancelation of Big Ten fall sports. Uncertainty hung in the air around a possible spring season. Seniors like midfielder A.J. Palazzolo didn’t know if they would suit up for IU again.
Now, 279 days later, the team found itself tripping over the final hurdle, falling in overtime in the title game 1-0 to Marshall University.
In the 98th minute, Marshall’s senior midfielder Vitor Dias took a shot that sophomore goalkeeper Roman Celentano saved onto the crossbar. The ball fell to senior forward Jamil Roberts’ feet, who put it in the net.
The ball was inches from being cleared out of play or saved by Celentano. Those inches became the factor that ended IU’s year.
Sophomore forward Ryan Wittenbrink had his shirt in his mouth and tears in his eyes as Marshall celebrated with its fans on the field. It was a representation of everything IU worked to achieve and fell short of accomplishing.
Even with IU falling short of its ultimate goal, reaching the title game spoke to everything it has gone through to get here.
“We battled, we dug in tonight,” Palazzolo said in a postgame Zoom conference. “It just didn’t go our way. But I love this team, I love this program.”
Yeagley himself has said this is not IU’s best team. It would be hard to give them that honor even if they won the national title, given IU’s history. But it scrapped its way to victory game after game, doing it a different way, like head coach Todd Yeagley said.
“[The 2018 College Cup team] was your mature team that came so close,” Yeagley said in a press conference May 11. “This team has not been a team that's overwhelmed our opponent. We don’t kid ourselves and feel that’s the way we’re going to go out.”
“I do know that this team grew each week,” Yeagley said postgame. “What they overcame this year with all the challenges, and we all did, but we certainly had ours.”
That bond, built slowly over a season that almost never happened, is significant.
Throughout the ups and downs of this season, the team bonded perhaps more than any other before it. A full extra semester of time together helped, but the COVID-19 pandemic meant the players were only able to be around each other.
That led to “Bass FC” in the fall, IU’s fishing group where the country boys, as junior midfielder Joe Schmidt put it, spent time together. There were the country club boys too, who spent time golfing.
The team was one of four programs shut down in September due to positive COVID-19 test results. They had to work out in creative ways, stealing equipment out of the shed by Bill Armstrong Stadium. Their bubbles were reduced to their households for a limited time and teammates couldn’t see each other.
Now in Cary, North Carolina, where the bubble allows the whole team to interact, the team is bonding more. Having already traveled before the tournament, the normal migration that would occur before the College Cup was instead spent playing cards and introducing Yeagley to new music.
On Monday, IU provided one more chance to prove why that chemistry matters.
Besides sophomore defender Daniel Munie’s missed header and the game-winner from Marshall senior forward Jamil Roberts, that chemistry nearly brought a complete team effort into the history books.
IU had nine players play over 90 minutes, including seven that played all 98 and sophomore forward Maouloune Goumballe, who played 89 minutes.
But the difference was the tally Marshall had on the scoreboard.
“We couldn’t execute our chances,” Palazzolo said. “We created a lot of chances and defended our asses off. We did everything we could to win that game. That’s the hardest I’ve ever seen this team work.”
IU is used to being in a winning position, with this being the third trip to the College Cup in four years.
“You learn how to win in this program,” Yeagley said. “You learn how to have discipline. You learn how to be selfless and you have an awesome time doing it. Those are the things that we’ll get back to and I’m confident that we’ll be back in this position in the near future.”
And maybe it didn’t reach the final step of conquering Division I soccer for the ninth time. The Goliath of IU men’s soccer instead ran into its David, a Marshall team making its first ever College Cup appearance.
So yes, the 2021 team fell just short of etching its name into IU history.
But this team will be remembered for so much more.