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The Best Soccer Story You Missed This Year

Sometimes, dreams die. Countless hours are wasted. Blood, sweat and tears are for naught. The stated goal is not reached, it no longer exists, except in dreams afterward that quickly turn into nightmares. 

Sometimes, though, the death of a dream is not the be-all-end-all. The death of the dream becomes a "moral victory," if you will.

And, sometimes, a dream isn't realized until it becomes impossible to reach. Once the wily, likeable underdogs see a glimmer of hope peeking through the darkness, cruel fate comes along and snatches it away. It is more unbearable than if the hope had not been there in the first place. Ignorance is bliss, after all.

Just like that, it was over for the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. The final whistle had blown. The clock, as it does in America and pretty much nowhere else in the world, ticked down to zero. The same number as the tangible amount of hope that was left for UMBC and the same number of dry eyes on the UMBC bench when it was all said and done.

When the referee signaled the end of the College Cup semifinal between the University of Maryland-Baltimore County Retrievers and the University of Virginia Cavaliers, UMBC captain Mamadou Kansai, a senior midfielder, doubled over what we can only assume is the type of emotional pain one experiences when something so good it was life-changing ends. A passing Virginia player thoughtfully patted Kansaye on the back on his way to experience the proverbial thrill of victory with his teammates. Kansaye can be forgiven for not returning the gesture, as he was busy experiencing all five stages of grief at the same time. 

People will tell the members of the 2014 UMBC men's soccer team that they should be proud of what they accomplished this year, and those people will be right. But the UMBC players will not want to talk about it. The wound is too fresh. It will heal, though, and the members of the 2014 UMBC men's soccer team will look back on this season and smile and laugh and shake their heads and wonder how the hell they did what they did. There will always be a nagging pain. The "what if" question will rear its ugly head every once in a while. But one thing cannot be denied: the UMBC Retrievers took the world of college soccer on one hell of a ride. We should all be so lucky.

Let's go back in time. Before the heartbreaker against #16 Virginia. Before the P.K. shootout against #12 Creighton in the quarterfinals. Before Kansaye's penalty proved to be the difference against #13 Louisville in the round of 16. Before the gigantic upset of in-state rival #4 Maryland and the shootout win over Wake Forest in the first round. Let's go back to September, when the magic really began.

Notice there is no number next to UMBC, and for good reason. UMBC didn't start out the season looking like College Cup semifinalists. They barely started the season looking like D-1 soccer players. After a 3-0 ass-kicking from George Mason on Sept. 27, UMBC's record was a miserable 3-4-2. 

And then, those qualities we so admire in athletes — grit, toughness, determination, resilience etc. — came into play. The Retrievers ripped off a ridiculous 7-1-1 stretch to end the regular season, culminating in a 5-1 beatdown of Vermont on senior night and a 2-0 shutout of Stony Brook to end the regular season at 10-5-3. 

In the America East tournament, UMBC looked like the magical squad they were destined to become (here come those qualities again), coming from behind in both the semifinals and finals to win a place in the College Cup, and a chance, albeit a small one, at the National Championship. 

But first they had to get by Wake Forest. Wake Forest won the 2007 men's soccer national championship. UMBC had never made the semifinals. In any sport.

Ninety minutes later the score was tied, and 20 minutes after that it was still tied. 

Penalty shootouts are like Vegas. Anything can happen. So many underdogs play for penalties because 50-50 odds look pretty good when facing clearly superior opposition. This is not to say Wake Forest was clearly superior to UMBC. UMBC was damn good. That said, UMBC was playing on the road against an ACC powerhouse. Just something to think about.

The shootout stayed even until the third round, in which Wake Forest's Jon Bakero missed and UMBC's Jordan Becker converted. 

In the NCAA basketball tournament, the phrase "survive and advance" is often bandied about. Well, UMBC survived, and advanced to face Maryland, the fourth-ranked team in America, who UMBC had played to a 0-0 draw back in September, a game that likely took the edge off for the Retrievers in the second meeting.

After a sloppy first half (which proved to be a sign of things to come), the edge really came off in the 70th minute when junior midfielder Malcolm Harris took the deflection from senior forward Kay Banjo's shot and buried it in the back of the net. Twenty heart-pounding minutes later, the game ended, and UMBC survived, and advanced, into the third round, farther than any UMBC team before them.

The Retrievers traveled to Louisville next and the magic just wouldn't stop. A handball in the box gave UMBC the only opportunity they would need, with Kansaye placing the ball just inside the left post, giving the goalie no chance.

Louisville wasn't done though. The Cardinals outshot the Retrievers 9-4 in the second half, but couldn't find their way past sophomore goalie Billy Heavner. Survive and advance.

Surely the miracle would end against #12 Creighton, right? Wrong. After 110 scoreless minutes, UMBC found themselves in familiar territory, a P.K. shootout. Heavner saved Creighton's first attempt and Kansaye recreated his magic from the Louisville game. Becker, Michael Scott and Banjo also scored in the shootout, propelling UMBC into the semifinals to face Virginia.

It's worth noting here that UMBC had not given up a regulation goal in the College Cup up to this point.

And then they did. Remember that sloppy first half against Maryland? Well, UMBC had another one. This time, though, it cost them. In the fifth minute, Virginia's Pablo Aguilar stripped Marguez Fernandez of the ball, creating a memory for Marquez's last game that will sadly, but surely, haunt him for the forseeable future.  Aguilar found a wide open Darius Madison who slid the ball past a diving Heavner and the deed was done.

UMBC had some good chances, including nine corners, and in the second half they looked every bit Virginia's equal, but it was not enough. The dream was over.

If soccer were a revenue-producing sport, UMBC would have received a parade. Possibly more than one. They might even have met the president. The American public eats underdog stories up like Big Macs, but they didn't notice this one. 

Which is a shame, because UMBC deserved to be noticed. They deserved a parade. They deserved all the celebrity and the perks that come with doing something special athletically in this country. They'll have the memories, though, the good and the bad. The bad will always remain, but the good will overpower it eventually. One team combined to do something great, something people thought couldn't be done, something we likely won't see again for a while. Just like that, it was over.

Be sorry you missed it.


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