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Dec 7, 2006

UNC win shows rising interest in college game

The women's college season turned out much as I expected. Back in the preseason I originally predicted that North Carolina would return to glory and claim an 18th title. I projected a pair of freshmen, Tobin Heath and Casey Nogueira, to be important contributors yet follow the lead of a resurgent Heather O'Reilly in her final year.

Sure enough, Heath became a starter on an already loaded lineup, unsettling opponents with her tricky, aggressive play, while Nogueira played a crucial role as a substitute, never more so than when her fresh legs powered a late winning goal over UCLA in a deadlocked semifinal game. O'Reilly was the standard-bearer for her team, scoring the opening goal in the final.

The flip side, of course, is that I placed Notre Dame as finishing seventh and overlooked Kerri Hanks as the offensive marvel that she is.

Though North Carolina is the national champion again, I'm skeptical of any talk of the dynasty returning. Notre Dame, after all, was the team in the final with the opportunity to finish off an unbeaten season, and that was after hanging on desperately to defeat feisty Florida State. UNC had to rally, twice, from being a goal down to Texas A&M to even reach the four-team College Cup.

Yes, North Carolina has a great program that deserved another moment in the sun, and it will probably have more, but the days of dominance are done. No, there isn't parity across the board in women's college soccer, but there is an elite level that a few teams stand on. It's no longer UNC up there all alone.

Instead, it's a select company of top programs returning again and again to do battle for the crown.

UNC will no longer be a team featuring a collection of carefree freshmen but instead a squad realizing the truth of how much harder it is to defend a title than to earn one. Notre Dame will come back hungrier than ever. UCLA has been knocking on the door for so long, and the return of Kara Lang next season from injury could be the missing piece. After a taste of the College Cup, Florida State continues to be a program on the rise.

The increased competition in the women's college game has spurred more interest in the sport than ever.

The attendance at the final match in Cary, N.C., not only bested that of the men's final (mostly because of the limited capacity of the stadium in St. Louis), but also that of the Gold Cup tournament in Los Angeles, where the U.S. women's national team qualified for the World Cup. Unlike the venue in St. Louis, the Home Depot Center has a capacity of 27,000.

Yet only 6,749 were present for the Gold Cup final as the U.S. beat Canada 2-1. In comparison, 8,349 (expanded capacity for SAS Soccer Park) were on hand to watch UNC beat Notre Dame by the same score.

It's not surprising to find that the most important college soccer competition could outdraw the women's national team playing a friendly exhibition match. The Gold Cup, however, wasn't that at all. In contrast to determining the best women's college soccer team in the country, the Gold Cup was a contest to crown the best national squad in the entire CONCACAF region, which encompasses North America, Central America, the Caribbean and small parts of South America. Not only that, but the tournament also determined who would qualify automatically for the Women's World Cup in 2007, granting that privilege to the two finalists. It was a competition that mattered.

With all due respect to both college squads, the truth is that the quality of soccer was obviously higher in the Gold Cup final. Though it's often been the argument that people are fascinated mainly by the game played at the highest level, the relative disparity of a 20 percent increase in fan involvement for the lower-level game indicates otherwise.

It might be that many find it much more compelling to watch North Carolina take on a field of legitimate opposition. Even as the regional rivalries improve around the U.S. women's team, their fans seem lulled into a state of ennui. The dominance of the U.S. squad locally might be stultifying interest, just as in many ways the college game was less compelling when UNC was always winning.

Even fans of the Tar Heels probably appreciate the current NCAA trophy more precisely because it was taken away for two years. A title is no longer taken for granted and is far from a forgone conclusion. Absence makes the heart grow fonder of championships.

On the other hand, the U.S. team was frankly expected to triumph, so there was little in the way of wild celebrating from fans. If anything, the close result triggered a little grousing.

There's also an open emotional nature to the college game that's refreshing. Unschooled in the art of media relations, many college players will blurt out answers with unfiltered honesty. Instead of cool professionalism, true feelings are evident, as clear as Hanks' tears were even before the final whistle blew to end Notre Dame's hopes.

Natasha Kai's exuberance aside, the senior women's national team isn't given to grand displays of sentiment. There was no player dog pile to celebrate the Gold Cup title.

This isn't at all to say that the national team should be more like a college team. A little restraint, given the international relations that come into play with soccer at that level, is probably prudent.

Another factor could be accessibility. Unless one lives in Los Angeles, a person is unlikely to see any of the current members of the U.S. women's team. In college, one could run into a soccer player in the cafeteria or somewhere else on campus.

The end result is that while the popularity of women's soccer as a whole is on the rise, it appears for now that interest in the women's college game is outgrowing that of the national team.

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