An air of mystery surrounds NCAA women's soccer quarterfinals

Courtesy Beverly Schaefer

Mimi Asom helped pull off the biggest upset of the tournament with a goal and an assist against North Carolina.

Soccer star-turned-pundit Gary Lineker once described the sport as a simple game in which 22 players chase a ball for 90 minutes "and at the end, the Germans always win."

A similar sentiment was long true of the NCAA women's soccer tournament. Year after year, a bracket of teams chased a championship for several weeks. And at the end, North Carolina always won. No more. When the quarterfinals begin Friday, North Carolina will be the only No. 1 seed not involved. That isn't because the Tar Heels were overrated or even because they played particularly poorly in a 2-1 overtime loss against No. 4 Princeton on Sunday.

The Tar Heels slipped because the path has never been slicker. The margin for error has never been smaller. This is the third year in a row in which at least one No. 1 seed failed to reach the quarterfinals and the third year in a row an unseeded team made it this far.

What will happen at the end? We don't know. And that's the fun of it.

Until then, here is how the road to the College Cup in Orlando, Florida, looks.

No. 3 Penn State at No. 1 Stanford

Courtesy Penn State

Alina Ortega Jurado and Penn State will try to upset top-seeded Stanford on Friday in the NCAA quarterfinals.

The only quarterfinal between two former national champions has luster for that reason alone, but Penn State's play through the first three rounds makes this the most compelling quarterfinal for reasons beyond brand names.

This is a significant test for the No. 1 overall seed. And while the second- and third-round scores -- 2-0 over Auburn and 1-0 over Florida State -- may not suggest it, the Cardinal haven't been tested yet. The way they controlled the field against both the Tigers and Seminoles was in many ways more impressive than their nine goals against overmatched Utah Valley in the first round. Stanford took 53 shots against Auburn and Florida State. Those teams managed seven.

When Stanford defender Tierna Davidson, one of two Cardinal who already spent time with the U.S. women's national team, took off on a 60-yard rampaging run down the middle of the field to set up Jordan DiBiasi's winning goal against Florida State, it summed up so much about the top seed. The Cardinal have too much talent at too many positions to keep off the scoreboard.

But after beating Wake Forest and No. 2 West Virginia in the snow in Morgantown, West Virginia, Penn State is starting to play like the team its talent suggested it could be this season. This is, after all, a team that used seven players against West Virginia who started the national title game two years ago. And like that team, which was led by Costa Rican standout Raquel Rodriguez, the international game has provided these Nittany Lions with leading scorer Laura Freigang and Alina Ortega Jurado, who scored against both Wake Forest and West Virginia.

No. 3 Florida at No. 1 South Carolina

The Gamecocks knock off Santa Clara 1-0 and secure a spot in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament.

It has not been a good tournament for the SEC, which lost seven of its record nine entrants in the first two rounds. But the silver lining is a quarterfinal that ensures the league will send an original member to the College Cup for the first time since 2001 (Big 12-bred Texas A&M made the SEC's only other College Cup appearance in that span in 2014).

Florida has long been the outlier in a conference of soccer strugglers. The Gators won the SEC's lone national title in 1998 at a time when North Carolina still reigned supreme. They haven't been back to the College Cup since 2001, but they have always been relevant and these days play some of the most entertaining and eye-catching soccer in the country for Becky Burleigh, the coach who started it all in Gainesville. Say goodbye to Savannah Jordan after one of the most prolific careers in recent NCAA annals? No problem. The Gators have Canadian prospect Deanne Rose surrounded by a bevy of creative midfielders.

South Carolina is the only SEC program that has followed Florida's lead and maintained that level of national relevance across multiple classes. The Gamecocks still have their goal-scoring Savannah, senior Savannah McCaskill, who scored in a 1-0 win against Santa Clara in the Sweet 16. And holiday notwithstanding, one of the national attendance leaders should have a decent crowd Friday. Now the only thing standing in the way of an overdue first trip to the College Cup is that very familiar obstacle. If the first meeting this season is any indication, a 1-0 South Carolina win settled in the 80th minute, this should offer plenty of drama.

Baylor at No. 1 Duke

As good as Stanford looked for stretches even without producing goals, that's how good Duke looked while also piling up numbers on the scoreboard. They aren't the top seed, but the Blue Devils have to sit atop the power rankings as the quarterfinals get underway.

While the other three No. 1 seeds scored a total of seven goals in the second and third rounds, Duke scored 10 in a 7-0 win against Oklahoma State and a 3-0 win against Texas (teams that split with Baylor in the regular season and conference tournament). The last No. 1 seed to reach double-digit goals in the same two rounds was Penn State in 2015, a season that ended with the program's first title at Duke's expense. Imani Dorsey, Kayla McCoy and Taylor Racioppi, the usual suspects, each scored twice, but it was the return of Canadian international and ACC midfielder of the year Rebecca Quinn that seemed to knit together the Blue Devils.

A season after West Virginia brought the Big 12 to the College Cup for the first time, Baylor will try and complete a much less likely trip to the final weekend. It isn't just that the Bears needed overtime to beat Notre Dame after squandering a two-goal lead or that they eliminated defending national champion and third-seeded USC in a second-round penalty shootout. In all, six of the team's past eight games, and 10 of its past 15 games, went to overtime. That is as many overtime games as the of the rest of their half of the bracket -- Duke, UCLA and Princeton -- combined. And that doesn't even include Baylor's first-round regulation thriller against Rice.

No. 4 Princeton at No. 2 UCLA

It's not just a matchup for basketball anymore, though few on the field in this one were even alive when the Bruins and Tigers played their epic NCAA tournament men's basketball game in 1996.

The Bruins were twice effectively a bad bounce away from elimination this past weekend. They led for barely 60 seconds out of more than 180 minutes, needing an overtime winner in the second round against Northwestern and an 89th-minute winner against Virginia in the Sweet 16. Still, if those close calls weren't as deceiving as rival Stanford's scores, they do obscure a team that always looked the more likely to score. They certainly have the star power. Back from international duty with Canada, Jessie Fleming had a goal and an assist, while Ashley Sanchez assisted on both UCLA goals in the run of play.

For all the increasing parity in women's soccer, it has been more than a decade since a team from beyond the major conferences reached the College Cup -- in part because all of those well-funded major conferences now produce so many quality teams. So with each passing year, the run Princeton made to the 2004 College Cup looked less and less likely to be replicated.

Then Princeton decided to give it another try. What is remarkable about the Tigers is how poor a fit they are for the Cinderella label, even after surviving a penalty shootout against NC State in the second round and overtime against North Carolina. Not only are they seeded, they are here the season after one of the program's all-time best players, Tyler Lussi, graduated and went on to the NWSL. A Cinderella wouldn't withstand that. A team with the likes of Mimi Asom, who may yet follow Lussi into the pros and figured in both goals against the Tar Heels, did withstand it.

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