We usually suggest games to watch at the end of this column. But with a nationally televised match between top-ranked defending champ Wake Forest and No. 2 Maryland on tap for Friday, a slight departure from tradition is in order. Because there certainly is plenty to talk about before the big game.
First, it's a battle between ACC foes and two of the past three NCAA champions (the Terps won in 2005). And while either squad could very well win it all again in December, it's still somewhat surprising that Maryland is this high in the polls this early. That's because coach Sasho Cirovski isn't finished rebuilding a program that has lost the likes of Stephen King, Robbie Rogers, Chris Seitz and Maurice Edu since that glorious triumph nearly three years ago.
UM does boast College Soccer News' top recruiting class, but the fact that freshmen Casey Townsend (four goals) and Matt Kassel (five assists) have meshed with seniors Graham Zusi and A.J. Delagarza so well and so quickly is a credit to the keen, talent-spotting eye of Cirovski, who became Maryland's all-time wins leader when his squad beat Duke this past Friday.
That wasn't Maryland's only big victory. The Terps, now 6-1 after Tuesday night's 4-0 romp over American, also won at UCLA to open their season and dispatched reigning two-time ACC winner Boston College. They were slain at Cal, but there is no doubt the high-scoring Demon Deacons will be their stiffest test yet.
Wake just keeps rolling. It beat Appalachian State 1-0 on Wednesday to improve to 7-0. With 21 goals scored, it has the country's most potent attack. Twelve players have tallied for the Deacons this season; Marcus Tracy leads them with six. Wake's most impressive result came Sept. 13 in a 6-2 comeback win at 2006 national champ UC Santa Barbara. In that game, the Deacs scored five straight after conceding first, and six players found net, including rookies Sam Redmond and Luke Norman (who also notched the latest midweek winner). Jay Vidovich's team now has equaled the school's best start, set last season on its way to its first College Cup title.
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The visitors obviously are favored Friday. That said, this is Wake's toughest regular-season game on paper, and Maryland will be motivated. It also should be a good spectacle, since both teams are capable of sophisticated, possession-style attacking soccer. Finally, playing at Ludwig Field helps, too: That big crowd won't tolerate the Terps sitting back at home. The stars are aligning for a thriller.
The Big East's big tilt
Further north, No. 4 St. John's hosts archrival No. 5 Connecticut on Friday in another compelling match. Both SJU and UConn remain unbeaten, with the Red Storm owning the nation's second-best goals-against average. St. John's also has momentum coming off a pair of big results. It held third-ranked Notre Dame to a scoreless draw in South Bend, then got a 1-0, double-overtime win at Marquette in another conference contest. It was the seventh clean sheet for the Johnnies, who have allowed just one goal in eight outings. And while we're talking about stats, how's this one: St. John's senior goalie Neal Kitson has not been scored on in the 662 minutes he's played this season.
Stingy as St. John's is, UConn is almost as good defensively. The Huskies have allowed two goals all year and share the fourth-best GAA (.26) in Division I with Big East rival Providence.
The big question in Connecticut is: When will Hermann Trophy holder O'Brian White find the form that helped him set Connecticut's single-season record for goals with an NCAA-best 23 in 2007? He has scored three times in seven appearances this season. His mates haven't been picking up his slack, either; the Huskies have netted just four goals in their past five games. The good news? White is streaky (his '07 haul included three hat tricks) and could get hot at any moment. UConn fans hope that moment comes Friday night in Queens.
1. Creighton is up to No. 8 this week, leaping four places with wins at Stanford and then-No. 6 California, which was previously unbeaten. The Bluejays haven't lost on the road since Washington eliminated them from the 2006 NCAA tourney.
2. Illinois-Chicago jumped a spot to crack the top 10 for the first time this year. How tough is it to beat the Flames? You might not know they held Cuauhtemoc Blanco and the Chicago Fire to a 0-0 draw in an April friendly. UIC remains undefeated at 5-0-2.
3. Northwestern sits seventh after picking up W's against Iona and Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. NU's next two -- against 2007 national runner-up and current No. 15 Ohio State on Saturday and No. 12 Saint Louis next Tuesday -- should be slightly tougher.
What to watch for:
Friday, Sept. 26: Wake Forest at Maryland, 8 p.m. ET on Fox Soccer Channel.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.