Our beat writers break down how Syracuse can win its 1st College Cup

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Last Saturday, no. 3-seeded Syracuse defeated Vermont 2-1 to secure its spot in the College Cup for the second time in program history and the first since 2015. The Orange also won the Atlantic Coast Conference, in which they were originally projected to finish fourth in the Atlantic Division. After starting the season on an 8-game unbeaten streak, SU defeated Penn, Cornell and Vermont to earn his spot in the final four. The Orange will face Creighton on Friday for a spot in the national championship, where they would play the winner of Indiana and Pittsburgh.

Entering the College Cup, our beat writers answered questions about Syracuse’s historic season:

What was the turning point this season?

Cole Bambini: Following SU’s loss to Cornell, the Orange hosted then-No. 4 Wake Forest in arguably its toughest conference game. Syracuse dominated offensively, outshooting the Demon Deacons 18-10. Jeorgio Kocevski slotted a penalty kick in the 12th minute and Syracuse got its second off a Wake Forest own-goal. That win kickstarted a four-game win streak and 12-game unbeaten streak.

Henry O’Brien: I’ll let Colin Biros dictate my answer. Syracuse started the season unranked following a .500 record in 2021. Expectations weren’t very high. Nathan Opoku and Levonte Johnson excelled offensively in the opening victory over Iona. Then, the Orange won two matches over ranked opponents Penn State and Notre Dame. But Biros said the team had an “identity crisis,” not knowing if SU were good, or if their opponents were bad. A road matchup against then-No. 1 Clemson answered that question as SU outplayed the Tigers in a 2-1 victory. Nearly two months later, Syracuse proved its victory over Clemson was no fluke in a dominant 2-0 win over the Tigers in the ACC championship.

Connor Pignatello: Syracuse did not believe it would be this good. It started unranked, and Ian McIntyre said something to the tune of, ‘if you told me we’d be this good, I wouldn’t have believed you.’ The Orange went unbeaten in the first eight games of the year and never looked back. Their only two losses came against Virginia, who scored in the 85th minute after Syracuse had been a man down for over an hour, and Cornell, who scored on an own goal and a penalty kick — two “soft goals,” according to McIntyre. The closest thing to a lull for Syracuse was its back-to-back draws to close out the regular season against Boston College and NC State, two teams who finished with just one conference win. After Johnson scored the 85th-minute winner to beat UNC in the ACC quarterfinals, the Orange were back in form.


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Who was the biggest x-factor for Syracuse?

Bambini: Ever since DeAndre Kerr left Syracuse early to pursue a career in the MLS, the Orange needed to fill that void in the attack. So, McIntyre turned to the transfer portal, recruiting forwards Opoku and Johnson from Lindsey Wilson and Seattle, respectively. The pair has combined for 50 points with 19 goals and 12 assists. Johnson scored the game-winning goal against Vermont just before halftime off an assist from Opoku, who crossed it low from the left side of the box. The duo will be key in Syracuse’s semifinal match against Creighton and possibly beyond. Johnson is No. 1 in the country with seven game-winning goals this season, while Opoku has three. When Syracuse trailed in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Penn, both Opoku and Johnson netted goals to complete an SU comeback win.

O’Brien: Kocevski. The combination of Opoku and Johnson have been much more efficient than last year’s attacking duo of Kerr and Manel Busquets. But a constant throughout both of those seasons has been Kocevski’s ability to tackle, generate shots and send accurate passes up to the attacking line. That doesn’t mean he’s absent in scoring, though, serving as the Orange’s top PK taker. In Syracuse’s first defeat of the season against Virginia, Kocevski was sent off after 20 minutes. His absence eventually led to a Cavalier winner in the final minutes. When he was suspended for two games after his second red card violation, the Orange barely beat a poor Bucknell team and drew with bottom-feeding NC State. Since that suspension, Kocevski hasn’t missed a match and Syracuse hasn’t lost. Seems pretty simple to me.

Pignatello: Since Cole discussed the attack and Henry discussed the midfield, I’ll talk about the defense. A group of three seniors, Abdi Salim, Christian Curti and Buster Sjoberg, has proved to be one of the best backlines in the nation. Though Olu Oyegunle is just a sophomore, he started more than half of SU’s games in the 2021 spring season and last year’s fall campaign. Russell Shealy has emerged as SU’s sole goalie and one of the top keepers in the nation, taking home Second-Team All-ACC honors. Curti’s versatility has proved valuable in cases of injury, such as Sjoberg’s in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. Curti has played outside back, center back and defensive midfielder. In addition to 12 clean sheets, the Orange have allowed two goals in a game only twice this season. McIntyre has said multiple times that Syracuse won the close games that they lost last year, and the defense is the reason.


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Why was this the year the Orange made it this far?

Bambini: To be honest, I’m not really sure. Syracuse was .500 or below the past two seasons and last made the NCAA Tournament in 2019. It comes down to the several transfers Syracuse has brought in. Besides Opoku and Johnson, Lorenzo Boselli, Curti, Biros and Sjoberg joined the team within the last two years. Early on in the season, you could tell McIntyre was testing some lineups and substitution combinations, but now there’s a set starting XI and the usual substitutions such as Curt Calov and Biros that provide relief.

O’Brien: Over his 13-year SU tenure, Ian McIntyre has tinkered with his formations. The Orange have run a 3-5-2 formation consistently over the past few seasons. While there has been heavy turnover with the two attackers, the backline and midfield have stayed relatively the same since 2021 with only one departure. Both of those units have improved exponentially with this added experience. Curti has gotten better. Noah Singelmann’s crosses have gotten sharper. Sjoberg (when healthy) is a solid communicator and ball distributor. Salim returned from his ACL tear and Calov has been a key piece in the tournament run.

Pignatello: experience Eight of Syracuse’s starting XI for the NCAA Tournament are upper classmen. Of the substitutes, Biros is a sixth-year and Camden Holbrook is a senior, but it’s not just that they’re older. Up top, Johnson is on his fourth school. In the middle of the field, Kocevski (a junior) and Sinclair (a senior) have started in most games since coming to Syracuse. The entire defense was new last year, but this year they’ve gelled enough to allow the fourth-fewest goals per game in the country.


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How does Syracuse win its first-ever NCAA Championship?

Bambini: The Orange will need to play strong defensively against Creighton, which has scored a nation-best 63 goals. The Bluejays average 2.74 goals per game, second nationally, led by Duncan McGuire’s 22 goals. Syracuse will likely maintain its backline of Salim, Curti and Oyegunle. If Syracuse can sustain a lead late in the game, expect Sjoberg to take the field. But to win the semifinal against Creighton and the championship, Syracuse needs to take advantage of counter-attacking opportunities. We saw it work against Cornell to get to the Elite Eight, and in the ACC Tournament quarterfinal against UNC. If Syracuse can continue to keep the ball in the attacking third, it will have a strong chance to win its first-ever national championship.

O’Brien: The Orange have never played an attack like Creighton’s. The Bluejays made quick work of Duke, who gave up just 10 goals all year, in a 3-0 victory. Syracuse will need to control the pace of the game, like it has done throughout the postseason. If the Bluejays get past a combination of Salim, Curti, Sjoberg and Oyegunle, it will come down to Shealy to make big saves. In SU’s quarterfinal win over Vermont, Shealy made clutch saves and stops in the second half to preserve a 2-1 lead.

Pignatello: Like Cole said, Syracuse has thrived on the counter all year. Expect more of the same versus Creighton. At the press conference ahead of the College Cup, both coaches acknowledged the opposition’s ability in attack. There should be “lots of fireworks,” as Creighton coach Johnny Torres put it. Another important question for Syracuse will be Sjoberg, who has been dealing with an injury and has only played in the final minutes of NCAA Tournament games with Syracuse protecting a lead. McIntyre compared this decision to using all of his pitchers in the World Series. While Syracuse has the least College Cup experience of any of the final four teams, it holds the highest seed by far. If the Orange can keep running the table and stay disciplined on defense, the title is within their grasp.


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