COLLEGE SOCCER descends upon the Greater Philadelphia region this weekend with PPL Park, home of the Union of the MLS, as the host venue for the 2013 installment of the NCAA men's College Cup.
For the better part of a month, 32 college programs have battled for the chance to play in the soccer-specific stadium on Chester's waterfront.
Notre Dame (15-1-6 overall) enters the tournament as the top seed at No. 3 and will play No. 7 New Mexico (14-5-2) in today's first semifinal, kicking off at 5 p.m. In the nightcap, it's a matchup between ACC rivals when No. 5 Maryland (16-3-5) squares off against No. 8 Virginia (13-5-5) at 7:30 p.m. The final four are looking to earn a place in Sunday's championship finale (3 p.m., ESPNU).
This won't be the first time the NCAA has brought its premier soccer event to Philadelphia, as Penn's Franklin Field hosted the 1976 installment. And it was announced Thursday that the NCAA has inked PPL Park to host in 2017. Additionally, PPL Park will host the Division I and Division II women's lacrosse tournament in 2015 and 2016.
"We're honored that what is known as one of the best atmospheres in Major League Soccer is also recognized as one of the best locations for collegiate championships," Union CEO and operating partner Nick Sakiewicz said in a statement. "PPL Park is thrilled to continue that tradition."
In this year's installment, three of the four clubs feature local players, with all looking to impress on home soil. Additionally, with MLS' college draft kicking off at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in a month's time, this weekend also serves as a showcase.
However, keeping relaxed appeared to be the mind-set and during Thursday's walk-through session, the overall mood was jovial. Especially in Virginia's case, when freshman forward Riggs Lennon called a huddle with his teammates on the frigid field and gave USA hockey coaching great Herb Brooks' famous speech from the 1980 Olympic Games - made popular by the Disney movie "Miracle" - as a rallying cry.
"We have to make sure they aren't too uptight, but also that they aren't too aloof," said Virginia coach George Gelnovatch, who spoke while the scene unfolded in the background behind him. "They are in a good place, but from my standpoint I just want to make sure is that they are not just happy to be here . . . I am going to let them enjoy [this moment], but it's my job to make sure that between now and Friday that they are focused."
Gelnovatch's side will be fueled by Philadelphia local Darius Madison, a sophomore forward for the Cavaliers. Madison is second on the team in goals scored with six, and he spent time in the Union's youth academy system and developmental affiliate in Reading.
In all, three players competing this weekend have come through the Union's system in some fashion, most notably Maryland freshman goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who looks to continue the trend of Maryland freshman keepers who have captured national titles for longtime coach Sasho Cirovski. Ironically, in 2005, former Union goalkeeper Chris Seitz fueled Maryland's championship run. In 2008, current Union netminder Zac MacMath led the Terps to a 1-0 win over ACC rival North Carolina.
"I'm looking to keep that streak alive," said Steffen, the Downingtown native who has had recurrent call-ups to various U.S. youth national teams. "Coming home and playing in front of friends and family is a big deal to me and I am going to do all I can to win another title for Maryland."
Other locals include Maryland's Alex Shinsky (York, Pa.) also a part of the Union's academy, and Notre Dame senior Andrew O'Malley, who was a two-time Delaware high school state player of the year in at Salesianum.
While this weekend is calling for frigid weather, it's not a first for this tournament. Hoover, Ala., was the site of the last two College Cups and places like Columbus, Ohio and Cary, North Carolina have also been host cities.
"As soon as PPL Park was announced as a site we were extremely excited and motivated to get to this point," said Maryland's Cirovski, whose institution rented out a portion of PPL Park's club level to keep family and friends out of the bitter cold. "It's going to be cold, sure, but it isn't something we aren't used to, it's just another factor we'll have to overcome if we want to be called national champions."