And now it is down to four. UCLA, Virginia, Wake Forest and UC Santa Barbara are headed to St. Louis for the 48th NCAA College Cup this weekend with one solitary goal: to return to campus on Monday as national champions.
But before any of the semifinalists can begin to entertain dreams of glory, they each have to prepare for Friday's games. And if the two on tap are anything like the ones played in the tournament's quarterfinal round, we are in for a real treat (and rejoice fans -- we will actually get to watch these matches on television -- whooooooo! More on that later ...).
We told you last week that the winner of the UCLA-Duke game would go on to take the title, and we're sticking by that prediction. The Bruins showed pure championship mettle when they overcame a 2-0 deficit less than 19 minutes into their quarterfinal tilt at Durham and roared back for the 3-2 OT win. That kind of never-say-die attitude is precisely what is needed to succeed in tourney play, and this result says it all about this team.
The young Bruins have been through everything imaginable this season. They lost several underclassmen (forward Kamani Hill left school for personal reasons, while defenders Marvell Wynne Jr. and Patrick Ianni declared for the MLS SuperDraft) before the campaign even kicked off, suffered a sluggish start, and then were beset by injuries just when they seemed to be finally finding their feet. But now, who would bet against them? Hats off to coach Jorge Salcedo for keeping his squad united during the tough times and for coaxing the Bruins' best ball from them when it matters most.
Despite UCLA's edge, Virginia certainly won't be an easy foe. The Cavaliers beat the Bruins when the two met in early September, and like UCLA, they also play for a storied program and won't be intimidated by the West Coasters' history one bit. Plus, Virginia's guys seem to think destiny is on their side this year and are determined to win a title for head coach George Gelnovatch who, amazingly, is taking UVa to its first College Cup in nine seasons.
Virginia advanced to the Gateway city by holding off Notre Dame 3-2 and doing something not many teams have been able to do this year -- keeping ND's Joe Lapira goalless. The game at Charlottesville (attended by legendary Virginia and former U.S. national team coach Bruce Arena) helped Virginia break the NCAA's single-season attendance mark set just last week by Maryland during the Terps' loss to the Irish. Altogether, the Cavs drew an amazing 43,183 in 2006.
Speaking of incredible attendance figures, how's this for one: UC Santa Barbara had 8,784 fans show up to Harder Stadium for its quarterfinal win over Northwestern on Saturday. In case you were wondering (and we know you were), that's 154 people more than the New York Red Bulls said came out to Giants Stadium for their first-round playoff game against archrival D.C. United, and more than double the 4,176 the Colorado Rapids drew for their postseason opener versus FC Dallas. And this is for amateur soccer. Astounding.
Even though UCSB advanced to the Cup weekend, much respect goes to Northwestern, which made a memorable tourney run and put up a tenacious fight in the most hostile of road environments. And respect to Gauchos fans for not taking down the goals like they did when their boys made the final four two years ago.
The only unseeded team still playing, UCSB is flying high and will be difficult for first-time College Cuppers Wake to get past when they meet in Friday's second contest. Remember, the Gauchos have won nine of their last 10 after starting the season 7-6. But the Demon Deacons are a pretty darn good team in their own right. The second-seeded Deacs are the highest ranked team remaining and were the only quarterfinal winner to advance with relative ease, 3-1 over Santa Clara -- although they did give up the first goal to the Broncos.
Whatever happens on Friday, one thing is certain: Both these games should be fantastic, attacking affairs played between entertaining, offensive-minded squads. As a fan of college soccer, you can't ask for more than that.
What to Watch For:
After three weeks of following the NCAA tournament on the web, followers of the college game will finally get to see some action on the tube. In Friday's first semifinal, UCLA takes on Virginia in a battle of two of the biggest names in collegiate soccer. That tilt will be shown live on ESPN2 at 6 p.m. ET.
Unfortunately, the second semi between UC Santa Barbara and Wake Forest will only be available via tape delay, first at 2 a.m. ET Saturday on ESPNU (for those lucky enough to have it), then on ESPN2 at 2 p.m. ET. The winners will play in the final on Sunday at 3 p.m. ET on ESPN2. Make sure you tune in, folks.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.