Omaha, NE – I made the journey out to Nebraska to cover the Missouri Valley Conference tournament live at Morrison Stadium. What an incredible soccer facility! The host Creighton Blue Jays aren’t too bad themselves. They are ranked #2 in the country and #1 in the RPI. Winning the Valley tournament clinches them a top 4 seed in the NCAA tournament and assures them home field advantage all the way through to Alabama which hosts the final four this year. The Jays cruised to a 1-0 victory over Bradley and will play Missouri State in the championship game today at 1 pm local time.
GK: #1 Brian Holt
Def: #9 Eric Miller, #21 Jace Peters, #15 Andrew Duran, #3 Tyler Polak
Holding Mids: #28 Andrew Ribeiro, #11 Greg Jordan
Attacking trio: #6 Dion Acoff, #10 Jose Gomez, #7 Bruno Castro
Fw: #16 Ethan Finley
GK: #00 Brian Billings
Def: #15 Tommy Fritze, #3 Jason Coon, #7 Bobby Smith, #26 Cecil Jeffrey
Mf: #31 Matt Kuehl, #8 Jochen Graf, #22 Christian Meza, #9 Keegan Balle, #10 Keith Mach
Fw: #23 Bryan Gaul
The Jay’s appear to be hitting peak form again at the right time of the year. They started off the season playing brilliant futbol and had a midseason lapse where they would win games but just didn’t have fluidity in their play. With the ball, this is a dangerous team! They play possession soccer; they open you up with good width and have a 2 headed monster when it comes to creative play in Jose Gomez and Bruno Castro. Defensively this team is even more impressive. All 11 players work tirelessly when the other team has the ball. I like Creighton’s chances of reaching Alabama if they can keep up their defensive intensity.
Brian Holt isn’t the biggest guy around and doesn’t look physically imposing but he gets the job done and is arguably one of the top keepers in the country. He is very comfortable in the air. He has cat-like quickness and reflexes, and commands his box well. His decision making is spot on when it comes to playing out of the back or clearing it out of danger when there is too much pressure. He has an impressive streak of starting every game in his 4 years at this powerhouse program. Look for Holt to get a shot at the next level.
One of the best back lines in the country. The center backs Duran and Peters do their jobs well. They are good in the air, communicate well, play it out of the back, talk, give depth. My only critique is that Duran tends to panic at times and just launches aimless 50-50 balls up top when keeping possession or connecting through his talented midfield is an easier option. The outside backs are a key to this team’s success. Polak and Miller are both technically gifted players that give the Jays width in their attack. Polak is hands down the best left back in the nation. He is pure class, so composed on the ball at all times. He projects forward and gives Gomez and Castro a quality option to combine with. Look for him to come out early on a Generation Adidas deal at seasons end. Miller is not at Polak’s level but isn’t too far behind. The freshmen is physically imposing, athletic, and also has good quality on his right foot. He helps Acoff on the right wing to keep the opposition guessing where the Jays will attack next.
The holding mid duo of Greg Jordan and Andrew Ribeiro provide a shield in front of the back 4. These two guys are tremendous ball winners. Both of them dominate in the air as well which is critical in D1 college soccer. Ribeiro does his job really well and plays the simple ball. He can also hit bombs from 20-30 yard range. Both of these guys are crucial in Creighton’s offensive and defensive set pieces. Look for one of them to score an important goal to unlock a close NCAA match in the postseason.
The offensive trio is possibly the best in college soccer. Dion Acoff is the fastest winger in the college game hands down. You cannot fully appreciate it until you see it live. The guy just leaves people for dead when given space on the wing. He simply pushes the ball by you and explodes. Almost like a clone of Theo Walcott from Arsenal/England. Jose “choco” Gomez and Bruno Castro are the brains of the operation here. There are only a handful of true offensive midfielders that have the ability to play a final ball and create opportunities for their forwards in the entire country. CREIGHTON HAS TWO! Choco literally leaves his forwards 1 v 1 with the keeper 2-3 times per game. Yesterday he played Dion in early in the game. In the second half, he half volleyed a magical ball over 50 yards into Finlay’s path to leave him alone to finish. Those chances need to be converted in order for the Jays to get to Alabama next month. Bruno Castro is deadly on set pieces. He hit a beautiful first post bender that was denied by the upright in the 35th minute. When Castro and Gomez link up and throw wall passes, it’s very difficult for the robust tree trunk defenders in college soccer to handle. Lastly, it is a joy to watch the work rate these two have defensively. Most midfield maestros are invisible when it’s time to defend. Not these two!!! They work tirelessly in the high pressure defensive scheme employed by Elmar Bolovich here at Creighton.
Ethan Finlay gets all the hype and all the praise for the Blue Jays! The guy is a workhorse and I love that in a striker. What he lacks in technical ability and awareness he makes up with in sheer work rate. Finley didn’t have his greatest game yesterday but part of it was due to Bradley’s unorthodox style of play in man marking all the Creighton attacking players. He did make a nice slashing run and got the ball from Gomez, took a few touches and crossed it for “Choco” to calmly tap in for the 1-0 victory. He’s got 11 goals and will need to be sharper in the postseason converting the easy chances he gets for the Jay’s to finally get over the hump and reach the pinnacle of college soccer. That’s what big money players do! They perform on the big stage.
The Bradley Braves came into the contest ranked #22 in the nation and 27 in the RPI with a solid 14-4-2 record. This is another college soccer team with an identity! Bradley employs a strange man marking scheme where each man in the back row specifically man marks someone the entire game. They don’t stay in a specific position but follow their assignment around all over the field. Wherever your man goes, you follow! To be specific, Creighton’s attacking quartet was all man marked. They also leave 1 player free as a sweeper to clean up in case someone loses their mark or gets beat. It’s a strange identity, but at least they have a plan and attempt to execute it.
Brian Billings is another top notch keeper. He single-handedly kept Bradley in the game last night making some top notch saves and also coming off his line to cut out angles when the Bluejays had clear goal scoring opportunities. He’s a big guy at 6’2 and shows it. Anything in the air he comes out and claims. He’s a player to keep an eye on in the years to come.
The strange defensive man marking scheme requires each player to be focused for the entire 90 minutes. It’s not an easy task to man mark quality players. Even worse, if you get beat, your man has so much space to exploit and create havoc since there is barely any cover except a sweeper who sits super deep. That job falls to Bobby Smith. He is obviously experienced in this role since he’s a senior and did a good job of covering and putting out fires when necessary. Cecil Jeffrey had a tough time matching Dion Acoff’s pace on the wing and was exposed on a couple of plays last night. Matt Kuehl and Scott Davis alternated on Jose Gomez. Both were ineffective and were taken off the dribble on multiple occasions. Tommy Fritze had the most success last night on his assignment, Bruno Castro. Castro had one of his worst games of the season and did very little with Fritze all over him for 80+ minutes.
There was only one player with the quality to match Creighton’s stellar midfield, and that was Christian Meza. The 1st team all conference selection shows good passing range and quality on the ball. Bad news was he only lasted 20 or so minutes before limping off injured and did not return. Baile, Mach, and Graf all work tirelessly on the pitch but offer little in support of Meza and the brilliant striker Bryan Gaul.
Bryan Gaul was impressive!!! I don’t say that too often about strikers in the country; but he has some quality about him. Huge frame, he stands 6’5 but has great technical ability, reads the game well, is strong and can hold the ball. Would be interesting to see this guy with more talent surrounding him. His left foot created some problems last night. He scorched Miller on one play cutting inside and serving up a great ball that was headed and missed by inches. I see MLS written all over Gaul.
Creighton controlled the match from beginning to end. Possession must have been easily at 80% in favor of Creighton. The stat sheet shows the complete domination that took place on the field. The first 15 minutes had three clear goal scoring opportunities. Tyler Polak made an beautiful galloping run with the ball glued to his foot for over 50 yards, slipped a ball to a slashing diagonal run by Jose Gomez who missed the target wide with his left. Acoff showed his sprinter’s speed getting to a feed from Choco; only to put his shot way over the bar. Bruno Castro’s set piece was the last clear chance but the post denied him from netting his second dead ball goal of the season.
The Creighton pressure paid off when Gomez started and finished a nice move in the 59th minute. He fed Finley to the left hand side of the box and continued his run to tap Finley’s cross into an open net. After the goal, Creighton calmly possessed the ball laterally from side to side and took their foot off the gas. They had Bradley on the ropes and could have converted a few more goals but weren’t aggressive in the final third.
Creighton is on a roll and has won 7 straight games since dropping a 1-0 decision to Missouri State. Their home record is impressive at 10-0 with 21 GF and 1 GA. I see Creighton easily avenging their only conference loss in the championship game today, and securing a top seed for the NCAA tournament. That means someone will have to come into their Morrison Stadium fortress to deny the Jays a trip to the Final Four.
Bradley has a strong enough RPI that this loss will not knock them out of postseason play. They will be a tough nut to crack for whatever team draws them in the tournament since that man marking scheme is rarely seen anywhere in world football, much less in college soccer. I wouldn’t want to be the team to draw them and have to deal with stopping Gaul and Meza. Hopefully Meza’s injury is nothing serious and he’ll be available next week.
I’m still in Omaha and will be covering the Missouri Valley Conference Championship game today at 1pm Central Time. You can catch it on DirecTV Channel 671, Dish Network Channel 418, or espn3.com.