When Patrick McDonald’s name was announced over the speaker system at the UNCG Soccer Stadium in Greensboro, North Carolina, ahead of Saturday’s Elite Eight matchup, the local crowd used up every last second of cheering it could before allowing the public address announcer to move onto the next player.
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro men’s soccer program recruited the sophomore midfielder a couple years back, but McDonald wasn’t donning his hometown Spartans’ navy and gold jersey. Instead, he chose crimson.
No one in the stands could blame him. He decided to join a blue blood program, and as seen by his inclusion in Indiana men’s soccer’s starting 11 both Saturday and most of this season, quickly reaped the benefits of his commitment to developing himself.
A loyal contingent of traveling Hoosier fans made their voices heard all night in Indiana’s 2-0 victory over UNCG, but for McDonald the presence of close family members and lifetime friends boosted the raucous atmosphere.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better Elite Eight matchup,” McDonald said. “To have a tremendous support group — I had about 10, 15 family members and 80 friends from around the area — was really special.”
McDonald, who started in exactly half of the Hoosiers’ matches as a freshman while getting occasional run in the rest, has started in all but one of the team’s 23 matches as a sophomore. Head coach Todd Yeagley attributed McDonald’s jump to his ability to learn what’s asked of Indiana’s midfielders quickly and fine-tuning his play style after hitting a “proverbial wall” last season.
Against UNCG, McDonald showcased the strides he’s made, both from last season and in the quick rollover from this year’s regular season into the NCAA Tournament.
In the first half of Saturday’s contest, McDonald played a crucial role in keeping the Spartans’ usually potent attack from getting opportunities to move the ball forward. Especially after senior forward Maouloune Goumballe’s rocket volley that put the Hoosiers ahead 1-0 in the 16th minute, Indiana disregarded its hostile surroundings and played with a point to prove, controlling possession and the tempo.
McDonald and fellow starting freshman midfielder Jack Wagoner kept play balanced for Indiana. When they weren’t finding pockets of space to receive the ball in, the duo kept any nerves in check by precisely moving the ball around in avoidance of oncoming UNCG traffic. The result was a 63% possession rate for the Hoosiers in the first half.
“This year he’s putting it together,” Yeagley said about McDonald. “His range is phenomenal. He covers ground like very few can. He’s got a vertical where the little guy gets up and challenges with the biggest — he’s got great courage.
The breakthrough moment came in the 64th minute, with the Hoosiers on their heels to open the second half.
As the Spartans chased an equalizer and committed numbers forward, one momentary lapse of indecision turned the hometown hero into an enemy. A poorly controlled pass by a Spartan player unleashed McDonald from his pivot position, and after winning a physical side-by-side battle for possession he played a perfectly-weighted through ball for sophomore forward Sam Sarver to chase.
Within seconds, Indiana found its two-goal cushion to cruise to its 22nd College Cup.
“Once you slip Sammy through, nobody’s going to catch him — he’s the fastest guy on the field,” McDonald said. “I knew he was going to beat the guy. In my head I was like, ‘Please score, please score, please score.’”
Behind McDonald and Wagoner, Indiana’s back line played yet another near-flawless match to keep the team dancing through the bracket.
The Hoosiers shut down yet another high-powered attack, this time led by graduate forward Ismail El Harchi and sophomore midfielder J.C. Ngando. After holding the Spartans to zero shots on target through 45 minutes, the Hoosiers’ defense sat deeper in the second half and collectively put their bodies in harm's way to block shots.
The nature of facing a 2-0 deficit turned the Spartans attack into an all-out blitz, which inevitably resulted in a few half-chances.
When the back line couldn’t entirely get in the way of shots, junior goalkeeper JT Harms was ready. The best of his four saves on the night came minutes before Sarver’s crucial second goal, when Harms covered several yards of space before diving to the ground on a point-blank shot to prevent El Harchi from equalizing.
“In my opinion, I’m playing with four All-Americans in front of me, so they make my job quite simple,” Harms said regarding Indiana’s defenders.
The back line’s veteran buildup helped the Hoosiers peak just in time for postseason play, and now they’ll enter the College Cup in Cary, North Carolina, with three clean sheets — 270 minutes without conceding — in a row to start their NCAA Tournament run.
“You want this to happen,” Yeagley said. “With this group there were a lot more questions coming into the year, and we just solved it by the schedule, trial and experience. That starts with our back line, our keeper and midfield – there’s experience in that group but there’s also some new players, and they’ve done a great job.”
Everything is coming together for Indiana’s maturing midfield and battle-tested back line, and it’ll look to continue its strong pursuit of a ninth title against the University of Pittsburgh in the College Cup semifinal at 8:30 p.m. Dec. 9.