Suspense, but no Cinderellas, at Final Four
The biggest surprise in this year's College Cup may be the fact that there isn't really any big surprise.
Four of the top five seeded teams meet in Cary, N.C., this weekend with the 2009 national championship on the line.
Three of the ACC's best and a perfect Akron team vying for the title should make this year's Final Four exciting, even minus the drama of a potential Cinderella. The field is loaded with talent, experience and history. (Every program has been to the national final at least once, and all but Akron have claimed a title.)
ACC powers Wake Forest and Virginia open Final Four play at 5 p.m. on Friday (ESPN2), followed by Akron-North Carolina at 7:30 p.m. (ESPNU).
One team among the following four is the future 2009 national champion:
No. 5 North Carolina
North Carolina entered the postseason on the periphery of the national radar last season, entering the NCAA tournament seeded 13th. However, it's not where you enter the tournament that people remember, it's how you finish. And the Tar Heels ended the year as the College Cup runners-up.
That kind of result gives a team confidence and provides plenty of motivation in the offseason.
"Every year presents a new challenge," coach Elmar Bolowich said in the spring. "Our challenge is to be as strong and as formidable a team as we were in 2008."
Consider that goal achieved. Expectations were high heading into this year, and the Heels delivered. North Carolina (16-2-3) finished tied for first in the ACC in the regular season and never dropped below fifth in the national rankings. The Tar Heels played spoiler to last season's overwhelming College Cup favorite (they beat Wake Forest 1-0) and have similar intentions this season.
Not that all-time history tends to matter when it comes to the College Cup, but UNC has never lost to Akron in the teams' three previous meetings, going 2-0-1. The Tar Heels came away with a 3-0 win in their last match, back in 2007.
It also can't hurt that the Final Four is in the Heels' backyard. (Cary is located about half an hour from Chapel Hill.)
"I feel good about our team," Bolowich said. "I know there is desire. I know there is strength. I know there is the will."
That's about all a coach can ask from his players.
No. 3 Wake Forest
Four College Cups in four years. If that doesn't say it all, nothing does. The Demon Deacons are proving that there's no such thing as a rebuilding year in Winston-Salem.
Despite losing a majority of its starters from last season (not to mention the 2007 national championship team), Wake Forest is again in contention for a national title.
The Demon Deacons boast the best of the best in the ACC, led by the conference's coach of the year (Jay Vidovich), offensive player of the year (Corben Bone), defensive player of the year (Ike Opara) and two more first-team all-conference players (Zack Schilawski and Austin de Luz).
Wake Forest clearly has the experience a team needs to be successful in December, but while having been there before is definitely an asset, it's not enough to carry a team.
"They've been around a lot of success, and that gives them a lot of confidence," Vidovich said of his Deacons. "But now you have to test yourself on a daily basis, and they've come up strong."
No. 2 Virginia
A year ago, Virginia coach George Gelnovatch knew he had something special with his current crop of players. They were young and at times a bit shaky, but he knew even when the results weren't there, the potential was.
Here's what Gelnovatch said then, in 2008: "We lost our first two games of the season. And to feel this good about this group of guys, not only about the future for the season, but as we look at the future for next year  and the years after, it's weird to feel -- I don't know what the word is -- confident or excited or motivated."
It's probably safe to say Gelnovatch feels all of the above heading into this weekend. The Cavaliers entered the season unranked but quickly picked up where they left off in 2008 and demonstrated why ACC coaches picked them to finish second in the conference. At 17-3-3, Virginia is riding a 14-game unbeaten streak and has posted 11 consecutive shutouts.
The Cavaliers will meet a familiar opponent in the semifinal in Wake Forest. UVa holds a 32-6-6 advantage over the Demon Deacons and has won two of the last three meetings. The teams last met in the ACC tournament final. After playing to a scoreless draw, Virginia won 5-4 in a shootout.
Although the Cavaliers are a younger team, this marks the second College Cup appearance for the team's seniors, who were part of the squad that faced UCLA in 2006. No matter what happens this weekend, it's safe to say Virginia is already a clear pick to get back to the Final Four in 2010.
No. 1 Akron
It's hard to believe that some observers still question the Zips' legitimacy. Powerhouse conference, mid-major or bottom of the barrel, a team doesn't reach the College Cup -- let alone compile a 23-0 record -- based on luck. A win in Friday's game against UNC will silence any remaining skeptics. Of course, for Akron that simply wouldn't be enough. The Zips have been building for a national championship since coach Caleb Porter arrived in Akron.
"Now we are a realistic contender," Porter said earlier this season. "We're mentioned as one of the teams. Now we have to take care of business in the postseason. … We're not just a team that gets in the tournament, but as much as a coach can say, 'Well, we have a chance,' we truly do have a chance."
The Zips have been literally unbeatable so far this season. They were the country's top-ranked team virtually all year, and as the No. 1 seed they powered through their quarter of the bracket without giving up a goal. Still, without a title, this historic season will (at least, in the short term) be a disappointment for the Zips.
"This is the part of the year that people remember most," Porter said. "We need to keep sight of our vision, and it wasn't to go undefeated. [A national championship] is what we're most focused on. … I don't know if you can be the best unless you win it all."
Porter's team -- along with Virginia, Wake Forest and North Carolina -- has the chance to do just that this weekend.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.