Five burning questions for tournament
For the first time ever, one conference claimed all four No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament, meaning that if the chalk holds, the College Cup in Cary, N.C., will feature the same four teams that just played out the final two rounds of the ACC tournament on the same field. But with a lot of soccer to play between now and then, let's look at the field of 64 teams and the opening weekend's 32 first-round games.
What kind of favorite is Virginia?
This was so much easier to answer a week ago. It's so much more interesting now.
Entering its ACC tournament semifinal against Virginia Tech on Nov. 7, Virginia was unbeaten, untied and the class of the country. Coming out of that game on the same field that will host the College Cup in December, the Cavaliers may still be the class of the country, but they are no longer unbeaten. Like every other team in the country.
One game shouldn't erase the two and a half months that preceded it, not even a 4-2 loss against a rival. It has been a decade since the last unbeaten and untied champion, and Virginia earned the No. 1 overall seed. It outscored opponents by 53 goals. No other No. 1 seed outscored its opponents by more than 29 goals -- and all three of those teams obviously played much the same competition.
Junior Morgan Brian is one of the two best players in the country, a midfielder who has already earned three caps for the United States. A deep roster surrounds her, rising stars like sophomore striker Makenzy Doniak and freshman keeper Morgan Stearns, and experienced hands like junior midfielder Danielle Colaprico and senior defender Morgan Stith. They play precise possession soccer that leaves opponents chasing.
They were so good that even though a loss seemed possible, a sound beating seemed increasingly otherwise. Then it happened.
Reversing the program's undeniably star-crossed postseason history now means navigating a draw that offers little reward for the label of tournament favorite. The Cavaliers should dispose of first-round opponent Saint Francis with relative ease, but a week after they were picked apart on counterattacks by Virginia Tech's Jazmine Reeves, it might have been more reassuring to draw a supposed minnow that didn't have a pro-caliber goal scorer like Saint Francis' Tesa McKibben, the four-time and reigning Northeast Conference Player of the Year. And that's supposedly the easy game.
Reaching the national championship game could mean going through, in order, Georgetown, Penn State, Marquette and either North Carolina or UCLA. Only Georgetown was not in the top 10 of the final RPI rankings. The Hoyas checked in at No. 12.
Virginia already has wins against Penn State and North Carolina, but that's still a tall order.
Even if it has no tangible effect on anything that takes place on the field in the present, Virginia's history becomes even more a part of the narrative after the stumble against Virginia Tech. Texas A&M might argue the point, but there is no program that has endured more consistent postseason heartbreak without an interruption of occasional elation.
Consider that only nine schools have more all-time NCAA tournament wins than Virginia. Those schools have combined for 87 College Cups appearances. Each of the nine reached the semifinals at least four times.
Virginia has just one College Cup appearance in its history, in 1991, when there were only 12 teams in the entire tournament field and before many of the players on the current roster were born. The Cavaliers reached at least the third round in each of the past eight seasons, twice making the quarterfinals. But each time, they fell short of the semifinals.
They remains the favorite to win a title, just an imperfect favorite. Those are ultimately the most interesting kind.
Which teams are most likely to take the title from Virginia?
Florida State: The ACC tournament champion looks, at times, like the best team in the country. With a more consistent finishing touch, the Seminoles just might be that for six games. Everything you need is here: Dagny Brynjarsdottir and Berglind Thorvaldsdottir, both from Iceland, are technically terrific. Kassey Kallman, Kristin Grubka and goalkeeper Kelsey Wys anchor an imposing defense. A good bit of depth allows coach Mark Krikorian options in midfield.
Marquette: The other No. 1 seeds can't match Virginia's goal differential, but No. 2 Marquette is closer with a 50-15 edge on its opponents. Granted, that's partly because the new Big East has weak links, but Marquette played six NCAA tournament teams out of conference and four more games against tournament teams in the Big East. Maegan Kelly is the fox in the box in the attack, but the team's strength is its balance. A 3-5-2 formation also makes the Eagles a bit of a strategic headache for opponents.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels are the deepest team in the tournament, but if we're talking about repeating as national champions, it all hinges on Crystal Dunn (13 goals, 18 games). Morgan Brian's competition as the nation's best, Dunn sat out the ACC tournament with a hamstring injury. They can rest her for another week if they choose and presumably get by Liberty in the first round, but they need her healthy well before a potential semifinal against Virginia.
UCLA: The ACC's clean sweep of No. 1 seeds leaves UCLA with a legitimate gripe. All the Bruins did was cruise to a Pac-12 title and lose just once all season -- on a barely neutral field in Durham, N.C., against North Carolina. Goal scoring is an issue -- the team ranks behind nearly 30 tournament teams in goals per game. But this is a team that has allowed just seven goals, and it beat Duke, Notre Dame and Stanford on the road and Marquette on a neutral field. A potential quarterfinal at North Carolina and semifinal against Virginia makes for quite the degree of difficulty.
Virginia Tech: The new kid on the block has a total of just four tournament wins and is now seeded such that it is expected to win at least four games this year. The Hokies were 1-4-0 against the other ACC teams that earned No. 1 seeds, and they didn't beat an NCAA tournament team out of conference. That's reason for pause, but this is a balanced team with strength up top in Jazmine Reeves and Murielle Tiernan all the way through goalkeeper Dayle Colpitts.
What about the upsets?
It looks more and more like the chaos of the 2010 tournament was an outlier, or at least well ahead of its time as a harbinger of parity. That was the year when just one No. 1 seed (and two No. 2 seeds) reached the quarterfinals. Unseeded Georgetown and Washington ended up one win from the College Cup, and No. 3 Boston College and No. 4 Ohio State made the trip to Cary. If evidence of parity was what you sought, then that November seemed to offer plenty.
Yet in the past two tournaments, No. 1 seeds claimed seven of eight possible spots in the College Cup, with only No. 2 North Carolina smudging the chalk last season en route to its 21st NCAA championship.
In fact, since the NCAA adjusted the seeding format in 2005, replacing 16 national seeds with four sets of four seeds in each quarter of the bracket, chalk has ruled. In the past eight tournaments, No. 1 seeds claimed 21 of 32 possible places in the College Cup. Seven more spots went to No. 2 seeds, meaning just four teams seeded No. 3 or lower made it to the final weekend.
Which teams might break the pattern?
Seeded sleeper: No. 4 Santa Clara
Sleepers need to make some breaks and catch a few that fall their way. The top seed in Santa Clara's part of the bracket, Virginia Tech, deserves its place near the top of the tournament, but if you're looking for possible cracks, the Hokies have less experience in the later rounds of the tournament than the other No. 1 seeds (although for the program's history and coach Jerry Smith's experience, the same is true of the current Broncos). As far as making their own breaks, nothing helps quite like goals, and Santa Clara has an attack, led by Sofia Huerta, Julie Johnston and Morgan Marlborough, that can score in bunches.
Unseeded sleeper: Notre Dame
The ACC giveth and the ACC taketh away. Notre Dame missed out on its customary seed because its first season in the nation's toughest soccer conference took a toll. An early win at North Carolina was forgotten amid a 2-5-1 slump in October. But the flip side of the brutal day-to-day existence in the ACC is that the postseason can be a breeze by comparison. Coach Randy Waldrum has tinkered quite a bit with how the pieces fit together, but there is College Cup-caliber talent with people like Morgan Andrews, Mandy Laddish and Cari Roccaro, At least trips to Marquette and Virginia would be familiar.
Other than Brian and Dunn, who are five players to watch?
Aubrey Bledsoe, Wake Forest: It's not the season it perhaps could have been for Wake Forest, which lost All-American Katie Stengel to blood clots in her leg, but a first-round game against Morehead State is both a possible springboard and a farewell at home for Bledsoe, simply one of the most valuable goalkeepers in recent memory.
Vanessa DiBernardo, Illinois: Four players in the tournament have already earned caps for the United States: Brian, Dunn, Johnston and DiBernardo. A knee injury slowed DiBernardo for much of the season, but she had a goal and an assist last time out. A first-round game against Washington State might be her final stop before the NWSL.
Amanda Frisbie, Portland: The highest-seeded representative of the West Coast Conference, potential games against Seattle, Washington State and Nebraska stand between No. 3 Portland and a quarterfinal trip to Florida State. A defense that has allowed 15 goals is a key reason for that opportunity, and Frisbie, a converted forward who led the WCC with 12 goals in 2012, is the rock of the back line.
Savannah Jordan, Florida: She's the only player on a seeded team with 20 goals, the nation's leading freshman scorer and the SEC Offensive Player of the Year. Other than that, it has been a quiet debut season for the former martial arts competitor who got a late start in soccer. If the knee injury suffered by midfielder Havana Solaun in the SEC tournament is serious, Jordan is that much more important to No. 2 Florida.
Ari Romero, Nebraska: The No. 2 seed in Florida State's part of the bracket, Nebraska is a productive offensive team that averages better than two goals per game. The defense doesn't stand out quite as much by statistical measure, but it has one of the best individual talents in the nation in Romero, who also plays for the senior Mexican national team.
What are the four best first-round games?
No. 4 Denver vs. Colorado: A seed is new territory for the Summit League. A tough first-round opponent is not. Denver manages to check both boxes. Colorado slumped at the end of the regular season and cost itself a chance to host a first-round game. That means a second trip to Denver, where it lost 3-0 in September in a game moved from Boulder because of flooding. The Pioneers haven't faced much competition since beginning Summit play on Oct. 5.
No. 4 Santa Clara vs. California: Before Santa Clara makes any run, it has to win a Bay Area derby. A six-game winless streak late in conference play sent Cal spiraling out of contention for a seed, but Alex Morgan's old team closed the regular season with its first win against Stanford in seven years. The teams tied 1-1 at Santa Clara on Sept. 19, making the Broncos the only seeded team to play an opening-round rematch against a team they didn't beat the first time.
Rutgers vs. West Virginia: Once upon a time, this was a Big East game. Now it's a Big 12 vs. American game that will soon become Big 12 vs. Big Ten. More important for the right now, Rutgers could have Jonelle Filigno back after the star forward was forced out of the American tournament with a knee injury. If she's on the field opposite West Virginia's Frances Silva (15 goals, 13 assists), you'll have stars with pro potential leading teams with sleeper potential.
Illinois State vs. Louisville: Both teams ship a lot of goals. Both teams have fantastic individual offensive talent. If you find yourself in Louisville, stop by for some fireworks. Rachel Tejada leads Illinois State, which beat Marquette earlier this season. Only a junior, she nonetheless ranks third among active Division I players in career goals and seventh in career assists. Louisville's CONCACAF combination of Charlyn Corral (who played for Mexico in 2011 Women's World Cup) and Christine Exeter (who has played for Canadian youth national teams) is also prolific.