Stanford maintained its shot at a second consecutive NCAA men's soccer title by beating North Carolina on penalty kicks after a scoreless draw in the College Cup semifinals at BBVA Compass Stadium on Friday night.
Amir Bashti converted in the 10th round of penalties to give Stanford the lead, but North Carolina failed to answer when Alex Comsia shot high. It was eerily similar to last year when Stanford also won in the 10th round of penalties, over Akron on a save by goalkeeper Andrew Epstein.
Epstein again was the hero for Stanford (14-3-5), which advances to its fourth NCAA final. The No. 5-seeded Cardinal plays No. 2 seed Wake Forest (19-3-2), a 2-1 double-overtime winner over Denver, on Sunday at 11 a.m. PT.
"I had complete faith in our guys to keep putting them away," Epstein said, "which means it's just on me to make one save, or on their guy to miss one time, and it's ours."
A newly-minted All-American, Epstein made the play of the match in the 81st minute. A North Carolina throw-in was headed into the air and landed at the foot of Alan Winn, who unleashed a bullet from straight on. Epstein committed to his left, but a slight deflection off Cardinal teammate Tomas Hilliard-Arce left the ball spinning dangerously toward the net, only for Epstein to drag his right foot to block the shot.
Stanford again avoided catastrophe in the 89th minute when the Cardinal failed to clear the ball in a wild scramble and UNC's Mauricio Pineda used a nifty move to create space for a sharp 25-yarder that barely missed the upper corner, though an Epstein all-out dive may have had it covered.
Though the shots were fairly even -- 13-11 for Stanford – the Cardinal had a 10-1 advantage in corner kicks. It was somewhat indicative of the run of play, but the No. 9-seeded Tar Heels (14-3-4) had the more dangerous chances.
However, that didn't matter to Stanford, which was perfect on penalties. Stanford's scorers were, in order: Tanner Beason, Foster Langsdorf, Adam Mosharrafa, Hilliard-Arce, Drew Skundrich, Corey Baird, Sam Werner, Brian Nana-Sinkam, Colin Hyatt, and Bashti.
Hyatt did not play in the match, but was brought in as a designated shooter.
"I thought it would be a chess game and it was exactly that," Stanford coach Jeremy Gunn said. "They get so many people behind the ball, it's tough to break them down. It was a great game of soccer, two very good teams, but we managed to hold our nerve in the shootout."
Stanford earned its 12th shutout of the season and its sixth straight in postseason play. After 110 minutes of a match that included two golden-goal 10-minute overtime periods, the Cardinal defense extended its postseason scoreless streak to 622 minutes, 17 seconds.
In the first half, UNC's Zach Wright found Jeremy Kelly alone in front of the goal box, only for Baird to hustle from behind to get a toe on the ball a split second before Kelly could connect.
The Cardinal recovered to control most of the possession for the rest of the first half, and had its best chance in the 35th minute. Langsdorf intercepted a poor clearing attempt and immediately punched a low swerving shot underneath a leaping defender and just inside the near post. UNC goalkeeper James Pyle scrambled to knock it wide.
The field was in poor shape, with much of it covered with sand in an attempt to salvage a pitch beaten up by football. But it could end up a field of dreams for Stanford, which has a chance to become the first repeat champion in more than a decade.