By JOHN BOSCHINI
For the eight remaining teams in the 2010 NCAA Tournament, only one win seperates them from a berth in the College Cup in Santa Barbara, Calif, next weekend.
It's been a tournament relatively free surprises, as seven of the top eight seeds have advanced to the Elite Eight. Only No. 10 Michigan, which upset No. 7 South Carolina to extend its winning streak to eight games, crashed the party.
In the first game of the weekend, No. 4 North Carolina welcomes No. 5 Southern Methodist on Friday night. Despite their lofty seed and advancement in the tournament, the Tar Heels are struggling, winning both of their games via penalty kicks. An offense that managed more than a goal and a half per game has scored just one in its last three matches. Senior Michael Farfan is still working back to full strength after a midseason injury.
It isn't all bad news for the regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference champion. The defense, led by possible first-round draft pick Jalil Anibaba, has made up for the offensive woes by allowing only three goals in the last eight games. Enzo Martinez, who equalized with nine seconds left in regulation in the third round against Michigan State, has been clutch late in the season, while Scott Goodwin has quietly become one of the better goalkeepers in the ACC.
Southern Methodist is a team flying well under the radar. With no standout prospects, coach Tim McClements has racked up a 16-2-1 record, and the Mustangs are a legitimate threat to break into the Final Four. SMU's offensive attack, which has racked up 43 goals this season, is led by Juan Castillo and Arthur Ivo, who have 10 and nine goals, respectively.
The Mustangs' defense is allowing well over a goal per game, though. The Mustangs have gone into overtime six times this season and have won all six, including a penalty-kick victory over No. 12 Creighton last Sunday.
No. 8 UCLA will take its abundance of young talent on the road to take on still-undefeated No. 1 Louisville on Saturday. The Cardinals have been perhaps the surprise of the season, capturing the Big East title and rising to the top of the rankings after a preseason ranking of No. 20. Louisville's strength can be chalked up to its diversity in scoring threats, with 42 goals coming from 12 players. Dylan Mares, the only freshman in the starting lineup, is Louisville's top scorer with eight goals. The defense has been stout as well, conceding just 13 times this year.
An exciting attacking philosophy and a lineup peppered with several exciting underclassman has made UCLA one of the most appealing, yet at times inconsistent, teams in the nation. Freshman attackers Victor Chavez, Kelyn Rowe and Reed Williams are a potent offensive trio, combining for 20 goals. Sophomore Matt Wiet and freshman Joe Sofiahas anchor the Bruins' back line. UCLA's youth and inexperience was put on full display with a 5-1 thrashing at the hands of Indiana in September, but a couple of three-goal victories over Oregon State showed the kind of offensive potential this team has. UCLA is riding an eight-game win streak, but it will be interesting to see how the team deals with the cross-country journey.
Pre-season favorite No. 3 Akron welcomes No. 6 California, the Pac-10 champion and another West Coast traveler. It's a matchup with plenty of future Major League Soccer talent on the field, with nine players on SBI's Big Board participating. The Zips were unbeatable early in the season, dispatching Tulsa, North Carolina, Creighton and Michigan with relative ease, but a draw to Ohio State and a loss to Cleveland State raised questions of Caleb Porter's side.
The list of professional prospects is overwhelming. Freshman Darren Mattocks has scored 18 of the Zips' 58 goals this season. The Jamaican freshman shares the field with possible top-pick Darlington Nagbe, Kofi Sarkodie, Michael Nanchoff, Perry Kitchen, Zarek Valentin and Anthony Ampaipitakwong. If Akron is to safely advance to its second-consecutive College Cup, it'll need to get over its recent penchant for letting in second-half goals.
California's strength lies in its stingy defense, which will have to be in top form to compete with Akron. Goalkeeper David Bingham and defender A.J. Soares are two highly sought-after prospects and are part of a unit allowed less than a goal per game (.740). California's offense has four players with at least five goals, and Davis Paul leads the Golden Bears with eight. Coach Kevin Grimes likes to flood the box on corner kicks and set pieces, so California will have to be wary of the speedy Akron counterattack. California is also riding a six-game winning streak which includes four victories in overtime.
No. 2 Maryland faces off against No. 10 Michigan in an intriguing matchup between two red-hot teams. The Terrapins are winners of 15 straight thanks in large part to goalkeeper Zac MacMath. The 6-foot-2 Florida native has a .838 save percentage and has allowed only 12 goals this season in conjunction with a back line led by Ethan White and Taylor Kemp. A three-pronged offensive attack consisting of Casey Townsend, Jason Herrick and Matt Kassel has led Maryland to an NCAA-best 59 goals.
he only team perhaps hotter than Maryland is its opponent, Michigan. Breakout freshman star Soony Saad has led the Wolverines, a bubble team at the end of October, to a Big Ten championship and an upset of South Carolina in the last round.
Saad is second among the nation's goal scorers to Penn State's Corey Hertzog, tallying 19 goals in 22 games, helping the Wolverines' offense rise to eighth in the nation. Despite its recent success, Michigan's defense remains a huge question mark. The back line, which is ranked 125th, has kept a clean sheet only four times this season and surrendered seven goals to Akron earlier this season. Still, Steve Burns' men are playing with a lot of confidence and the matchup looks poised to produce plenty of goals.
NCAA Elite Eight Schedule
No. 5 Southern Methodist at No. 4 North Carolina, 7 p.m.
No. 10 Michigan at No. 2 Maryland, 1 p.m.
No. 6 California at No. 3 Akron, 4 p.m.
No. 8 UCLA at No. 1 Louisville, 7 p.m.
What do you think of this weekend's matchups? Think Michigan can upset Maryland? Excited about all the professional talent at Akron?
Share your thoughts below.