‘Speechless’: Indiana men’s soccer falls heartbreakingly to Syracuse in NCAA title

CARY, NC — Maouloune Goumballe couldn’t move. With eyes on the goal that stood more than 50 yards from him, efforts to console the Indiana men’s soccer forward were in vain.

As Syracuse University’s roaring celebration grew by the second, the senior forward seemed oblivious, perhaps unwilling to acknowledge the reality that was setting in. Final — came to a bitter conclusion: a 7-6 loss on penalties.

Redshirt senior defender Daniel Munie surely heard his name announced as a member of the College-Cup All-Tournament Squad after the game. But he couldn’t think of that. He stood motionless around the midfield. It was his last career game as a Hoosier.

“Muted. There are no words,” junior goalkeeper JT Harms said after the loss. “It’s going to take time to pull ourselves together. I thought we deserved better.

The field crew blew the confetti and the field was empty. A spectator at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina could not have conceived of the events that had just transpired. It was a title match filled with fiery emotions and unfettered passion: a true heavyweight battle.

“It was a war. These kids were squeaking every play,” Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley said. “There was a lot of fighting. Syracuse are a tough team, and I commend them for that.

The Orange presented an intriguing, yet monumental challenge. An ultra-athletic and physically imposing team, the Hoosiers knew full well what the game would entail. Luckily for Yeagley, almost everyone on his team was in fine form.

More importantly, the veteran backline and Harms have been impenetrable throughout the NCAA Tournament, not conceding until the championship. Yet the aura of the game was different. Past performance, program history – none of that mattered.

When the teams walked side-by-side from the tunnel to the field – standing under fireworks and glowing lights – the stage was set. In a season that has seen two teams many considered unworthy of the crown, it seemed only fitting for a turbulent clash to occur.

With a blistering pace and clashing bodies, Indiana and Syracuse made tireless attempts to impose their will on the game. In the 24th minute, however, it was the Orange, a newcomer to the proverbial mountaintop, who drew first blood.

Syracuse sophomore forward Nathan Opoku, who earned an All-American nod this season, had four Hoosier defensemen aware of his presence. But it was useless. He snuck in a favorable position, unleashed a brilliant left-footed shot and put his team ahead.

The tunnel railings, which ran along the center line, provided a clear separation between the loyal Hoosier and Orange. After Opoku’s goal, fans dressed in orange and blue rose to their feet in loud and joyful unison.

Less than 10 minutes later, it was the section dressed in cream and crimson who would celebrate. After senior redshirt forward Ryan Wittenbrink fired a cross into the Syracuse penalty area, the ball deflected. Then another. One section exuded anticipated excitement while the other dreaded impending doom.

The former would win this fight. Sophomore midfielder Patrick McDonald hit a beautiful volley into the bottom corner to tie the game. Game on.

“He can do so many things. He has a great future ahead of him,” Yeagley said of McDonald’s. “He’s just started. I’m glad we have more time with Patrick.

Not even two minutes after the equaliser, Syracuse came back with a bang. Again, Opoku was a Hoosier killer. He circled and dodged defenders with ease on the edge of the box and fired a cross to the penalty spot. Sophomore midfielder Curt Calov passed Harms, and just like that, the Orange were back in the lead, 2-1.

The next 50 minutes were quiet. There have been periods of Syracuse possession where the stadium has gone almost silent. As the game drew to a close, the Hoosiers’ fate seemed sealed. But in the 80th minute, senior striker Herbert Endeley had an answer.

A long, screaming cross-body shot once again rocked one section in triumphant celebration and the other in despair.

Ten scoreless minutes passed and the settlement ended. The teams headed to their touchlines for a brief intermission before venturing into extra time.

Both 10-minute overtime periods, while seeing some fruitful opportunities for both teams, ultimately stalled. The emotion never waned – the pace and physicality persisted – but after 110 minutes of grueling football the teams headed for the penalty spot.

Penalties, in addition to inducing stress, are intimate. A personal affair between a goalkeeper and a shooter. The other players wait in midfield. The fans maintain complete silence until the ball hits either the nylon net or the goalkeeper’s gloves.

“Goalkeepers understand that now is the time to shine,” Harms said. “(Syracuse senior goaltender Russell Shealy) had some kind words, so it’s complementary to each other. It’s all respect there.

Wittenbrink converted Indiana’s first. Main striker Karsen Henderlong missed the second. Syracuse junior midfielder Lorenzo Boselli slammed the Orange’s first, while junior midfielder Jeorgio Kocevski missed his second.

Five marks from both sides later, the Hoosiers’ eighth penalty taker stepped up. It was Goumball. He went down to Shealy’s right – that’s exactly where Shealy dived. Should Syracuse junior midfielder Amferny Sinclair find the back of the net, the Orange would be crowned national champions for the first time in program history.

Harms had guessed right. But Sinclair’s strike was too powerful. Game over.

“These guys care so much. They invest a lot,” Yeagley said. “When you do that, it can hurt more.”

The Hoosiers will lose crucial plays this offseason. Right now, however, the sting of defeat is overwhelming. But for Harms, there is reason to be optimistic.

“It’s a tradition of excellence, as we say here, and the stars above our crest show it,” Harms said. “We failed, but that will only fuel the fire.”

Follow journalists Kamil Gut (@GutKamil) and Matt Press (@MattPress23) for Indiana men’s soccer updates.

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