What a shame it is that for either surging UCLA or top-seeded Duke, the season will end this weekend. The way the Bruins and Blue Devils are playing right now, their NCAA tournament quarterfinal match is worthy of the College Cup final itself.
It's not that the survivors on the "weak" side -- UC Santa Barbara, Northwestern, Wake Forest or Santa Clara -- don't belong here. After all, UCSB is only two years removed from playing in the final, Santa Clara narrowly missed out on advancing to the title tilt in 2003, and Wake has been as good as any squad in the land this season. Simply call it a hunch.
Going into the round's marquee matchup, the Blue Devils appear to be the favorite. They've got that No. 1 designation, are playing the game in Durham and have rolled so far in the dance, scoring five and allowing none in wins over Brown (2-0) and No. 16 Lehigh (3-0). Duke is wearing the ACC crown for a second consecutive season, but after the heartbreak of getting bounced in their first tourney test of 2005, this is a team determined not to be disappointed again. And with a squad that is arguably the most talented in the county (headlined by surefire Hermann finalist Mike Videira), they are more than capable of winning it all.
In many respects, UCLA is in the same boat as its opponent. The Bruins are a supremely talented squad that seriously underachieved last season, also dropping their first game in the NCAAs. They struggled early this season and the injury bug hit midseason, but Jorge Salcedo's side has been lights out in their first two tourney games, destroying Harvard and an excellent Clemson team by matching 3-0 score lines.
How hot are the Bruins? After the shellacking Clemson coach Trevor Adair (who had his Tigers atop the national rankings for several weeks this fall) said, "They are by far the most technical team we have played this year. We just couldn't stay with them. They're the best team we have played this year, [and] anybody that plays them is going to have a hard time."
It seems that if Notre Dame is going to get past Virginia and make it to Saint Lou, it will be on the back of super striker Joe Lapira. The junior netted his second straight game winning goal and ended Maryland's title defense, leading ND to its first-ever quarterfinal berth in the process. The Irish are on a tear, having won eleven of their past 13 games. Lapira has emerged as the Hermann Trophy frontrunner, and could be the second player from Louisiana to take home the hardware in as many years (former Terps forward Jason Garey won the honor in 2005).
Notre Dame will travel to Charlottesville to take on Virginia, which needed two second-half tallies from giant German forward Yannick Reyering to overcome California. The Cavaliers have the advantage of playing at Klockner Stadium, but Irish coach Bobby Clark is convinced his side can pull off the upset. "It's a big thing for us to have made it this far, but we are more than capable of going further. Not to sound greedy, we can't be content on just making it this far. We have to take it another step and this team has that potential."
UCSB is going to end Northwestern's fairytale run. Can't see this one going any other way. The Gauchos will be playing in front of their raucous home fans after gutting out a tough 2-1 victory at Old Dominion. Tim Vom Steeg's men have won eight of their past nine contests, and nine players on the roster have been to college soccer's final weekend before. That is just too much experience for the overachieving Wildcats to handle this time around.
Finally, we have Wake and Santa Clara. The Demon Deacons have put together the best season in program history but find themselves in uncharted tournament territory. However, playing in the ACC has a way of prepping teams for the postseason (and it is part of the reason three of the conference's seven reps are still alive). Deacs' mentor Jay Vidovich (recently named ACC Coach of the Year) has already pulled seventeen wins out of his guys so far and Wake has the home-field advantage. Meanwhile, Santa Clara needed OT to best Washington in the second round and penalties to overcome Indiana in the third. And don't expect experience to help the Broncos: only two players were on the squad that made it to the College Cup three years ago. Expect Wake's storybook season to continue.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.