If there was a formula for predicting what the College Cup would look like, this year’s NCAA Final Four would contain all the necessary elements. A team at or near the top of the rankings all year in Notre Dame. An unexpected (not to be mistaken for untalented) finalist in New Mexico. And a pair of perennial contenders – almost inevitably from the Atlantic Coast Conference — with Virginia and Maryland rounding out the championship field.
With all the success Notre Dame soccer has had and the regular presence the program has had of being in the top tier, it’s almost hard to believe this is the Irish’s first trip to the College Cup. The team (15-1-6) punched its ticket with a win over Michigan State. Notre Dame spent weeks atop the rankings earlier this season and are a formidable contender for the collegiate crown. The ACC newcomer finished tied for first in the conference title with fellow College Cup competitor Maryland.
While Notre Dame fell from the top (of course, only slightly) over the final weeks of the regular season, the Irish are going strong when it matters most. The team is on an eight-game unbeaten streak. During that span, the Irish have trailed for less than 2 minutes total and outscored their opponents 21-7. Now, it’s a matter of carrying that momentum through one more weekend.
The third-seeed Irish certainly aren’t looking past New Mexico, but it’s worth noting that Notre Dame’s only loss of the year came to another College Cup competitor – a 2-0 loss to Virginia. It’s hard to think that redemption isn’t lingering in the back of their minds somewhere.
As for New Mexico, the Lobos (14-5-2) are back in the College Cup for the first time since 2005. While they may have slipped a bit under the radar — they were a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament and finished the regular season as the No. 23 team – New Mexico has had success in recent years, so the Final Four appearance isn’t a of jaw-dropping, how-did-they-get-here kind of Cinderella story.
In a College Cup where it’s hard to declare any program a true favorite, the Conference USA champions see the national title within their grasp. The Lobos pulled off a big win over an incredibly tough Washington team on the road to earn their place in the Final Four. New Mexico is the only team in the Final Four that hasn't given up a goal in the entire tournament.
Meanwhile, Maryland and Virginia are set to face off – again. Their College Cup matchup marks the third time the programs have faced each other this season. Of course, there’s more on the line Friday than in either of those other matchups. Adding to the storyline between these two programs, the national semifinal game also marks the final time these conference rivals face each other as conference rivals since Maryland moves to the Big Ten next year.
Maryland holds the edge in the series this season going 1-0-1 against Virginia. The Terps beat the Cavaliers in the ACC Championship 1-0 while the pair tied 3-3 in conference play earlier this season.
Not that history carries much weight in the NCAA tournament.We’ve seen complete unpredictability play out year after year – Maryland holds a 39-29-9 lead in the two teams’ all-time series dating back more than six decades. However, Virginia holds a 2-1 lead in NCAA tournament matchups. Another plus for the Cavaliers? In both of those victories, UVa went on to win it all.
Granted historical stats fall more under the category of fun facts, but they also illustrate just how familiar these two programs are with each other. There’s no replacement for actually having played your opponent – the level of familiarity between these two rivals is something few College Cup teams have the ability to draw upon. Games in the final weekend of the season are always tough, but this game should be especially fierce.
Fifth-seeded Maryland (16-3-5) boasts one of the nation’s top scorers (Patrick Mullins) and is among the country’s best offenses. However, freshman Terps goalkeeper Zack Steffan also posts the highest goals against average of any Final Four keeper. Experience often is a defining characteristic of College Cup success, but it also wouldn’t be the first time we saw an underclassman disregard convention and rise to the occasion.
For its part, No. 8 seed Virginia (13-5-5) also features a top 15 offense and a higher ranked defense meaning the field is about as even as it can get. Then throw in a pair of legendary coaches already with national titles to their names — Maryland’s Sasho Cirovski and Virginia’s George Gelnovatch — just for good measure. This College Cup matchup has the potential to be as good as it gets.
Of course, ultimately there’s no formula for determining who will actually win the College Cup. Instead, you’ll just have to wait to find out.
Maria Burns Ortiz is a contributing writer for College Soccer News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org