By JOHN BOSCHINI
When the season started, the Atlantic Coast Conference was poised to dominate college soccer. Six of the top 12 teams were from the ACC in the initial NSCAA rankings, including four of the top six.
As the season moved into the fall, parity began to set in. Pre-season favorite Wake Forest plummeted out of the top 25 with an atrocious start and Duke, after a strong start, now sits near the bottom of the top 25. Defending champions Virginia have limped over the finish line with a 1-2-1 record in its last four games and have fallen to the sixth seed in the conference.
The emergence of the Pac-10, Ivy League and the Big East has further exposed some of the ACC's weaker schools, with only five teams in the top 25 and only two above No. 20. Although its dominance slipped in 2010, the ACC tournament is poised to be one of the most competitive in the country and features a few national title contenders and a fair number of exciting professional prospects.
All nine ACC teams will participate in the week-long tournament in Cary, NC, with N.C. State and Virginia Tech kicking off the action this afternoon with a play-in game.
No. 1 seed, North Carolina: The two-time champions have been a little spotty outside of the ACC but hold a 7-0-1 record in conference play, wrapping up the top seed nearly two weeks ago. The Tar Heels' dominating conference play is thanks in large part to its defense which has allowed a miniscule 0.38 goals against ACC opponents. The offense, averagng 1.50 goals per game, will have to step up if the Heels are going to secure their first ACC title in a decade.
No. 2 seed, Maryland: The Terrapins are arguably the hottest team in the country right now, riding a 10-game winning streak which includes eight shutouts and an offensive output of 31 goals. A few nagging injuries in defense will force Maryland to rely on possession and offense to keep the pressure off goalkeeper Zac MacMath.
No. 3 seed, Wake Forest: For all the problems Wake Forest faced in the beginning of the season, the Demon Deacons have found some stability against ACC opponents, turning in an impressive 4-3-3 conference record. But with a .500 overall record, Wake Forest will almost certainly need to claim a conference title to earn its fifth NCAA appearance. Sophomore striker Andy Lubahn will need to be in top form to make up for a porous Wake defense, who will be called into action in Wake's first match against Virginia.
No. 4 seed, Duke: Consistency has been the name of the game for Duke this season. Problem is, The Blue Devils have had trouble finding it, failing to string together a substantial amount of wins. But an upset at Clemson in late October seemed to be the wake-up call John Kerr's men needed as Duke won its last three regular-season games. If forward Ryan Finley can provide an offensive spark the Blue Devils could be a dark horse in a tournament being played only 20 miles from Durham.
No. 5 seed, Boston College: The Boston College Eagles have been decidedly average in the ACC this season, garnering a 2-2-4 record in conference play. At No. 21 in the NSCAA rankings, Boston College is safely in the NCAA tournament and can afford to bow out of the grueling week-long tournament early. The main concern for BC is its defense, which has allowed almost two goals a game against conference opponents.
No. 6 seed, Virginia: It seems difficult to believe that the defending national champions ended the season with a losing record in conference play but a struggling offense puts the Cavaliers in a slump at the wrong time. Losing eight players at the end of last season is proving difficult for Virginia to overcome and it will need a few freshman to pick up the slack if the Cavaliers are to start their postseason campaign off on the right foot.
No. 7 seed, Clemson: Clemson's 2010 troubles lie directly with the offense's inability score goals, averaging a lowly 1.24 goals per game. The Tigers are also having a difficult time getting a goal when they need it most, losing six games by a lone goal.
No. 8 seed, N.C. State: The Wolfpack ended its season on a high note with a 2-0 victory over Virginia, capping a 4-1 finish to the regular seson, but N.C. State still face extremely long odds to advance deep into the tournament. State's scoring attack is led by Tyler Lassiter, a central defender, and his six goals.
No. 9 seed, Virginia Tech: A mediocre start to the season turned disastorous for the Hokies, who have gone 2-8 since Oct. 1. Their defense has allowed three or more goals five times this season and the offense has been unable to compensate, scoring 26 goals in 18 games.
Players To Watch
F Ryan Finley, Duke: The newly-named ACC offensive player of the year is the driving force behind the Blue Devils' offense. The sophomore striker, and USNMT U-20 member, has scored 17 goals this season to lead the nation. The Blue Devils will need Finley to hit a stellar run of form in order to remain competitive.
D Taylor Kemp, Maryland: Kemp started all but one game last season as a freshman and now anchors the ACC's leading defense. The sophomore has played all but 19 minutes this season and is one of the main reasons the Terrapins have notched 11 shutouts.
M Matt Kassel, Maryland: Kessel, a junior, has been the standout player in one of the best midfields in the country. His seven goals and nine assists lead the Terps and a dependability from the penalty spot will be a valuable asset in knockout competitions.
F Will Bates, Virginia: Virginia will rely on Bates' offensive prowess if the Cavaliers are going to turn around their disapointing ACC campaign. The sophomore striker is tied for second in the ACC with eight goals, including three game-winners. Standing at 6'1 and weighing 185 pounds, Bates is an imposing force on defenses late in games.
M Michael Farfan, North Carolina: The 2009 All-Ameircan's season was interrupted by an ankle injury but is back in full fitness just in time for the Tar Heels. His return bolsters a midfield that will have its hands full in the later rounds of the ACC tournament.
Maryland: North Carolina has the top seed and Wake Forest is playing with its back against the wall but the Terrapins show no signs of slowing down and will look to go into the NCAA tournament on a high note.
Schedule (All games at Wake Med Park in Cary, NC)
No. 8 N.C. State vs. No. 9 Virginia Tech, 1
No. 2 Maryland vs. No. 7 Clemson, 12; No. 3 Wake Forest vs. No. 6 Virginia, 2:30; No. 1 North Carolina vs. play-in game winner, 5:30; No. 4 Duke vs. No. 5 Boston College, 8.
Friday at 5:30 and 8
Sunday at 1