Getting to the National Championship game is far from simple.
It seems obvious. As an Indiana men’s soccer fan, though, you wouldn’t know it. The relative ease with which Todd Yeagley and his predecessors have blazed through the treacherous path throughout the program’s 50-year history – it’s the Hoosiers’ 17th appearance and Yeagley’s fourth as their head coach – has created consistency unlike anything else in collegiate or professional sports.
The 10-year anniversary of the Hoosiers’ 2012 title-winning team, so far the only under Yeagley’s tenure, passed on Friday. No. 13 seed Indiana had more than one reason to celebrate the occasion, progressing into the College Cup Final against No. 3 Syracuse University with a win over the University of Pittsburgh the same night.
The achievement serves as a reminder that little has changed in the last decade – Indiana is always lurking around every late November to early December.
“It’s what drives me all the time,” Yeagley said. “It’s a constant push to get the team in these positions. You don’t know when the next time’s coming – I say it all the time. We’ve been fortunate to get here a lot, but you look at historical programs in every sport, it’s hard to be this consistent in so many ways. That’s what I think is the most unique about our program.”
As Yeagley stated following Friday’s win, a big portion of Indiana’s squad, dubbed "Team 50," will get their own shot at redemption and making their historical mark when the Hoosiers and Orange meet in each team’s second match in four days at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina, at 6 p.m. Monday.
It’s not just that this program has been here before – the players are used to this stage, too.
Standouts from the senior class, like two-time Big Ten Defender of the Year Daniel Munie, first-team All-Big Ten forward Ryan Wittenbrink and second-team All-Big Ten forward Herbert Endeley, are all part of a distinguished veteran core playing in its second National Championship game. They’re all looking to make sure Monday’s result is different from the fate the 2020 team suffered.
Among the College Cup fever, the Major League Soccer College Showcase is also in town, just 12 miles away in Raleigh, from Friday to Monday.
Since Indiana’s made it this far, none of its players are eligible to attend due to the unfortunate timing of the two. If it weren’t, Munie and possibly a few other Hoosiers would be in direct talks with interested MLS technical staffs ahead of the 2023 MLS SuperDraft on Dec. 21.
Yeagley, who briefly attended the showcase Saturday and has peers spread across the league, said he’s pushed conversations with players like Munie aside to before and after the season. On the other end, Yeagley said his contacts have kept their distance for the time being out of respect for Indiana’s focus toward a ninth star.
For these select outgoing players hoping to play professionally, Monday’s championship game also serves as a chance to make a final, lasting impression on scouts through their performances rather than their words.
There’s a lot to think about, both on and off the field. No pressure, right?
That’s exactly the mindset the Hoosiers have adopted since touching down in Cary. With plenty of family and friends by their side, the players are relaxed and in high spirits. Yeagley added that the World Cup’s been a blessing in disguise, serving as a positive distraction that’s strengthened the team’s togetherness.
“The guys have loved it,” Yeagley said. “We’re not overwhelming them with anything outside our normal rhythm. It’s great to have all the energy around the game. We want them enjoying every minute they have.”
All the Hoosier players, young and experienced, are embracing each other and the journey they’ve taken to reach this point.
Despite how individually talented or successful everyone on the current squad has been, they each came to Indiana to carry on the culture that stood out to them. Everyone who was brought to Bloomington bought in from the moment they were recruited.
Now, the championship they came for is 90 minutes away.
“They certainly have personal drive, but they also want to be part of something really big that they can really be proud of,” Yeagley said. “This is a family, it really is – to the core. You can’t really replicate that.”
Syracuse, meanwhile, is playing in its first-ever National Championship game.
The difference in exposure to the peak of the national stage between the two finalists, as is the case with most of Indiana’s opponents, is glaring. The quality within the Orange’s squad, though, is just as frighteningly good.
Looking to break the Hoosiers’ four-match shutout streak in the NCAA Tournament – just the seventh team to ever accomplish such a feat going into the title game – is the merciless striker pairing of senior forward Levonte Johnson and sophomore forward Nathan Opoku.
Johnson and Opoku, who have combined for 21 goals this season, were unstoppable against Creighton University in Friday’s other semifinal. The duo’s poised and fearless auras in transition were on full display against the Bluejays, as each scored a goal and linked up for Johnson’s game-winning tap-in during the 86th minute.
“It’s going to be a physical game, going to have a different tempo and flare to Pitt,” Yeagley said. “The game will have less long possession spells and be more of a boxing match back-and-forth.”
Yeagley said he’s heard from and expects plenty of alumni to be in attendance for what should be a deafening atmosphere Monday. The Hoosier faithful packed the stands against Pittsburgh, while the Crabb Band put in a committed effort to make WakeMed sound and feel like Bill Armstrong Stadium.
Monday’s match between Indiana and Syracuse will be broadcast on ESPNU.
For those unable to make the trip out to Cary but in the Bloomington area, Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall will host a watch party with free admission. Fans can enter Assembly Hall starting at 5:30 p.m. to watch the Hoosiers’ second shot at their ninth national title.
“To give our fans, that may not necessarily be huge soccer lovers, but just love IU, we know how much this means to them and we want to give them a lot of joy,” Yeagley said.