Having survived a combined total of 14 matches, five overtime games and 14 penalty kicks, this year's College Cup participants are primed and ready to do battle Friday at SAS Soccer Park in Cary, N.C.
What Maryland, Clemson, New Mexico and Southern Methodist have in common, aside from veteran head coaches still hungry for their first NCAA title, is that each team stands two victories away from the pinnacle of college soccer - lifting the NCAA National Championship trophy.
"They're all good teams going into the College Cup," SMU coach Schellas Hyndman said. "They've all had a good run here, and some of them have had a good run all year long." Yet each semifinal matchup features teams that arrived by vastly different routes.
Maryland (17-4-2), which takes on SMU (14-5-4) in the early match at 4 p.m., began the year as a No. 1 team in most polls and entered this tournament as the top overall seed. Likewise, New Mexico (17-1-3), which takes on Clemson (15-5-3) in the second semifinal at 6:30 p.m., started with a high ranking and earned the tournament's No. 2 seed.
SMU and Clemson, on the other hand, started miserably before turning their seasons around. SMU had a losing record through September, and Clemson failed to win its first six conference games. Each could make a case, however, for being the hottest team in the country at the moment. The Mustangs now have won 12 of their last 14, and the Tigers nine of 10.
Maryland may be the enigma of the group. Loaded with talent, experience and explosiveness, the Terrapins would seem - on paper, at least - to be heavy favorites to lift the trophy. But they also face a potentially unique pressure.
The Terrapins' seniors -- 20-goal scorer Jason Garey, captain Michael Dello-Russo, Chris Lancos, Kenney Bertz and backup keeper Craig Salvati (another senior, Marc Burch, transferred in last year) -- have known nothing but winning during their college careers. Under coach Sasho Cirovski, Maryland has achieved unprecedented success since 2002, reaching the College Cup now for the fourth consecutive year. But those seniors have never won the tournament, and a victory now in their last go-round would enable them to avoid the distinction of becoming college soccer's version of the Buffalo Bills.
Despite that, Cirovski said he believes the depth of experience actually has decreased pressure on his squad, noting that the Terps looked focused but loose all week in practice, and players and coaching staff alike have taken a much more low-key attitude into this College Cup.
"We're going to approach this game with less fanfare than we've approached previous College Cups," he said.
It helps, perhaps, that they will have a fully-fit Garey going into the match with SMU after getting by the last three weeks with their leading scorer at less than 100 percent. Cirovski said Stephen King, who has been in fine form throughout this tournament, will be another key player for the Terps, calling him a natural finisher in the mold of Manchester United's Paul Scholes.
"I've said before, I think [King] may be one of the most underrated players in the country," Cirovski said. "He's a very special player."
Maryland faces an SMU squad that has shown no fear of seeded teams. The Mustangs crushed No. 5-seed UCLA 3-0, knocked off a solid UNC-Greensboro squad and defeated No. 4-seed North Carolina on the road. In doing so, they've scored a tournament-leading 11 goals. Perhaps not coincidentally, leading scorer Duke Hashimoto, who tore his ACL last October, has only recently begun to exhibit his pre-surgery speed and quickness. "I think we're a very hot team," Hyndman said. "SMU is going into the tournament with absolutely no doubts. We're really impressed and amazed with how we turned our season around, and I think we're playing our best soccer right now."
Hyndman, who has been coaching for over 20 years, reached the College Cup in 2000 and fell just shy in 2001 after going undefeated in the regular season. While his current team lacks some of the individual talent that those teams possessed, Hyndman said he has never seen anything like the spirit and unselfishness this team possesses. Clemson, which turned its season around in equally remarkable fashion, also possesses an abundance of chemistry.
By contrast with fellow Atlantic Coast Conference representative Maryland, the Tigers have not reached a national semifinal since 1987, when former USA goal-scoring king Bruce Murray was a senior at the school. That year, the Tigers won the tournament, giving then-coach Dr. I.M. Ibrahim his second national title in four years (they also won in 1984).
Current coach Trevor Adair has come close, reaching the quarterfinals five times in his career, but it was not until oft-injured senior Charlie Roberts got onto the end of a 25-yard free kick with 39 seconds left in regulation against Creighton that the Tigers broke their duck and reached a College Cup.
After two knee surgeries, including ACL surgery, severely limited Roberts' impact the last two seasons, Adair said it was gratifying to see the big striker score that milestone goal. "I told someone last night that if Charlie Roberts had been healthy for the last year and a half, he would have scored 15 to 20 goals," Adair said. "To have him score the goal to get us through to the Final Four - it's fitting that a guy like that gets a little bit of a reward."
Adair's men came into the tournament unseeded after finishing in seventh place in the ACC with a 2-4-2 record (eerily similar to 1987, when they went 1-4-1 in ACC play). But in the last month, the Tigers have caught fire, crushing Virginia 4-1 in the ACC tournament before going on an extended tear in the NCAAs, culminating with their pulsating, last-minute victory over a hot Creighton side in the quarterfinal.
Clemson remains the only team left in this tournament to have reached the College Cup without going to overtime. The Tigers also have yet to concede a goal - a tribute, perhaps, to the performances of U.S. youth goalkeeper Phil Marfuggi and defender Nathan Sturgis. Adair calls Sturgis "in my opinion, the best pure defender I've had" - heady praise when one considers that U.S. national team stalwart Oguchi Onyewu came out of Clemson.
Like Hyndman, Adair feels that his team's response to early adversity has produced a special vibe. "I would say there's just a very, very confident cloud over our team right now that is unusual," Adair said. "There's just a feeling that we're very hard to beat."
While Clemson has yet to go to overtime in the NCAA tournament, New Mexico has required overtime to win every game they have played. The Lobos may tend to leave things later than their fans would prefer, but they rarely get rattled. Coach Jeremy Fishbein has nine seniors he can count on, including 16-goal scorer Jeff Rowland. A walk-on turned all-American and MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalist, Rowland has produced as consistently as any forward in the country. He has three goals in the tournament already, including two game-winners in overtime.
Add to that a strong corps of veteran talent, including all-MPSF players Lance Watson, Andrew Boyens, Brandon Moss, Mike Graczyk and Ben Ashwill, and you have a team not dissimilar to the Wisconsin group that won the NCAA title in 1995. "They're well-organized," Adair said. "They're just a solid, blue color team that's hard to break down."
After producing a dominating season last year, the Lobos were penalized for playing in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and given a poor seed in the 2004 tournament. They fell in the second round. This year, Fishbein's men received the seed they deserved and responded with a College Cup run.
It remains to be seen which of these four will emerge as NCAA champions. But as the number of close games in this tournament indicates, there is a lot of parity in college soccer at the moment. "I think any of the teams playing here has a chance," Hyndman said.
Mike Hanzel covers men's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached on email@example.com