The NCAA Tournament is down to eight teams, and the No. 1 seed continued to live up to their billing over the weekend.
North Carolina faced their stiffest test yet on Sunday, but a 1-0 win over Indiana proved yet again why the Tar Heels have been the most consistent side throughout the 2011 college season.
There is plenty of talent to go around in Chapel Hill from back to front — senior defender Matt Hedges has been solid, midfielders Kirk Urso and Enzo Martinez have provided a creative spark, and junior forward Billy Schuler's 15 goals on the year proving a lethal ability to finish.
Now, an unranked St. Mary’s team is all that stands between UNC and another College Cup berth, and it would require a massive upset to keep the Heels out of the semifinals. With a healthy Schuler and one of the deepest rosters in the nation, a second national title isn’t out of the question.
Of course, the other semifinal teams will have plenty to say about that. Connecticut, UCLA and Louisville are all legitimate contenders for the NCAA crown, and Creighton is similarly poised to reach the College Cup under former North Carolina head coach Elmar Bolowich.
But no side this year has reached the dominant heights of Akron’s 2010 championship-winning team – and the Zips won’t repeat, after losing in the Round of 16 against Charlotte by a 1-0 score.
Caleb Porter – who will now shift his focus to the US Under-23s and Olympic qualification in March – preached that this was not about defending a title, as he had seven starters depart from last year’s team.
With a young team, at times starting as many as three or four freshmen throughout the season, the Zips missed out on the College Cup for the first time since 2008. Star forward Darren Mattocks, who scored 21 goals on the year, was swarmed off the ball by the 49ers, consigning Akron to defeat.
It’s a disappointing conclusion to the season for the Zips, a program that has made impressive strides over the past few years. However, with the returning talent from this year alone – the likes of Bryan Gallego, Wil Trapp and Scott Caldwell – there’s every reason to believe the Zips will contend again in 2012.
Top Three Players of the Round of 16
1. Chandler Hoffman, F, UCLA
After a narrow 1-0 win at home against Delaware in the second round, Hoffman ensured UCLA’s third-round match went a bit smoother against Rutgers, scoring a brace in a 3-0 win.
2. Chris Blais, G, South Florida
One year after making the College Cup with upstart Michigan, Blais’ decision to transfer to South Florida paid off, and his performance against undefeated New Mexico included two late saves in overtime and a couple of huge stops in penalty kicks to help the Bulls advance after a 0-0 draw.
3. Colin Rolfe, F, Louisville
While 2011 has been more of an up-and-down season for the Cardinals, Rolfe broke out in a big way in Sunday’s 4-2 win on the road against Maryland. A makeshift Maryland back line couldn’t handle Rolfe, who had a goal and three assists in the victory.
Travis Clark covers D.C. United, college and youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com.