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Intriguing matchups in first-round draw

The 22 conference champions have earned their automatic invites. The 26 at-large bids were doled out live on ESPNews earlier this week. And this weekend, soccer's version of the Big Dance begins. Here's a look at the most intriguing matchups of the first round.

Friday, Nov. 21

Fairfield at Connecticut

UConn (9-4-6) is the heavy favorite in this battle for Constitution State bragging rights. But Huskies fans know all too well not to write off the plucky Stags. The last time these two teams met in NCAA tournament play, in 2006, Fairfield stunned the hosts with a 2-1 win. That victory remains Fairfield's lone triumph on the national stage. But after winning the Metro Atlantic conference title by upsetting previously unbeaten Loyola (Md.) in the finale, Fairfield (11-7) will like its chances in Storrs. The squad that emerges will face a tough second-round test at ACC tourney runner-up (and Wake Forest slayer) Virginia on Nov. 25.

Loyola (Ill.) at Northwestern

Again, on paper, there's a clear fave to win this in-state slugfest. After all, before suffering its first loss of the season (to Michigan) on Oct. 25, Northwestern was 11-0-2 and ranked second in the NSCAA/adidas poll. But since then, the Wildcats have lost four of six matches. That's not the form to take into a win-or-go-home match against a surging side like the Ramblers. Loyola has four-straight W's, including the Horizon League championship clincher, and will be out to avenge a 1-0 regular-season loss to NU on Oct. 28. The victor meets No. 12 seed Notre Dame in South Bend next Tuesday.

Drake at Saint Louis

The home team boasts the most successful program in college soccer history. The Billikens are making their 45th NCAA tourney appearance (out of 50) this fall. Meanwhile, tiny Drake -- Iowa's lone Division I soccer-playing school has just 3,400 undergrads -- is heading there for the first time in the program's 23 years. While none of that matters once the teams step onto the Hermann Stadium field, Saint Louis is the favorite. It won't be easy, but the Billikens should prevail against the gritty, 13-4-1 Bulldogs. If they do, it will set up an compelling second-round road tilt against Indiana, history's second-most successful squad. The Hoosiers have seven national titles to SLU's 10.

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Cal Poly at UCLA

Expectations are always high for UCLA. After starting 2008 3-4-5, the Bruins weren't close to meeting them. But UCLA has gone 7-0-1 since, winning the Pac-10 title and qualifying for its 26th consecutive NCAA tourney. Cal Poly is back in the fold for the first time since 1995, in part because of the enormous home crowds the Mustangs were able to draw this season. Of course, this one will be played in Westwood, but an upset is still possible. Cal Poly certainly won't be intimidated after playing there less than two weeks ago, a slim 2-1 loss to the hosts on Nov. 8. UC Irvine awaits the winner.

San Francisco at California

California is ranked between No. 9 and No. 12 in all four national polls. But somehow, Cal isn't among the 16 seeded teams that received a first-round bye. (Actually, the flawed, computerized RPI rankings are how, but that's a topic for another time.) Cal should still beat a San Francisco squad that finished at 9-9-2. True, the Dons won the West Coast Conference crown and hold a 21-11-2 all-time series edge, but the Bears have already beaten the visitors once this season (a 2-0 decision on Sept. 26) and have a point to prove. UC Santa Barbara's got next.

Saturday, Nov. 22

UNC Greensboro at Duke

These squads met on Aug. 20 in both teams' first preseason exhibition. The Spartans beat the Blue Devils 1-0 that day, but Duke will prevail this time around. UNC Greensboro is an atrocious 8-11-2 on the year. True, the Spartans did win the SoCon title to qualify and they do have tourney experience; they have reached the Round of 16 three times running. But that streak ends in Durham, setting up a titillating second-round date between Duke and 18-1-1 Loyola (Md.). The Greyhounds are coming off their only loss, 1-0 to Fairfield in the Metro-Atlantic final on Nov. 16, and they'll have serious problems dealing with Mike Grella & Co. Look for an upset there.

Ohio State at Oakland (Mich.)

It's been a tough year for OSU. The 2007 College Cup finalist is 9-7-2 and limps into the tourney riding a four-game losing streak. Some will argue the Buckeyes didn't deserve to get the call, but keep in mind that those four straight defeats were to teams that have since earned seeds (two were against No. 5 Indiana, the others to No. 4 Akron and No. 11 Michigan). With their recent postseason chops, the Buckeyes should manage to get past 14-4-1 Oakland, even if they'll have to do it on the road. What's the reward if OSU can knock off the Golden Grizzlies? A rematch at Akron two days before Thanksgiving.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.


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