With four of the top nine teams in the nation participating in Friday's ACC semifinals (Wake Forest vs. Virginia, Duke vs. Maryland), it has become official: college soccer's elite conference has set a new standard for excellence.
We've been gushing about the quality of the circuit all season -- from the absence of easy games (just ask top-seeded Duke, who barely squeaked by ninth-seed N.C. State 2-1 in their quarterfinal Wednesday) to the unprecedented attendance numbers (defending national champion Maryland set a new school record for a season this year; Virginia and Clemson both drew their second-highest single game crowds in 2006).
One reason for the parity in the ACC is that the talent is spread around so evenly. Just take a look at the all-conference team released on Monday: the first XI is made up of players from eight different schools. N.C. State was the only club not repped, and the WolfPack had enough talent to challenged for a league title (and tourney berth) in just about any other conference.
Unfortunately for State, it has no chance of an invite. But like last season, the ACC will probably have eight representatives in the dance, and any one of them could easily go on a tear and end up in St. Louis. Perhaps only the Big East (the largest conference in the nation with 16 teams) has more than one team with the tools to make a serious run at the title.
The ACC is so good it has almost become a victim of its own success. Since all four semifinalists are guaranteed to receive decent seeds from the tourney selection committee, this weekend's league championship is rendered kind of anticlimactic. Sure, the team that hoists the trophy Sunday will celebrate, but it also wont forget that it has much bigger fish to fry -- especially after 2006 champ Duke bombed out of the NCAAs in the first round twelve months ago.
But at least the ACC still has something to prove on the national stage: Amazingly, only two of its member schools have won it all in the past eleven years (North Carolina in 2001, Maryland last year), and none have been able to even approach the dynasty status enjoyed by Bruce Arena's Virginia teams of the early nineties or more recently, by Big Ten standard bearer Indiana. Maryland seems the least likely of the four to win what would be a second-straight national title in the Gateway City, but with all respect for the seasons non-ACC teams like SMU, West Virginia, Santa Clara and host Saint Louis are having, it will be surprising if the eventual national champ doesn't come from the nation's top conference.
Over in the Big East, St. John's is heating up. WVU is the clear favorite (ranked fourth by the NSCAA), but Dave Masur's Johnnies simply know how to win this time of year. WVU is a tourney lock no matter what happens, but the Red Storm should get by Providence in their semifinal match on Friday and lock up an eleventh-consecutive trip to the dance.
In the Big Ten, Indiana will be looking for its eleventh league tourney title and a measure of revenge against Penn State, which has had Indiana's number in each of the teams' last three meetings. The Nittany Lions advanced to the grudge match by beating Northwestern 2-1 in double overtime of the semifinals on Thursday night. A Hoosier win would move the team to the championship game on Sunday, (which will be televised on CSTV), but a win for PSU would mean even more: a second crack making a surprise return to the dance after what can conservatively be described as a dismal season.
Hate to say it, but if we had to pick one team to slip up in either their league tourney or in the early rounds of the NCAAs, it's gotta be SMU which has suffered some key losses to injury recently (Scott Geppert and Paulo da Silva). The Mustangs would seem to be getting back on track after trouncing Florida International 6-0, but there is something scary about that result, and we don't mean for SMU's next opponent, UAB. Remember, 'Bama handed the then-national number one 'Stangs their only loss of the season last week. Either way, their next game will be telling for SMU and its legendary coach Schellas Hyndman, who could be working his last game on SMU's sidelines (he's rumored to be the front-runner to take over FC Dallas when the MLS club gets around to firing underachieving Colin Clarke). If SMU doesn't win and win convincingly, it's not going to be too confident at the dance with its season on the line.
What to Watch for:
There is no shortage of conference finals on the tube Sunday, but we're disappointed that none are being shown live on Fox Soccer Channel. Don't get us wrong: It's great that the regional sports networks are showing live championship soccer, and there are some games that will be televised nationally on CSTV and ESPNU.
But it makes little sense for America's premier soccer network to show regular season games every Friday in the Fall then drop off the map come the postseason (and that includes NCAA tourney, when the action is at its most thrilling). Of course, it's harder to for FSC to schedule those playoff games on short notice, but since the NSCAA is partnering with the network on the broadcasts, it shouldn't be impossible. FSC will show some tape-delayed finals next week. Check your local listings for the full docket.
What fans have no excuse to miss is Monday's tourney selection show, when the 48 NCAA tournament teams and their seeds are announced. That airs live on ESPNEWS at 4 ET.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.