TAMPA, Fla. — Thor Lee had nothing but problems two days ago during a practice session with the Cal State Northridge soccer team. Try as he might, he just couldn't get the hang of things offensively in a one-on-one drill with the goalie.
"Thor was falling on his face," CSUN Coach Marwan Ass'ad said.
"It wasn't a pretty sight," Lee said.
Things are looking considerably better today--especially for Lee, who scored the first goal Saturday night in CSUN's 3-0 semifinal victory over Tampa in the NCAA Division II Final Four. The Matadors will play for the national championship tonight against Southern Connecticut State, a 1-0 winner earlier Saturday over Missouri-St. Louis.
"That's what practice is for," Lee said. "The thing I worked on was faking the first shot. I did that on the goal tonight and it worked."
CSUN (19-1-1), the No. 1-ranked team, stretched its win streak to eight games and its unbeaten streak to 14--both school records. The Matadors also established a record for most victories in a season.
"There's nothing to celebrate yet," said Rodney Batt, who scored his 14th goal with three minutes left. "It's the final that we want."
The crowd of 1,156 at Pepin/Rood Stadium that braved mid-40 degree temperatures saw a championship-caliber game marked by aggressive defense.
Lee's goal, which came with 25:39 remaining on an assist from Juan Florez, broke a scoreless tie in a contest that had all the trappings of a game headed for overtime.
Especially an off-sides trap.
That's the strategy Tampa defenders used to throw off the timing of CSUN forward Joey Kirk, who was called for being off-sides three times in the first half.
Tampa's back row, the "No Goal Patrol" as one banner proclaimed, consisted of three Swedes who correctly anticipated passes and moved up to force the penalties.
But Lee, an All-American sweeper last year who was moved to midfield halfway through this season, crossed Tampa up when he broke up the middle, took Florez's pass and went one-on-one with goalie Frank Arlasky.
"My guys were standing there with their hands up in the air just hoping for a call from the linesman or something," Tampa Coach Tom Fitzgerald said. "The minute they scored, I pretty much knew it was over. In a game like this, the team that scores first is going to win."
The outcome might have been different had No. 2-ranked Tampa (16-3-1) converted what turned out to be its only real threat with 2:50 left in the first half.
Bill Unzicker took a pass from Jorgen Petersson and shot from about 12 yards out directly in front of the goal. CSUN goalie Willie Lopez leaped into the air and deflected the ball as it was heading for the upper-left corner of the net. The ball hit the crossbar and was cleared by Tampa, but the Spartans never got close to scoring again.
"The only way they were going to score was if someone chopped my hand off," said Lopez, who recorded his fifth shutout. "It felt like someone just got inside of me and I just went up and got the ball."
Said Fitzgerald: "That may have been the turning point. The longer you go and not get a goal, the harder it becomes to continue to play as well as we were playing."
CSUN stretched its lead to 2-0 on a goal by Steve Lazarus with 17:11 left before Batt finished the scoring.
"We let them play their game in the first half by allowing them to work the ball around in the back," Batt said.
"In the second half, we forced them to change by going after them with immediate pressure. It forced them to play long ball and they couldn't do it."
Tonight, CSUN plays a Southern Connecticut team that likes to play a slowdown, control game. Southern Connecticut Coach Bob Dikranian watched CSUN against Tampa and said his team must dictate the style of play to be successful against the Matadors.
Ass'ad said he's looking forward to facing Dikranian, who recruited Ass'ad when he was a player at Mitchell Junior College in Connecticut. But he still is trying to figure out why Tampa used the kind of strategy it did Saturday night.
"When you play off-sides trap you're gambling," Ass'ad said. "Personally, I don't know why they used it. You only should use it when you're the underdog and they weren't the underdog tonight."
Championship pairing CSUN vs. Southern Connecticut State at Pepin/Rood Stadium, 4:30 p.m. PST Semifinal Results CSUN 3, Tampa 0
Southern Connecticut 1, Missouri-St. Louis 0