Before the season started, Wake Forest coach Jay Vidovich tried to explain just how even teams have become at the top end of Division I men's soccer.
"There used to be 10 schools capable of winning the national championship," Vidovich told me back in August. "Now, in any given season, maybe 30 schools can win."
But on the eve of this year's quarterfinals, it looks like Vidovich knew what he was talking about. His second-ranked Demon Deacons will play for a second-straight trip to the College Cup this weekend, but five of the seven other teams are making their first-ever trip to the Elite Eight.
Starting Saturday, three unseeded squads will play for a trip to college soccer's showcase event in Cary, N.C. At least one is guaranteed to get through. And it is hardly far-fetched to imagine one actually hoisting the trophy; just last year, unseeded UCSB won it all.
The defending champions were ousted in overtime last weekend by No. 5 Ohio State, the only seeded team remaining on its half of the bracket. The Buckeyes take on Bradley, which dramatically knocked off 2005 champ Maryland in the Sweet 16. Massachusetts meets Illinois-Chicago in Sunday's other game.
The quartet on the other side of the bracket would make up a fine College Cup field themselves. But of course, only two can advance. High–flying UConn hosts Virginia Tech in the weekend's first match, while Wake welcomes Notre Dame to Winston-Salem Saturday night. Here's more on the matchups, plus our picks.
No. 11 Virginia Tech at No. 3 Connecticut (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET)
No way we're underestimating UConn again. The Huskies answered our upset prediction by thoroughly dismantling South Florida, 5-0, in the round of 16. Clearly, Connecticut's Jamaican-Canadian hit man O'Brian White isn't easily stopped. White, a potential top pick in next month's MLS SuperDraft (and possibly the best striker to come out of college soccer since former Husky and current Reggae Boy Damani Ralph), scorched the Bulls for a hat trick. As potent as Tech's attack has been this season (fifth nationally, one spot ahead of UConn), it'll have a hard time out-gunning Ray Reid's men head to head, not to mention breaking down a superior Husky rearguard led by Trinidadian Julius James who, like White, is on the MAC's Hermann Trophy shortlist.
No. 10 Notre Dame at No. 2 Wake Forest (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET)
Who says it's been a bad year for Notre Dame futbol? The Irish are one game away from the final four for the second consecutive season. High scorer Joe Lapira has come alive in tourney play after a disappointing regular season, registering back-to-back three-point performances in ND's wins over Oakland and Santa Clara. But Lapira will need another monster game if the Irish are to beat Wake, which rolled over West Virginia, 3-1, last week. And even that might not be enough to derail the Deacs, who seem destined to meet UConn in a semifinal tilt that could be even better than the Dec. 16 finale.
Illinois-Chicago at Massachusetts (Sunday, noon ET)
The unlikeliest quarterfinal we've seen in years. UMass is participating in just its second-ever tourney (they were bounced in the second round six years ago), while UIC went on the road to beat Northwestern and then Creighton to earn a trip to Amherst. The Minutemen made it to this stage by beating cupcake foe Central Connecticut State, 3-1, in round three, but are tough to beat at home. The Flames lack flash but are defensively sound. Plus, they are led by one of the nation's top young coaches in third-year boss John Trask, a former assistant with Indiana and MLS sides D.C. United and FC Dallas. It's hard to pick a winner in this one, but Trask's leadership and experience could be the difference.
Bradley at No. 5 Ohio State (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
If the Buckeyes manage to avoid the upset and advance, they'll do it by staying focused for 90 minutes. Maryland could only concentrate for 88 last week, and that 120-second lull cost the Terps their two-goal cushion and eventually, the game. OSU overcame a similar two-goal, second-half deficit against UCSB in its own third-round match. The Buckeyes get to host and are the clear favorites, but the Braves have some serious momentum on their side and will be well-supported in Columbus. Six busloads of Bradley backers will set off from Peoria at 5 a.m. Sunday morning to cheer on their team at Jesse Owens Stadium.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.