Great conditions will bring out best from final four

When the final four teams entered the gates of “Soccer Heaven” a warm feeling of euphoria came over them.

They realized that when they take Meredith Field at Harder Stadium tonight for the NCAA College Cup semifinals, they will be playing in dry weather, mild temperatures and on a fast playing surface.

Soccer Heaven is the nickname UCSB has adopted as proud host for the College Cup in sunny Santa Barbara.

The national semifinals feature top-seeded Louisville (19-0-3) against No 4 North Carolina (16-3-4) at 5:30 p.m., and No. 3 Akron (20-1-2) taking on 10th-seeded Michigan (17-4-3). ESPNU is doing the first game live and the nightcap will be televised live on ESPN2 and ESPNU.

The winners meet for the national championship on Sunday at 1 p.m. (ESPN2).

Temperatures are expected to be in the 50s for Friday night’s semifinals and in the 70s for the final.

Akron coach Caleb Porter relishes the opportunity to play in good weather. His team last weekend played in bitter cold and snow to beat Cal in a penalty-kick shootout to reach its second straight College Cup.

“We’re a possession team,” Porter said during Thursday’s team press conferences. “The last three games it’s been a challenge, the field is slippery. We had snow in our last game, it was like an ice skating rink. What you’ll see (in these dry conditions) I think is our best. The field is nice, the weather is nice, and we’re going to play our game. We’re going to possess the ball and we’re going to try and play an attractive style.”

Said Michigan coach Steve Burns: “We’re extremely excited to be in Southern California and next to the ocean. It’s nice weather, and I think our players are very loose, and this team has performed at a high level when we’re loose. I see that with the guys right now, and we expect them to carry that into Friday’s game.”

Michigan, which 12 years ago was a club program, is making its College Cup debut.

Louisville coach Ken Lolla summed up the overall feeling of the coaches and teams when he said, “We feel so blessed and honored to be apart of college soccer’s greatest weekend.”

Lolla’s unbeaten Cardinals battled through falling snow and freezing temperatures at home to rally past UCLA, 5-4, and advance to their first College Cup.

Louisville takes on a North Carolina team that is playing in its third straight College Cup. The Tar Heels advanced by becoming the first team in tournament history to win three matches by penalty-kick shootout.

“We are absolutely thrilled to be here,” said North Carolina coach Elmar Bolowich, who’s in his 22nd season at the helm. “Based on what you saw from our journey to get here, it was very close, but we prevailed in the end, and now we have achieved a goal we set out for at the beginning of the season.”

Carolina’s uptempo style, led by Southern Californian Michael Farfan, will go up against a solid, organized Louisville defense.

“We pride ourselves on defending,” said Cardinals forward Colin Rolfe. “We do defend well and we make it so that we don’t have to score a lot of goals.”

Bolowich noted his team is facing the No. 1 seed in the semifinals for the third straight time. North Carolina played Wake Forest in 2008 and Akron in 2009.

Sophomore goalkeeper Scott Goodwin said the team is taking Friday’s game like any other game.

“I don’t think you focus on coming into it like they’re the big scary No. 1,” he said. “Everyone’s looking at them as more of an opportunity to further the program, and get us through to the next round. If it happens to be by beating a big opponent then that’s just what we have to do.”

Michigan played at Akron back in mid-October and was trounced 7-1. That game was a turning point for the Wolverines. They haven’t lost since, winning nine straight.

“Our guys have been challenged from that point on,” said Burns.

On getting another shot at the Zips, Burns knows his team will have its hands full, but it’s up for the challenge.

“We know Akron is a strong team,” he said. “We know they’re a great team in possession. We know they’re, like us, a team that values possession and a team, that when they get a rhythm going in the game, they can expose anybody. I think we’ve done a good job of doing a lot of that as well. It will be interesting to see how much we’ve improved since then, because we know that they are going to come in with a real determination to win their first championship for their school.”

Porter and the Zips are on a mission after losing in last year’s final to Virginia in a penalty-kick shootout.

“Our journey really began on Dec. 14,” Porter said. “We met as a team following our loss to Virginia. As I met with the guys following that loss, the players that were returning all vowed to do whatever it took this year to get back.

“The fact we’re in this position is really a credit to them and how they worked, not just during the year but the entire year, winter, spring, summer. They’ve taken care of business against one of the best schedules in the country. We’ve learned lessons, we’re battle tested, and you’re going to see their best this weekend, as we try to take care of some unfinished business from last year.”