CARY, N.C. — Jamil Roberts could be getting paid to play soccer right now.
The senior wing from Langport, England, was taken in the third round of the MLS Superdraft by Sporting Kansas City in January, but delayed his entry into the professional ranks by returning to Marshall this spring for his final season of college eligibility.
It’s a decision he doesn’t regret now that he and his Thundering Herd teammates are just one win away from winning the program’s first national championship.
“It’s paid off now, hasn’t it,” he said after Marshall’s 1-0 win against North Carolina on Friday in the NCAA College Cup semifinals.
Roberts scored the game’s only goal, his fourth of the season, on a feed from Vitor Dias and Milo Yosef in the 60th minute at Sahlen’s Stadium to send his team into Monday night’s championship game against Indiana.
He also netted the game-winner in the second half of the Herd’s 1-0 Elite Eight upset of defending national champion Georgetown, once again showing off his ability to be in the right place at the right time by finishing off a deft pass from teammate Dias.
While the COVID break that wiped out the traditional fall season played a role in Roberts’ decision to extend his stay in Huntington, the deciding factor after extensive offseason conversations with coach Chris Grassie and the staff in Kansas City turned out to be the opportunity to be part of something special.
“We all decided that from a footballing standpoint, it was best for me to stay here,” Roberts said. “I made it clear to them that we had a team capable of winning a national championship and they were more than happy to let me stay and get games under my belt.
“Ultimately I’m going to be in a lot better shape when I join up with (Sporting KC) post winning a national championship with Marshall University.”
The Herd (12-2-3) has taken on the look of a team of destiny as it looks to become the first unseeded squad since Santa Clara in 2006 to win the college soccer crown.
But finishing the job is hardly guaranteed.
In order to put a happy ending on a run that has already included wins against the tournament’s No. 1 seed (Clemson), its defending champion and the host team, Marshall will have to beat an Indiana side that is no stranger to the College Cup Final.
Kickoff for the decisive match, which will be televised nationally on ESPN2, is 8 p.m.
The second-ranked Hoosiers (12-1-2) earned their 16th championship game appearance with a 1-0 semifinal victory against Pittsburgh on Friday, a win earned on a 79th-minute goal by sophomore forward Herbert Endeley.
Indiana’s 16 finals are the most in NCAA history and its eight championships, with the most recent coming in 2012, rank second behind Saint Louis’ 10.
The Hoosiers are a formidable squad that has scored 31 goals this season while conceding only five. But Grassie is convinced that his team is equal to the challenge.
“We still have a couple of levels to go, which is great to see, something to work on the next couple of days before the final,” the Herd coach said. “The scary thing about this team is that I don’t think we’ve played our best football yet. Hopefully we’re saving it for the big occasion.”
Grassie’s confidence has carried over to his players, many of whom gained extensive big-game experience in their home countries — including Roberts (England), Dias (Brazil), goalkeeper Oliver Semmle and back Jan-Erik Leinhos (Germany) before coming to Marshall.
Their ability to stay disciplined to Grassie’s ball-possession style, play as a coordinated unit and come through with big plays to win close games has become the trademark of this Herd team throughout the season.
“We trust each other, so there’s no reason to panic,” said Semmle, who solidified Grassie’s claim as the best keeper in the country by making five saves for the shutout of UNC. “We know how good we are. We know how good everybody else on the team is. That’s why we’re confident that we won’t hesitate under pressure.”
For all the Herd’s other qualities, that togetherness, according to Roberts, is the team’s most important strength.
And a big reason he wasn’t in a hurry to start playing professionally.
“It’s a family,” Roberts said. “Before the game, (Grassie) said this doesn’t feel like just a team anymore, it’s love, and you don’t run into a burning building for a cellphone. You run into a burning building to save a loved one. That’s what it feels like on this team.
“But we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves. We’ve got one more game to go, and no one remembers second place.”