Women's College Cup will be familiar with a twist
For the first time since 1986, the previous year's field returns intact. The only difference Friday, 12 months after North Carolina beat Stanford and Notre Dame beat UCLA in the 2008 semifinals, is the draw: Stanford and UCLA meet in a Pac-10 rematch and North Carolina and Notre Dame meet in a rematch of both last season's championship game and a 6-0 win for the Tar Heels in South Bend three months ago.
Earlier this season: North Carolina pounced on early Notre Dame mistakes at the first game in the Fighting Irish's new stadium on Sept. 4. Courtney Jones scored the first goal just 23 seconds in, off assists from Casey Nogueira and Tobin Heath, and the Tar Heels led 3-0 inside of 30 minutes. North Carolina's back line was fantastic throughout; Notre Dame's Melissa Henderson finished the game with no shots and few opportunities.
"It's just a loss at the end of the day," Notre Dame coach Randy Waldrum said at the time. "None of us are happy with how it went and the kind of loss it was, especially at home opening the stadium with a great crowd. But we'll look back a month from now and it will just be a loss on the record. It's not going to make or break us where we want to be at the end. And I'll relish an opportunity to get to play them again at the end of the year."
North Carolina player to watch: Casey Nogueira
It would be fitting if Nogueira closed a perpetually intriguing career with a third national title. After a very quiet regular season that included two appearances off the bench, she's scored six of her 12 total goals (and accumulated four of her nine assists) in North Carolina's seven games across the ACC and NCAA tournaments. It seems she was born for the big stage.
Notre Dame player to watch: Lauren Fowlkes
Things started to turn around for Notre Dame, which followed the loss to North Carolina with losses against Santa Clara and Stanford in California, when Waldrum moved Fowlkes to forward. As versatile as any player who will be in Texas, she could star on the back line or in midfield. But as a forward, she's found chemistry with Henderson and forced opponents to play both honestly. At 5-foot-10, she's literally a huge problem for opponents on set pieces.
Earlier this season: The Cardinal broke a 15-year drought by reaching the College Cup last season, but it wasn't until this season that they staked a claim to Pac-10 supremacy by beating UCLA for the first time since 2002. The first goal in that 2-0 home win in October didn't come until there was less than 20 minutes to play -- and it came on an own goal -- but Stanford controlled the run of play throughout the game.
"We've been looking forward to this game since we got here in August," senior Ali Riley said after the win. "Three years now, for the seniors, we've lost to UCLA, and this is so important and this is the No. 3 team -- this is like a Final Four game. So it was a huge win for us."
Stanford player to watch: Kelley O'Hara
The Pavarotti of Stanford's star-studded triumvirate up top, O'Hara has scored 25 goals in 24 games this season alongside Christen Press and Lindsay Taylor. Actually, a better comparison for the 5-foot-5 O'Hara might be Manny Pacquiao; she's gifted, relentless and simply not a lot of fun to be up against in tight confines on a soccer field.
UCLA player to watch: Sydney Leroux
I saw the Bruins at both of their low points this season, the losses at Stanford and at North Carolina, and still came away shaking my head at how good a finisher Leroux is in her second season (she missed last season's College Cup while earning top scoring honors for the United States at the Under-20 World Cup). She already shares the single-season program record with 23 goals this season and is too strong to knock off the ball and too fast to contain.