The four-month long NCAA season culminates this weekend with the 48th annual College Cup, which begins today when top-seeded Maryland meets SMU in the first semifinal match (4 p.m. ET, live on ESPN2) from SAS Soccer Stadium in Cary, North Carolina.
For top-seeded Maryland, it's a fourth consecutive Cup appearance, and coach Sasho Cirovski is right: Considering the parity that exists in college soccer, that's a remarkable achievement. Only eight teams in NCAA history have made four straight trips to the final four, but forgive us if we think Cirovski's trying to take some of the pressure off his team. These terps have lost their last three semifinal matches. Actually, the last time they did make a national final was in 1968 when they won it all.
That makes the beginning of today's game against surprising SMU absolutely vital. Maryland has to have a good start to settle those early jitters, and will likely need go-to goal scorer Jason Garey to break his tourney drought if they hope to advance to Sunday's final (2 p.m ET, ESPN2).
Garey, widely considered the leading Hermann trophy candidate, has been held scoreless in the Terps three outings so far. Maryland will be forced to play without senior defender Kenney Bertz -- who scored his side's lone goal in the quarterfinal W vs. Akron but had to leave the game with a fractured orbital bone later on, ruling him out this weekend.
Luckily for Cirovski's crew, Garey's running mate and fellow senior Marc Burch has picked up the slack. Burch scored once and added two assists in three games and he nailed the decisive spot kick in the shootout win (1-1, 4-3 on penalties) over the Zips.
Making the challenge tougher for the favorites is the fact that unseeded SMU (14-5-3) comes into the match flying high. Longtime coach Schellas Hyndman has his team peaking at the perfect time, and the Mustangs have shown their steel by winning their previous three tourney contests on the road. In Chapel Hill, SMU knocked off No. 4 North Carolina 3-2 in double OT on senior midfielder Michael Uremovich's 30-yard screamer into the upper 90.
One Mustang to keep an eye on is freshman phenom Paulo da Silva. The Brazilian, one of ten former Dallas Texas on Hyndman's roster, struggled mightily this fall to adapt to the fast and physical college game. But da Silva eventually found his feet and has been a revelation in the tourney, bagging four goals so far.
On the other side of the bracket, Clemson (15-5-3) seems to have the edge in momentum heading into its tilt with second seed New Mexico. The Tigers haven't been been scored on yet and advanced to the final four for the first time since winning the national crown in 1987 by besting Creighton 1-0. That match was won by senior forward Charlie Roberts' header with thirty-nine ticks left on the clock and was played in front of 6,608 fans -- the second largest in Clemson history.
New Mexico (15-1-3) has relied on the other Hermann frontrunner in senior Jeff Rowland (3g, 1a in three games), the former walk-on who's hit two OT game-winners in the Lobos' last two outings.
It's New Mexico's first-ever trip to the Cup, but Jeremy Fishbein's team has been anything but convincing in the dance, needing the extra session to knock off Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Cal State Northridge and Cal on the way to N.C.. In fact, the Lobos haven't even led a game since their regular season win over Denver in early last month.
Playing away from Albuquerque makes things even tougher for New Mexico, who've held home-field advantage all tournament, jamming three consecutive record crowds into the UNM Soccer Complex -- most recently the 5,600 who sold the place out against Cal's Bears.
Gotta give some props to Akron and its coach, Ken Lolla. The Zips went undefeated until their regular season finale, but many openly questioned the quality of a club that plays in the comparatively weak Mid-Atlantic Conference. Akron finished atop the final Soccer America rankings, one of four major polls, but received only the number eight seed from the NCAA.
Still, the Zips took title fave Maryland to PKs before bowing out.
How much respect had Lolla's men earned by the time their incredible year was done? Terps boss Cirovski had this to say afterwards: "The game rightly ended in a tie -- It's unfortunate both teams cannot advance. I'm just very happy that we are the ones moving on." With six players graduating, you might think Akron's missed its best chance to win it all. But with the experience the returnees have gained on their impressive run, don't be shocked if the Zips go even further next year.
Here's an interesting side note form Maryland's sports information department: Cirovski and Hyndman, the opposing coaches in the first semifinal, helped broker the deal that gave college soccer unprecedented television coverage this year. In conjunction with the NSCAA, Fox Soccer Channel brought fans nationwide the Friday game of the week throughout the regular season.
Its certainly a great step up in exposure for the college game, but in 2006, hopefully all the parties involved will find a way to air some of the high-stakes, high tension tournament games. Knockout soccer is often played in front of large, passionate crowds in frigid conditions with everything on the line, making for must-see TV. Fans who follow NCAA action all season deserve to see the biggest and best games of the year before ESPN's networks bring us the Cup each December.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.