Defending national champion Wake Forest is the odds-on favorite to repeat as it heads into a third consecutive College Cup final four on Friday. That said, Deacons coach Jay Vidovich certainly isn't taking anything for granted -- not when the field for the event's golden anniversary edition is arguably its strongest ever.
Wake Forest vs. North Carolina (5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360.com)
"It's a tremendous accomplishment to get to the College Cup," Vidovich said on Wednesday before his team departed for Frisco, Texas. "I know how hard it was, how many years it took to get there once, much less three times in a row. I look at my junior class and [realize] it's all they've ever known. Some of my seniors will be lining up for their fourth start in a College Cup game."
Not that it means a thing come kickoff. Neither does the fact that the Deacs beat North Carolina 4-2 in an ACC regular-season match back on Nov. 1.
"We're not naive," Vidovich said. "It's a single-elimination tournament. You don't necessarily have to be the best team in the country, you just have to be better that day. North Carolina is a tremendous program -- we have lots of respect for them and the way they play. For sure, Carolina is capable of winning. But at the same time, I feel pretty strongly that my guys, the way they are playing, the way they are training, aren't overconfident. They can get a great result."
UNC coach Elmar Bolowich remembers that loss to Wake well. It was one of five in a row the Tar Heels suffered heading in to the NCAA tourney, where they have, to the surprise of many, reeled off three straight wins. "We played great for most of that game, so we know we can hang with them," Bolowich said. "We have to be focused for 90 minutes and last time we didn't do that. We made a few mistakes and that's why we lost. If we can do it on Friday, we have a good chance."
|2008 College Cup|
North Carolina vs. Wake Forest Pizza Hut Park, Frisco, Texas
5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2, ESPN360
Maryland vs. St. John's
Pizza Hut Park, Frisco, Texas
8 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Notable: North Carolina outshot Wake 13-10 and had a 6-2 edge in corner kicks last time out. UNC also held the Deacs without a first-half shot. Three of Wake's four goals came during a six-minute span in the second half.
St. John's vs. Maryland (8 p.m. ET, ESPNU)
Unlike in the opener, there is no clear favorite in the nightcap. St. John's showed both heart and quality in its late second-half comeback against Indiana in the quarters. Meanwhile, all Maryland has done is win 14 consecutive games. The Red Storm will be looking to end their tourney losing streak against the Terrapins; Maryland knocked the Johnnies out in 2004, '05 and '06. For SJU coach Dave Masur, limiting Maryland's chances is the key to changing those fortunes.
"We have to be a little bit more dominant on the defensive side," said Masur. "That's not only in the back four, it's throughout our team."
With 16 clean sheets, St. John's has been one of the stingiest defenses in Division I this year. But it has also allowed two goals in each of its past two matches. "Hopefully we can be better and learn from those experiences," Masur said.
"We've got to be able to deal with their pace and strength up top. Their attacking wide players have pace [too]. Even at outside back, Maryland is very attack oriented," he said.
"They are a high-pressure, hungry team. With four seniors, they're also an older team. We have to be ready to deal with all of that. An unbelievable performance is what we're striving for."
It will probably take one to beat the Terps. Like St. John's, Maryland has something to prove: This is the program's first trip back to the final weekend since winning it all three years ago.
"We are a very well-balanced team -- in that regard there are some similarities to 2005," coach Sasho Cirovski said. "Having said that, a lot of my players came to Maryland to compete for College Cups. For most of them, this will be their first one. It's a team that's gotten better throughout the year. They are a humble group, but they are focused."
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As for their opponents? "We know them well," Cirovski said of St. John's. "They are tough to penetrate and, as their last game showed, they play to the final whistle. We just have to make sure we play well and hope that's good enough."
Notable: St. John's beat Maryland in the 2003 quarterfinals, marking the Storm's last Cup trip. SJU would go on to lose to Indiana in the national final.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.