Five questions for soccer quarterfinals

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Hermann Trophy candidate Morgan Brian, outrunning Virginia Tech's Candace Cephers earlier this season, has continued to carry the scoring load for Virginia during the NCAA tournament.

Forget about gorging on turkey and stuffing or camping out for Black Friday sales. For college soccer players, a good Thanksgiving is one spent preparing for an NCAA tournament quarterfinal. Where does the bracket stand with just four games remaining before the College Cup?

Didn't we already have the ACC tournament?

A strange thing happened back in 2004. They played NCAA tournament quarterfinals without any ACC teams. No, really.

UCLA and Michigan would be left looking rather forlorn if we tried that this year. Only eight teams remain in contention for a national championship, and six of them are from perhaps the most dominant conference in college sports: No. 1 seeds Florida State, North Carolina, Virginia and Virginia Tech, and unseeded Boston College and Duke. Long the best conference, the ACC now seems to be lapping the field.

North Carolina will be the only No. 1 seed that faces two seeded teams in the first four rounds: It faces No. 2 UCLA in Saturday's quarterfinal following a 2-0 third-round win Sunday against No. 4 Texas A&M. But the Tar Heels are also the only team remaining that could reach the College Cup without facing an opponent from the ACC.

Anson Dorrance made it clear which of those fates mattered more to him.

"The best thing about our bracket is we're the only ACC team in it," Dorrance said after defeating Indiana 4-0 in the second round. "Trust me, playing those conference teams is a nightmare. They're all well-coached, they have tremendous talent. But they are hardened in the cauldron of the ACC. "

No conference had ever produced six quarterfinalists before, but the degree to which this is an aberration is debatable.

The quarterfinals became the fourth round when the field expanded from 32 to 48 teams in 1998. When the field expanded again, to 64 teams in 2001, it meant that every team now had to play three games to reach the quarterfinals. Since 1998, ACC teams have claimed 40 quarterfinal spots, a healthy 33 percent of the total. That is easily the best performance of any conference in that span, but it's only part of the story.

For the first half of that period, through the 2004 tournament -- in which the ACC failed to place a team in the quarterfinals -- the league often shared top quarterfinal billing with the Big East or West Coast Conference.

Since 2005, ACC teams have accounted for 30 of 72 quarterfinal places, a hefty 42 percent. And that doesn't include current ACC member Notre Dame, whose quarterfinal appearances came while it was in the Big East.

For all its success of having teams go deep into the tournament, the ACC is still looking for its first national champion not named North Carolina. That remains the final hurdle, but if claiming all four No. 1 seeds wasn't enough, placing six teams in the quarterfinals leaves little doubt as to which conference rules the sport.

Who are the front-runners for the Golden Ball?

Sure, there isn't actually an award for the tournament's best player, equivalent to the Golden Ball that Japan's Homare Sawa won in the 2011 Women's World Cup, but it would be more interesting than the award that is given to the most outstanding player over one weekend in the College Cup. Who might be the top contenders through three rounds?

Courtesy Dagny Brynjarsdottir

Florida State’s Dagny Brynjarsdottir scored twice in a second-round victory over Ole Miss and added two more goals in third-round win against Colorado.

Morgan Brian, Virginia: While injuries slow North Carolina's Crystal Dunn, Brian's Hermann Trophy competition, in a way defenses never did, Virginia's All-American just keeps rolling. And while it's difficult to say Virginia has been in real jeopardy when it has yet to concede a goal through three rounds, Brian scored the only goal in a 1-0 win against Georgetown in the second round and added a goal in a 2-0 win against Wake Forest in the Sweet 16.

Dagny Brynjarsdottir, Florida State: You can measure her value statistically -- only Dunn and Michigan's Nkem Ezurike are responsible for a greater percentage of her team's goals among the remaining seeded teams. But the Icelandic star feels even more influential in Florida State's attack than scoring 26 percent of her team's goals might suggest. She scored twice in each of the past two games, and the Seminoles rolled accordingly.

Dayle Colpitts, Virginia Tech: Granted, Virginia Tech's Canadian keeper didn't have a whole lot to do in the first two rounds while keeping clean sheets against UMBC and West Virginia, respectively, but she did what was asked and then some with in the third round against Santa Clara -- eight saves, not counting the three shots she turned away in the penalty shootout.

Holly Hein, Michigan: Defense needs representation here, and one of the best defenders in the Big Ten has played up to that reputation as a part of three successive clean sheets to push the Wolverines to their second quarterfinal appearance. The defensive efforts against Milwaukee, Illinois State and Notre Dame brought Michigan's total to 12 shutouts on the season, a new program record. For good measure, Hein scored against Illinois State.

McKenzie Meehan, Boston College: It's not so much that Meehan has picked up her production in the postseason, it's that the sophomore just hasn't slowed down. She scored in each of the first three rounds, wins against Northeastern, No. 2 Nebraska and Illinois -- matching and then breaking the program's single-season scoring record. Her 20 goals this season are more than half of the BC career record that Kristie Mewis set last season.

Which unseeded team is more likely to reach Cary?

That Duke survived a pair of penalty shootouts to reach the quarterfinals -- on the road against Colorado College in the first round and at home against Arkansas on Sunday -- doesn't begin to explain just how unlikely its postseason run is. Nor does No. 2 Florida's declining to bid to host second- and third-round games, meaning it was the visiting team when it lost to Duke in the second round in Durham, N.C.

To fully appreciate just how long the odds were, consider that Duke wouldn't have even been eligible for the NCAA tournament if not for a strange sequence in the final two minutes of the second overtime period when it played at Notre Dame on Oct. 20. With a tie appearing likely, Duke's Laura Weinberg stole the ball and knocked in the winner when the Fighting Irish keeper inexplicably tried to dribble out of danger. Without that bizarre goal, Duke would have finished the regular season 7-8-5 instead of 8-8-4. Now it's one win from the College Cup.

Courtesy Duke Athletics

Kim DeCesare had both goals in regulation for unlikely quarterfinalist Duke in its third-round win over Arkansas in a penalty shootout.

Boston College likewise was 8-8-1 with two games to play in the regular season but had overtime wins against Maryland and Syracuse to provide the cushion it needed to secure an at-large NCAA bid.

Case for Boston College: What team was more impressive over the opening two weeks of the tournament? Not only did BC go to Nebraska and beat the No. 2 seed on its own field, but it scored eight goals in wins against Nebraska and Illinois in Lincoln. And as good as No. 1 Florida State is at dominating possession and keeping scores low, it's not as if Boston College heads to Tallahassee with reason to be afraid. The teams played one of the games of the year in the ACC on Oct. 3: Boston College jumped to a 2-0 lead, ceding that lead but rallying to level the score at 3-3 before falling 4-3. As imposing as Florida State's back line is with Kassey Kallman, Kristin Grubka and Kelsey Wys in goal, and as much as it dominates possession, it isn't immune to a team that can counterattack.

Case for Duke: As close as Boston College came against Florida State earlier this season, it didn't come away from that game with any points. Duke took a point in its regular-season meeting against Virginia Tech, the only time in five tries that the Blue Devils took points off one of the No. 1 seeds. With a core of players who played in the national championship game two seasons ago, Duke will have the edge on Virginia Tech in postseason experience. It's the reason the Blue Devils were No. 7 in the preseason rankings, while the Hokies checked in at No. 33. Virginia Tech was the consistent side all season, averaging better than two goals and handing Virginia its only loss. It earned the right to host Friday's game. It traveled arguably the toughest path of the No. 1 seeds through the first three rounds. And yet we've wondered all season when Duke would look like the sum of its parts.

What about the No. 1 overall seed?

There's a certain poetic quality to the fact that Virginia, which begins most campaigns with preseason training in Traverse City, Mich., needs a win against Michigan to finally end a season playing in the College Cup.

This is the fourth trip to the quarterfinals under coach Steve Swanson, but the first in which the Cavaliers will get to play on their home turf at Klockner Stadium. Virginia, as you may have heard, last made an appearance in the semifinals in 1991.

Goals were a little more difficult to come by in the second and third rounds than they were for a prolific attack during the regular season, but that's nothing compared to how tough life was for Virginia's opponents. As if to underscore just how much of an aberration it was to concede four goals in the ACC semifinal loss against Virginia Tech, Virginia held its first three NCAA tournament opponents to six shots -- total. It's difficult to get the ball against college soccer's masters of possession, let alone break down the back line when you do get it.

The case for Michigan: Virginia is a lot of things, but physically imposing is not at the top of the list. And forwards don't come much stronger than Michigan's Nkem Ezurike. For a seeded team used to control, the Wolverines could be surprisingly comfortable without the ball, playing typical Greg Ryan defense and looking for that one opportunity to get Ezurike in for a goal or to draw a penalty. (Michigan's 1-0 win against Notre Dame in the Sweet 16 came courtesy of a penalty kick, as did its goal in a 1-1 draw against Penn State in the same round a season ago.)

What about the defending champion?

We're right back where we started with North Carolina this postseason. Which is to say, wondering about Crystal Dunn.

The All-American, U.S. international and presumptive NWSL No. 1 pick missed her team's first-round game with a hamstring injury that also forced her out of the ACC tournament, but all seemed right with the world when she came on as a substitute in the second round against Indiana and promptly scored the game's first goal. The problem came when a right-leg injury early in the third-round game against Texas A&M again forced her to the sideline (although it's not related to the hamstring, Dorrance says).

The Tar Heels won without Dunn and have plenty of remaining star power with senior Kealia Ohai and sophomore Summer Green, not to mention ample depth behind them. There's also a red-hot keeper in senior Anna Sieloff playing in front of a back line that has propelled the team to 15 clean sheets this season, be it in North Carolina's familiar three-back alignment or its increasingly favored four-back. But Dunn is an all-time great even by the standards of Chapel Hill. Any team is markedly better with her on the field at 100 percent.

The case for UCLA: The Bruins saw very little of the ball when the same two teams played in Durham, N.C., early in the season, a 1-0 win for the Tar Heels in which they held a 23-6 advantage in shots. The Pac-12 team nevertheless made an impression by playing with an energy that spoke well of what the players thought of a new coaching regime. So a team whose omission from the No. 1 seeds raised eyebrows now returns to the Triangle, having allowed no goals in tournament wins against San Diego State, Kentucky and Stanford and just two goals in its past 10 games overall. UCLA's midfield of Sarah Killion, Kodi Lavrusky, Sam Mewis and Jenna Richmond is as talented as anything the ACC can offer, and it's big, which could give it a chance to boss the game if Dunn is out or limited.

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