The No. 12 seed Jays squeaked by the No. 5 seed Akron University Zips in penalty kicks to advance to the quarterfinals of the NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament. This is the second straight year the Jays have advanced to the Elite Eight.
The teams squared off for their second match of the season, as they played to a 1-1 draw last time they faced off in August. The Zips dominated the Jays early, controlling possession in the first half and putting pressure on freshman goalkeeper Jeff Gal, who played an outstanding game and kept the Jays in the match. Akron took the lead in the 12th minute from junior midfielder Reinaldo Brenes, who lofted the ball over a charging Gal’s head.
Creighton could not coordinate many solid possessions, and looked totally outplayed in the first half.
The Jays began to turn the game around in the second half, however, as they played much better and were able to create some attacks. Unfortunately, they never had a major chance to tie the game for most of the half.
Just when things looked very bleak, the Jays rallied. In the 83rd minute, they tied the game after senior forward Andrew Ribeiro fed freshman midfielder Timo Pitter for his 10th goal of the season and second goal of the tournament. Pitter beat senior goalkeeper David Meves one-on-one and delivered the season-saving goal.
“Ribs gave me an awesome pass and I was free in front of the goalie and I just put it in,” Pitter said.
Akron finished regulation with an overwhelming 20-9 advantage in shots, while Creighton held a 5-3 advantage in corner kicks.
The overtime periods were a tense affair, as Akron tried to desperately end the game before penalty kicks. Gal continued his heroic performance and made four breathtaking saves in overtime to save the game, including a save on an Akron penalty kick, stopping the Zips over and over on numerous attacks.
Gal talked about saving the penalty kick after the game, saying, “Stopping that (penalty kick) in overtime was a huge confidence boost for me and I think for the rest of the team, too. After that we played sharp and we held our own playing down a man and I applaud our guys for doing that.”
Creighton tried to attack initially but their efforts were stymied when sophomore midfielder Jose Ribas received a red card in the 91st minute for a handball. Playing a man down for the two overtime periods, Creighton could not maintain possession and attack Akron’s defense.
Akron finished with a 9-2 shot advantage in the overtime, making it a 31-11 advantage in the game. Jeff Gal finished the game with eight saves, while Meves finished the game with one.
With Creighton fortunate not to allow any goals playing a man down in most of overtime, the game went to penalty kicks. Despite Gal’s terrific game, head coach Elmar Bolowich made the controversial decision to send out sophomore goalkeeper Alex Bolowich for the penalty kicks, reminiscent of Charlotte’s strategy against Creighton last year in the College Cup.
The Jays did not let their usual penalty kick struggles or the memories of losing in the semifinals on penalty kicks deter them, as they easily made their first four shots. However, Akron botched their fourth kick, missing it wide and high to the left.
The game once again came down to Timo Pitter, who could end the game after saving it late in the second half. Pitter nailed the shot, and the Jays notched another athletic triumph.
After the game, Elmar Bolowich talked about how fortunate the Jays were.
“It was a tremendously hard fought match from both sides,” Bolowich said. “The stats are obviously a little bit lopsided in Akron’s favor, but in the end, it matters if you pushed the ball over the line. We were a little bit lucky, but we played tremendous defense and worked our butts off, especially when we were a man down.”
When asked about how it felt like playing a man down, Bolowich said, “Even with a man expelled from the game, it still felt like we had an opportunity to pull this one out.”
The Jays did not have to worry about a close game last week, as they dominated the University of Washington in the round of 32 with a 4-2 win. Creighton battled Washington’s unique long-throw strategy and cruised with a comfortable win.
Creighton took an early lead off a goal from senior defender Brent Kallman. The Jays dominated the first half, but could not capitalize on their chances.
The Huskies briefly made it a close contest with a game-tying goal in the 48th minute, which Coach Bolowich called a, “fluke goal.” However, Creighton soon took control of the game again with goals from Pitter, Ribeiro and freshman midfielder Christian Blandon.
Creighton travels to the University of Connecticut on Sunday to take on the No. 4 seed University of Connecticut Huskies. With a win, the Jays can book their second straight trip to the College Cup.