Previewing the Elite Eight
Among the eight teams that will play in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals Saturday are six recent College Cup finalists, four of which already have won national championships this decade. Which squads will get the chance to play for the title next weekend? Here are our match previews.
Creighton at Maryland, 1 p.m. (all times Eastern)
The last time Maryland made it this far, in 2005, coach Sasho Cirovski's squad went on to win the national title. "The last two years at this stage, we had some heartbreaking losses," Cirovski told Maryland's Web site after his squad topped California 2-1 in the Sweet 16 this past Saturday. "I think you saw a team that has matured, that is hungry, that found a way to win." The Terrapins have done lots of winning this season. They are 20-3 and have been victorious in 13 straight games; one more W will set a school record and seal Maryland's fifth College Cup semifinal berth in seven seasons. But even at Ludwig Field, the Terps will need their A-game to knock off Creighton. The 16-2-1 Blue Jays are the last team you want visiting with a trip to the Final Four on the line -- Creighton, which is led by senior midfielder and Hermann Trophy semifinalist Andrei Gotsmanov, is undefeated in its past 15 road matches and hasn't lost anywhere since Sept. 13.
Northwestern at North Carolina, 2 p.m.
The winner of this match probably will be considered the weakest in Texas the following weekend. That's not a cheap shot -- it says more about the strength of this quarterfinal field. After all, NU spent much of the season unbeaten and near the top of the national polls, while North Carolina is a legitimate ACC heavyweight that has reached the last eight for the fourth time this decade, having won it all in 2001. This actually has been an off year in Chapel Hill, yet somehow, the Heels are one game from college soccer's showcase event. Carolina (13-7-1) might be gaining steam after coming from behind to beat Chicago-Illinois 3-2 this past Sunday. It had been six weeks since UNC scored three in a game. Northwestern (15-4-3) upset No. 5-seed Akron 1-0 on Sunday. The Wildcats benefited by playing at home, but the Zips still couldn't score, despite a wind-aided, 12-2 advantage in second-half shots. The Wildcats also limited national scoring leader Steve Zakuani to one shot. For the Cats, the key is D. Thirteen shutouts show that's how they've done it all season.
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South Florida at Wake Forest, 4:30 p.m.
Any concerns about Wake Forest's form were emphatically erased with a 7-0 pasting of No. 16-seed Dartmouth this past Sunday in the Sweet 16. The Demon Deacons needed OT to dispatch William & Mary by a single goal in the second round, but even the slippery turf at Wake's Spry Stadium couldn't stop the top-seeded defending champions from tearing the Ivy Leaguers to shreds. For South Florida, beating Wake (20-1-1) at Spry will be an awfully tough task. The Deacs are riding a 33-game home unbeaten streak, the fourth-longest in NCAA history, and they haven't lost to a non-ACC foe in 40 straight. But if USF (16-4-2) can get the match to penalties, the Bulls might have the edge, thanks to keeper Jeff Attinella. The soph saved a pair of spot-kicks during the regular season and three more in the tiebreaker this past weekend to help South Florida down UNC Greensboro. "I told the team, if we go into penalty kicks, Jeff will win the game for us," Bulls coach George Kiefer said. And, as good as Wake is, Virginia recently proved these Deacs are beatable.
Indiana at St. John's, 5 p.m.
When Indiana beat St. John's in the 2003 College Cup final, few people outside New York City were surprised. This time, though, the Johnnies come in as favorites. With an 11-0 home record, the third-seeded Red Storm are strong in Queens. Their 16 shutouts this season speak volumes, and they showed heart in a 3-2 comeback victory over UC Irvine this past weekend. They also have a hot scorer in Norwegian sophomore Sverre Wegge Gundhus, who has notched consecutive game winners. As good as SJU has been this season, Indiana is as tough as opponents get. The Hoosiers fear nobody, and if their 3-0 demolition of Michigan is any indication, they're hitting their stride at precisely the right time. IU has 10 clean sheets so far and has surrendered just one shot on goal in two tourney games. In other words, Indiana can play small ball almost as well as St. John's. And, unlike the hosts' last opponent, Mike Frieitag's Hoosiers will have no problem adjusting to the near-freezing temperatures expected Saturday evening.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.