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Stanford outlasts Akron in PKs to reach Men’s College Cup final

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (Via Stanford University) – Andrew Epstein saved the 10th Akron penalty kick Friday to enable Stanford to advance to the College Cup men’s soccer final at Sporting Park.

After a scoreless semifinal draw, Stanford beat Akron, 8-7, on penalties with Corey Baird converting the decisive kick. Stanford (17-2-3) plays Clemson (17-2-4) in the final Sunday at 11 a.m. PT (ESPNU).

“We’re confident,” Stanford coach Jeremy Gunn said. “I think we have the firepower and determination to win the championship.”

Epstein was spectacular, saving two in PK’s. He also got a fortunate carom when Akron hit the post in the seventh round that would have given the Zips the victory. This was after Epstein made a huge save in overtime and punched away a dangerous free kick in the final seconds of regulation.

Stanford fell behind immediately in PK’s, when Drew Skundrich missed wide left on the first kick. However, Epstein’s first save evened things up 3-3.

For Stanford, Brandon Vincent, Mark Verso, Jordan Morris, Eric Verso, Adam Mosharrafa, Brian Nana-Sinkam and Sam Werner made their kicks before Baird’s final shot. Epstein then made the decisive save off Akron sophomore Nate Shultz.

“I just didn’t think about it and read him best I could,” Epstein said. “The ball hit my hand, then I started to see my teammates tearing over.”

Stanford, in its 102nd season, advances to its third final and first since 2002. Clemson advanced on penalties, 4-1, after a scoreless draw against Syracuse. Stanford is seeking its first NCAA men’s soccer title and a chance to extend the school’s streak of years with at least one NCAA team championship to 40 – an ongoing record.

“For four years, it’s been a constant motivation, a constant goal of ours as seniors,” Vincent said. “It’s huge for us to be able to play as many games as possible.

“This shows we can get the job done against a quality team. It’s a credit to us for rolling up our sleeves.”

In overtime, Epstein swung his leg in the path of a breakaway shot in the 97th minute to preserve a 0-0 draw. Akron’s Richie Laryea was sprung with only Epstein to beat, but was denied.

Earlier in the first overtime, Stanford’s Foster Langsdorf nearly scored the winner. Cardinal left back Vincent moved forward to send a one-touch left-footer to the edge of the six-yard box. Langsdorf got his left leg on the ball as he crashed the goal with a defender on his hip, only for the bouncing shot to be saved at point-blank range by Akron goalkeeper Jake Fenlason.

In the 96th minute, Eric Verso forced another strong Fenlason save, this time just inside the post.

In the second overtime, Vincent got to the end line and dropped a pass back to Jordan Morris, whose dangerous shot was blocked by a defender. The Cardinal was close to putting together some dangerous chances, but was just short several times.

Morris created two early chances. Midway through the first half, Morris had a shot blocked from the left side, gathered the rebound and sent a soft pass into the middle for Langsdorf, who hit a first touch with the outside of his right foot that was saved.

The same combination created a more dangerous chance when Morris sent a through ball that Langsdorf met in the open field. He pulled up from his run inside the box, from a right-side angle, fired across goal, only for it to be saved by Akron goalkeeper Jake Fenlason.

When Akron did threaten, Cardinal defender Tomas Hilliard-Arce prevented a shot with a slide tackle inside the box.

Early in the second half, Vincent struck a cross on an overlapping run that was blocked by a defender. Vincent cut in front of his Akron marker with space in the box and centered the ball that traveled unimpeded across the goalmouth, just too far ahead of Morris.

Akron pushed harder in the second half and picked up the pace. Ty Thompson blocked one shot just outside the penalty area, and the Stanford defense held firm by not allowing Akron to get into a dangerous position.

In the 80th minute, Akron’s Laryea found space across the middle and unleashed the most dangerous shot to that point, only for it to travel barely high over the upper right corner.

In the 88th minute, Stanford’s Amir Bashti sent a great through ball from the midfield stripe to Morris on the run, but Fenlason came out of the box to kick the pass away just before Morris could get a touch.

In the final seconds of regulation, Epstein punched away a corner kick and an Akron rebound went astray, and the match headed to overtime.

Gunn said Stanford did not want to settle for penalty kicks, and he suspects Akron wanted to avoid them to.

“We always want to attack,” Gunn said. “If you look at the way we play, we definitely want to look forward. Nobody really wants to go to penalties. We prepare for it, and we work for it, and we work hard at it, but at the same time, we’re looking for that winning goal.”

It wasn’t the way Stanford planned, but the Cardinal is back in the final.

“Hopefully these boys will have one more great performance in them,” Gunn said. “They’ve been absolutely outstanding all year long.”

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