It had to be penalty kicks, didn't it?
After losing in a tense penalty shootout in the first round of the College Cup to Ohio State last season, the last thing Zips fans wanted to see was Akron head back to PKs. But that is exactly what the fans got Friday at Sporting Park and a 8-7 loss in the national semifinal seemed to be well deserved by the Fighting Jordan Morrises *ahem* the Stanford Cardinal.
Jake Fenlason of Akron was the singular reason that the game was dragged into overtime and then penalties, as the senior made miraculous stop after stop to try and will the Zips into the national championship game. His save in the first minute of overtime, where he seems to palm a sure-goal away from its destiny in the upper 90 was a microcosm of his performance. Fenlason was the difference and if the Akron penalty takers had taken their chances, they might be staying in Kansas City to play in Sporting Park on Sunday.
But the Zips couldn't take advantage after Drew Skundrich missed the very first penalty for Stanford, seemingly leaving the door open for Akron to banish its penalty demons.
But it was not to be, as Adam Najem, the standout player for Akron all season and usually incredibly calm under pressure, took a small run up and duly saw his penalty saved to give Stanford a chance to come back. The two teams traded makes and misses after that, until Nate Shultz missed the decisive penalty in the 10th round to the dismay of the small contingent of Zips who made the trip to Sporting Park.
There were chances for Akron to win it, but the Zips' attacking play was in short supply Friday. It took them almost 13 minutes into the second half to record a shot, and even longer to truly test Stanford's Andrew Epstein.
Akron's best chance came in the 79th minute when Richie Lareya broke right and lashed a ball that curled just over the crossbar. The Zips' next best chance came in the first overtime period, again for Lareya, as he burst through Stanford's defense and struck a low shot that Epstein was able to save to keep the score level.
Meanwhile, Stanford had no such problem getting its attack going, as much of the play went through starlet Jordan Morris and his pacy center-forward play. If the ball wasn't at Morris' feet in the final third, it was headed there, and the USMNT forward lived up to the praise showered on him coming into the game.
The Zips could have been given a penalty in the 63 minute when a shot appeared to hit off the hand of a Stanford defender, but the referee appeared uninterested in the Zips complaint for a penalty.
Brad Ruhaak and Danilo Radjen of Akron did well to keep him off the scoresheet but Fenlason was pivotal in the initial clean sheet, as he made multiple miraculous saves to keep Akron in it. It will be a bitter ending to the senior's career, as well as those of Radjen, Sean Sepe and Andrew Souders but after an underwhelming postseason run last season, things look bright for Jared Embick's men.
Two years and two penalty shootout losses in the postseason is some kind of bad luck but the future looks bright with Najem, Lareya and much of this year's players returning next year.