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Dec 1, 2005

Dawn of a new era

I should have gone to Vegas with this year's picks of the women's soccer College Cup. Despite the many howls of protest from loyal Tar Heel fans, my prediction for North Carolina to fall short of the semifinals held up. To their credit, the squad went down fighting in the quarterfinals. Florida State withstood barrage after barrage on their goal after going up early.

I've raved plenty about FSU's offensive prowess, and the opportunistic run of India Trotter to put her team on the board first bears out the individual talent the roster possesses. Yet the hero of the upset win against North Carolina would have to be the team defense. The Tar Heels exhausted themselves trying to equalize, leaving them little to push for the win after the tying goal finally came.

Soccer is a bit of a cruel game. There's nothing fair about Heather O'Reilly, who scored the most goals for North Carolina this year, bearing the burden of the team's loss via penalty kicks.

The bold move of Florida State coach Mark Krikorian to insert a little-used goalkeeper, Minna Pyykko, even on a night when starting 'keeper Ali Mims put in a inspired performance highlighted by thirteen saves, was commendable. It was Pyykko's agile snag of O'Reilly's kick that resulted in the only save of the penalty series and sent the Seminoles to the semifinals.

Florida State's reward is to now face the hottest team of the tournament. UCLA has not allowed a goal in any playoff game. The Bruins put on a clinic against a solid Virginia team, winning 5-0. Danesha Adams decided a hat trick was small-time stuff, netting four goals to complete the quad instead.

After downing North Carolina, Florida State surely fears no one, and certainly has the offensive firepower to put pressure on UCLA's thus far iron-clad defense. However, Trotter and the other Seminoles can't afford to miss golden chances like the one she had against North Carolina in overtime.

UCLA, meanwhile, must fight against any complacency. While they have won handily, this is when it matters most. The team has been agonizingly close before, and I'm guessing that their hunger for their first title will propel them past FSU and into the final match.

Of course, I picked UCLA to win at the start of the season, and they certainly haven't given me a reason to change that call since the NCAA's kicked off. With the most goals scored of any team in the tournament, they are actually exceeding my expectations right now.

It's almost hard to believe that on the other side of the bracket is an even tastier matchup, but it's true.

The University of Portland ushered the defending champions, Notre Dame, out of the tournament with an assured performance that was just a bit better right when it needed to be. Megan Rapinoe came into her own, taking up the offensive slack for a smothered Christine Sinclair with two goals and an assist in the 3-1 victory.

The Pilots take on Penn State next. The Nittany Lions needed a little help from Santa Clara - via an own-goal - to get to the College Cup. Like she has so often this season, Tiffany Weimer pulled her team through to victory, breaking the 1-1 tie in the second half with a header for the winning goal.

For three of the four teams in the semifinals, the Canadian connection is an intriguing element of the 2005 NCAA's. Kara Lang, who had the one non-Adams goal for UCLA against Virginia, is a star striker for their national team, as is Christine Sinclair, who plays for Portland. Penn State gets an assist from the Maple Leafs via goalkeeper Erin McLeod and midfielder Carmelina Moscato. Perhaps the Canucks aren't exotic enough for Florida State, which starts a number of internationals from countries as far-flung as Japan (Mami Yamaguchi), but is the only College Cup participant without a player from Canada on the roster.

Of course, that means national teammates will face each other when the Lions meet the Pilots.

The other storylines in the Penn State/Portland clash are just as delicious. The teams finished first and second in the final rankings. Both squads were undefeated. Both feature star players having career years and contending for Player of the Year. Weimer and Sinclair actually tied on a record-breaking stat this year - that of goals scored in consecutive games (17).

Personally, I'd hand Weimer the MAC Hermann trophy now. Yet I really like Portland's team chemistry with Sinclair, Lindsey Huie, Rapinoe and Stephanie Lopez clicking together. My hunch is that will carry them past Penn State.

So I'm calling a Portland/UCLA final.

I foresee the defense being crucial here, with the two-way talent of midfielder Jill Oakes and defender Mary Castelanelli providing the extra bit of pressure on Portland for just the slightest of advantages. The creative Iris Mora is often an unsung addition to Lang and Adams, but her play means the talent up front for the California team can actually meet the challenge Portland provides on that count.

Third time will be the charm for the Bruins, who fell short last year and back in 2000.

In retrospect, no matter how the chips fall in this last slate of games, I'm glad that my most important prediction this year, that of a dawn of a new era, has proven true.

The women's college soccer game is a vibrantly competitive entity, more international than ever and more varied in style and technique. North Carolina did not have a bad season - and this year's squad would have completely dominated the NCAA field in many other years. The Tar Heels set the standard for a long time, and now, in a year when history will be made with either a first-time champion or the first repeat winner besides North Carolina and Notre Dame, the challenge has been answered on a consistent basis.

Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at soccercanales@yahoo.com