On the eve of the 49th men's College Cup, Wake Forest is the clear favorite to claim its first national championship at SAS Stadium in Cary, N.C., on Sunday.
But to do it, the Demon Deacons will have to get by ACC rival Virginia Tech in Friday's first semifinal (5 p.m. ET, ESPN2). And if the topsy-turvy 2007 tournament has taught us anything so far, it's this: Take nothing for granted.
Arguably the best team in the land all season, Wake became the undisputed title front-runner when UConn was upset by Virginia Tech in the Elite Eight on Saturday. Of the four semifinalists (Massachusetts and Ohio State are the other two), Wake Forest is the only team boasting College Cup chops. That valuable big-time experience came just 12 months ago, when coach Jay Vidovich's men heartrendingly lost a national semifinal game on penalty kicks after 110 scoreless minutes against eventual champ UC Santa Barbara.
As such, you can count on two things: First, the Deacs are desperate to make up for last year's letdown by earning a title shot in Sunday's finale. Second, you can bet they are going to throw everything they have at the Hokies to make it happen.
It certainly isn't going to be easy. No. 2 seed Wake (20-2-2) had a ton of trouble with No. 11 seed Tech (14-3-5) when the pair met during regular-season conference play. On Oct. 5, the Hokies twice overcame a two-goal deficit to tie Wake 3-3. In that game in Blacksburg, Wake seemed in control when Wake midfielders Sam Cronin and Corben Bone scored first-half goals. However, star Hokies strikers Patrick Nyarko and Robert Edmans came alive after the break, combining for three second-half goals and nullifying a second goal from Cronin in the process.
(A note on seeds: In the 48-team tournament, just 16 teams are seeded, and they received first-round byes -- so soccer seeds are for the entire tourney field, not for a region, as in the NCAA basketball tourney; i.e., there is only one No. 1 seed, one No. 2 seed, etc.)
With everything on the line Friday for Wake and Tech, don't expect the kind of wide-open game they played in the regular season. However, a defensive chess match is equally unlikely. While you can't make the semis without being able to successfully stymie attack-minded opponents, both squads like to play attractive, offensive soccer, and both have the weapons to do it. And that's good news for fans who are routinely forced to endure bore-ball tactics in high-stakes tilts at every level.
Alas, the nightcap between unseeded UMass and No. 5 seed Ohio State (7 p.m. ET, ESPNU) might not be as pretty to behold. The Minutemen's run to Cary has been nothing short of miraculous, but there is no disputing the fact that they lack the top-end talent and pedigree of the three other squads. Thirteen of their 25 contests this season have been decided by a single goal, and they allowed more than one goal in a game just four times this season. So if coach Sam Koch's charges are to upset the underrated Buckeyes, bunker ball (and another big game from keeper Zack Simmons, who was lights-out against Illinois-Chicago) is how UMass will punch its ticket to the final.
Don't count on that happening. Although Ohio State is not famous for its success in soccer, the Buckeyes -- led by Xavier Balc, Big Ten Player of the Year -- have a legitimate shot of winning it all this weekend.
Unlike their UMass counterparts, coach John Bluem's team expected to make it this far. While the Buckeyes (16-3-5) were awarded the tourney's fifth seed, they could have been seeded a spot or two higher. Ohio State enters Friday's match riding a 14-game unbeaten streak, and it outdueled none other than perennial power Indiana to win the Big Ten title last month. The Buckeyes are also backed by the NCAA's richest athletics department, which is banking on bringing a 57th national crown back to Columbus.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.