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Nov 19, 2009

Vetting the contenders (and others) for the Cup

The 48 NCAA men's soccer teams that will be contending for a national championship this year have been announced. As always, it's an interesting combination of sure bets, not-a-chances, favorites, underdogs and dark horses.

Here's a look at some of the teams that hope to battle it out and earn their place in the annals of college soccer history -- or at least a spot in this year's College Cup:

Maryland

The Terrapins came into the year with high expectations, both internal and external. After winning the national championship in 2008, Maryland was expected to contend again. And for the most part, the team has.

However, it has been a bit of an up-and-down year in College Park -- perhaps even more so than the Terps' 12-5-2 record shows.

Eleven of the 26 players on Maryland's roster are freshmen, as the team looked to restock from graduation and early-departure losses. Injuries left many of the Terps' top players sidelined in the second half of the season, to the point that coach Sasho Cirovski estimates he has been playing with only two or three players at 100 percent.

"We've hung around all year and just been trying to survive," Cirovski said. "I feel, in a lot of ways, it's been a highly successful season for our team. We're very young, and we've had to rely on [our freshmen] quite a bit during the injury spell. I still have high hopes for this team and believe that we can make a run in the tournament. It's been a year that we've come through some difficult teams, and yet we're still in pretty good shape."

A 1-0 loss to Virginia in the ACC tournament marked another drop in Maryland's roller-coaster season. But Cirovski hopes the early conference playoff exit will provide the extra time and motivation to help propel his team upward.

"A veteran team can learn just as much through winning," Cirovski said. "But having a young team, I think, sometimes a loss really grabs their attention. The finality of the ACC tournament is similar to the NCAA tournament. I think our players really will embrace what that means, and I think we're going to be a tough out."

Ranked in the top 10 nationally for all but one week this season, the Terps certainly will be favored to make an impact in the tournament. Although he can at times come across as sounding reserved about his team's chances, Cirovski believes the Terps have the ability to be successful in the postseason.

"I still think we have a very good run inside of us," Cirovski said. "We're not done yet."

Akron

There's no question the Zips are the team to beat. However, despite the Zips' 20-0 record this season, there are still those who have reservations about Akron because of its Mid-American Conference background. A team doesn't go undefeated and receive the tournament's No. 1 seed based on luck and a weak schedule. The Zips are the real deal, but favorites have fallen in the NCAA tournament. Everyone will be gunning for this team, and it's up to coach Caleb Porter's squad to answer the skeptical once and for all. If not, it will be an even longer winter in Ohio.

Home-state favorites

One would be remiss to discuss the favorites without mentioning North Carolina and Wake Forest. Not only are they two of the top teams in the nation, but with Cary, N.C., hosting the College Cup, the finals will be taking place in those schools' backyard (as if the extra incentive was needed this time of year).

Third-seeded Wake Forest is aiming for its fourth straight College Cup appearance. The Demon Deacons (14-3-3) were the overwhelming favorite to win it all last season, falling short in the semifinal. The team is considered to be on the short list of serious contenders again in 2009.

UNC (13-2-3) has been strong all season, following up on a 2008 campaign in which the Tar Heels finished runners-up to Maryland. The No. 5 seed, North Carolina leads the ACC in goals per game (2.11) and total goals allowed (11). Those numbers against conference opponents could be a key indicator for success this postseason as ACC teams look to be a threat in virtually every corner of the bracket.

The old reliables and the new guys

Three teams continue a streak of 20 or more consecutive NCAA tournament appearances this season, while four teams make their postseason debut.

Virginia leads the way as the program returns for the 29th straight year. UCLA is back for the 27th consecutive year, while Indiana's streak of NCAA tournament appearances extends to 23. The Cavaliers (No. 2 seed) and Bruins (No. 6) hope to prove they're not just perennial tournament teams but legitimate contenders for the College Cup. As for the unseeded Hoosiers, they have demonstrated plenty of times during the past two-plus decades that no one should ever count them out.

Of course, such impressive streaks always begin with a single game. Wofford, UNC-Wilmington, Sacramento State and St. Mary's (California) are all making their first trips to the NCAA tournament.

Talk about a turnaround

Stanford had little to be excited about when the annual NCAA selection show rolled around last season. The Cardinal went 4-11-3 in 2008, scoring just 14 goals in 18 games. A year later, the team was glad to tune in. Stanford earned an at-large bid after going 10-5-2 (scoring 24 goals in 17 games) this season.

For Missouri State, the 180-degree about-face happened in the past eight games. After starting the season 5-3-2, the Bears went 7-1 to close out the campaign and earn an at-large bid for their first postseason appearance in decade.

Depending how it all shakes out …

It's completely possible that the ACC could field three teams in the College Cup for the second year in a row. The way the bracket shakes out, Virginia, UNC and Wake Forest could meet in Cary just weeks from now.

For West Coast soccer fans, Nov. 29 could shape up to be quite a game, as UCLA and UCSB could meet in the third round for a rematch of the 2006 national championship game.

The NCAA tournament is a test for any team. It comes down to tangibles (skill, training, set pieces) and intangibles (determination, focus, drive and, yes, luck). Although the outcomes are impossible to predict, one thing is certain: In just 24 days, one team will be crowned national champion.

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.

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