Of the four quarterfinal matches that will determine which teams book a trip to next weekend's College Cup in Cary, North Carolina, the Maryland-Akron contest clearly is the most compelling for a number of reasons.
For starters, Maryland is desperately trying to hoist its first College Cup since 1968, and it has a team inspired in part by the disappointment of coming oh-so-close at the Final Four for the past three seasons. Meanwhile, Akron was the country's top squad for most of the fall and has lost just one game all year, in OT, at Indiana.
When the two schools met during preseason action in Ohio, the Zips came out 2-0 winners. But in that game, the Terps played without MAC Hermann Trophy frontrunner Jason Garey, and starters Chris Lancos and Robbie Rogers. Now, the full-strength, top-seeded Terps are the clear favorites and they'll be playing in the friendly confines of Ludwig Field, where they're 10-0-1 all-time in tournament play.
Although No. 8 Akron barely squeezed by Connecticut in the last round(4-3 on penalties after a 3-3 draw) don't expect the talented, tough and ultimately underrated Zips to go down easy. "Our eyes are set on getting to the College Cup and winning a national championship," says Akron head coach Ken Lolla, who's led his troops to an 18-1-3 record so far.
To pull off the upset, the Zips will have to shut down the No. 2 scoring offense in the country. Maryland is averaging 2.73 goals per game, but if any team can shut 'em down, Akron can. The Zips have conceded just eleven goals in 2005 -- an average of less than one goal against every two outings – good for the top spot nationally. And, the Zips can light up the scoreboard themselves. Who's the only team in the land with a more potent attack than the Terps, you ask? That's right, it's Akron, getting more than three strikes a match.
"This is huge, both for us and the future of Akron soccer," says standout freshman GK Evan Bush. "We know Maryland is going to have a great atmosphere for the game."
The hosts, who beat St. John's 3-1 in the third round to advance to Saturday's quarterfinal, knocked Akron out of the NCAAs two years ago in the Sweet Sixteen on a Garey goal.
While Maryland-Akron is definitely the marquee matchup, the other three bouts are well worth examining as well. Whoever emerges victorious from College Park will face the winner of the North Carolina-SMU tilt, another intriguing tie.
Usually a powerhouse, SMU got off to a dreadful start, dropping the first four games of its campaign before going 8-1-1 in their last ten. Leading the Mustangs' tourney charge has been freshman Paulo Da Silva, who's netted four goals in three games after grabbing just three in seventeen before postseason play began. Also worth noting is that Coach Schellas Hyndman's men have won both their games away from Dallas, knocking out UCLA and UNC-Greensboro on their way to a date with No. 4 UNC in Chapel Hill.
The Tar Heels own late-blooming big-game striker is junior forward Ben Hunter. The Englishman has led the way for the Heels, scoring twice in two second-half minutes in the 2-1 win over Virginia. Hunter, in his first season with UNC after transferring from Juco outfit Rio Grande, also netted a pair against Providence in the second round, and had three twine-ticklers in the ACC tournament. That totals seven goals in four postseason games compared to the six he bagged during nineteen regular ones. And, with a hot Hunter, UNC has the added incentive of being able hoist the trophy less than 25 miles from campus.
Tonight, in front of the Tiger faithful, unseeded Clemson and Creighton go at it for the first time ever. Nobody thought these two would still be playing in December, but the winner of this one somehow will find itself on the easier side of the bracket, two games from winning it all. So far, Clemson has been unflinching in the high-stakes world of knockout soccer, sending Costal Carolina, N.C. State and Notre Dame home without allowing a goal. Don't underestimate how much the Tigers want to win for coach Trevor Adair, who missed the ND victory because he was attending his father's funeral in his native Northern Ireland.
Although it has always been a competitive program, Clemson hasn't made a Final Four in eighteen years, and they've faltered in the Elite Eight four times in the past decade. The home team will rely on defender Nathan Sturgis (Clemson's best pro prospect since World Cup-bound Oguchi Onyewu left in 2001), Jamaican forward Dane Richards and GK Phil Marfuggi if it's to reverse its recent history.
Like SMU, the visiting Bluejays have been road warriors in the dance, beating Duke and Penn State away after easily dispatching Lafayette at Morrison Stadium in their opener. More impressively, both road Ws were of the comeback variety. And unlike underachieving Clemson, Creighton is looking for its fourth Cup berth in since 1996.
Finally, No. 2 New Mexico welcomes No. 7 California to Albuquerque. For two teams that drew a combined 9,000-plus fans to their respective third round games, it's a shame is that only one school can play host with a trip to Cary on the line.
Lobo locos will try to set a third consecutive attendance record tonight and could break the 5,000 fan threshold – a figure Major League Soccer teams have had trouble drawing for certain playoff games. On the field, New Mexico has been less than convincing in the tournament, needing PKs to get by lowly Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an OT winner by star striker Jeff Rowland to topple Cal State Northridge.
The Golden Bears have had their share of troubles too. They also required a shootout and an OT win, respectively, in their first two contests. Still, with Rowland and the twelfth man in their corner, New Mexico is the pick. However, on current form, neither of these two will scare high-flying CUs Clemson or Creighton in N.C.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.