Previewing the Sweet 16
The MLS season is over, but American soccer fans can cope with the inevitable withdrawal by following the ongoing NCAA tournament. Five seeded teams have already been bounced, and just 16 squads remain in the running to win the 50th College Cup. In other words, now things get really interesting. Here's a preview of all eight games this weekend.
Saturday, Nov. 29
Dartmouth at Wake Forest
Anything can happen in the tourney, and on Tuesday it almost did. Top-seeded Wake got a huge scare against William & Mary, needing an OT winner from forward Cody Arnoux to break a scoreless deadlock. Wake's been the class of college soccer for two years now, but even the Demon Deacons will need some luck if they are to defend their national title next month in Frisco, Texas. Stud defender Ike Opara and playmaking midfielder Austin da Luz can't recover from injury soon enough, but the Deacs should still beat the Ivy Leaguers, who needed PKs to top Wake's ACC rival Boston College, without them. After that, it gets a bit trickier.
UNC Greensboro at South Florida
It's a shame that the 2008 season will end for one of these teams this weekend. UNC Greensboro is clearly on a roll after a 2-1, OT upset of Loyola (Md.) If anything, that losing record (10-11-2) is fostering an us-against-the-world mentality and helping to fuel the run. This is UNCG's fourth trip to the Round of 16 in the last five seasons, but Tampa should be the Spartans' last stop. USF is 10-0-1 at home this season and has allowed only four goals. But forget about stats: The Big East champion Bulls just seem destined for a deep run after years of dashed hopes.
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UC Irvine at St. John's
St. John's has been unstoppable at home this season, but it still took the Red Storm 83 minutes to get the goal it needed to beat Boston University on Nov. 25. Dave Masur's men now will face another stiff test from UC Irvine. The tourney newbie made short work of up-and-coming Cal Poly in the second round, beating their Big West rival 3-0. However, the Anteaters will find it tougher to score against stingy SJU and star backstop Neal Kitson, who has a school-record 15 shutouts this season. Plus, the Storm is 10-0 at Belson Stadium and have valuable experience. We'll take the Johnnies.
Michigan at Indiana
Call it a hunch, but we predict an upset is in the cards here. Michigan, 2-1 winners over UC Davis, certainly won't fear Indiana, which shutout Saint Louis 2-0 -- not after meeting them twice already this season and beating the Hoosiers once, in Bloomington, 1-0 on Oct. 4. To do it again, the Wolverines need to get on the board first: Indiana is 0-6 when it concedes the opener, 10-0-1 when they net before their opponent. True, leaving Jerry Yeagley Field victorious will be harder to do in the playoffs. But lately Armstrong Stadium hasn't been the fortress it used to be. IU was ousted there in each of the last two years.
Connecticut at Creighton
You can bet Creighton coach Bob Warming is plenty wary of the threat UConn poses to his second-seeded Blue Jays. In what passes for a tough season, the Huskies have lost only three games and downed Virginia, the only team to beat No.1 Wake Forest this year, in the second round. Still, the visitors will again be without O'Brian White -- Connecticut has gone NHL on us, refusing to disclose the Hermann Trophy holder's injury -- and Creighton's tough to beat at Morrison Stadium. Even Tulsa couldn't do it, losing 2-1 on Nov. 25, its first defeat in 16 road games. Jays advance.
California at Maryland
Cal won't be at all fazed by the hostile reception at Ludwig Field. After all, the Bears just handed 2006 national champ UC Santa Barbara and its notoriously rowdy fans their first-ever NCAA Tournament loss at home. Meanwhile, Maryland's frosh-senior attacking combo of Casey Townsend and Graham Zusi got the goals that beat local rival George Mason, and keeper Zac MacMath won his 15th-straight. Wondering what team beat the former U.S. U-17 standout last ? It was Cal, way back on Aug. 31. Still, don't expect a repeat, not in College Park and not with the Terps riding a 12-game win streak. Maryland moves on.
Sunday, Nov. 30
Illinois-Chicago at North Carolina
UIC surprised many with its penalty-kick upset (after a 0-0 draw) of No. 4 seed and Big Ten champ Michigan State on Tuesday. But lockdown D, plus a little luck, has worked wonders for the Chicagoans so far. John Trask's team also dispatched Dayton in a shootout after playing to a scoreless stalemate in first round action on Nov. 21. At this rate, North Carolina could find itself in serious trouble on Saturday. The Tar Heels' form remains suspect after they needed a second-half strike from freshman forward Billy Schuler to squeak by surprising Jacksonville. Before that, UNC had lost five in a row.
Akron at Northwestern
After Tuesday's 2-1 home win over Notre Dame, NU appears back on track after that worrying late-season slump. Plus, fortune might just be shining on the Wildcats: Akron was supposed to host this match, but a snowstorm rendered the Zips' Lee Jackson Field unplayable (Akron's 1-0 defeat of Ohio State Wednesday night was played at a nearby high school) and the contest was moved to Evanston. But Akron is still the fave. The Zips will arrive in Illinois sporting a gaudy 17-1-4 record, and they're our dark horse pick to win it all on Dec. 14. At the very least, they will be among the four teams heading to Frisco.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.