The NCAA College Cup kicks off Friday afternoon in Hoover, Ala., with No. 2 Creighton taking on surprise semifinalist Creighton in the 3 p.m. PST opener. No. 4 UCLA meets No. 3 North Carolina in the second game, at 5:30 p.m.
The title game is Sunday at 1 p.m. All three games will be shown live on ESPNU.
Here's a quick rundown on the final four:
- UCLA (18-4-1)
The Bruins lost in the quarterfinals the past two years, but a shift to a pure possession attack -- with style as or more important than results -- has taken UCLA to a different level. Junior forward Chandler Hoffman gets to finish a spectacular campaign, in which he's netted 18 goals to head a dynamic attack, at home: He's from Birmingham.
Pacific 12 MVP Kelyn Rowe adds attacking dimensions off the bench and Englishman Andy Rose provides a midfield foundation around which the Bruins revolve. And they might be at their strongest at the back, where goalkeeper Brian Rowe has posted eight straight shutouts -- keeping his sheet clean for 747 minutes, 40 seconds.
- NORTH CAROLINA (20-2-2)
The Tar Heels reached the title game three years ago and lost in the semifinals the past two years, and now first-year coach Carlos Samoano -- promoted when Elmar Bolowich moved to Creighton -- looks to take them to a second title 11 years after the first. They bring in a nine-game winning streak, with six of the victories, including the last two, by shutout.
LOS ANGELES -- Chandler Hoffman was heading home to Birmingham, and he was bringing a couple dozen of his best college buddies with him.
They hope to return to L.A. with an NCAA trophy.
Hoffman, a sure-to-be All-American striker, leads UCLA into this weekend's College Cup men's soccer final four in Hoover, Ala., where the Bruins figure to be a fan favorite, with all of his family and friends filling seats.
“Man, my phone has been blowing up. Facebook has been blowing up,” Hoffman said as the Bruins prepared for Friday night's semifinal showdown with top-seeded North Carolina. “Everyone's excited to come out. It should be like a home game for UCLA.”
This is what Hoffman has envisioned since word arrived earlier this year that the College Cup would be played in Birmingham's suburbs. Now that it's here -- and the Bruins are there -- he can barely contain his excitement.
“I'm so waiting for someone to pinch me and wake up,” he said. “It just feels like a dream.”
That dream comes true if UCLA (18-4-1) overcomes the Tar Heels (20-2-2), then knocks off second-seeded Creighton (21-2-0) or Charlotte (16-4-3) in Sunday's final. It would be the fifth NCAA men's soccer title in school history, and it would fulfill Jorge Salcedo's dream, too.
The Bruins' head coach has been part of three UCLA titles -- as a ballboy in 1985, a freshman midfielder in 1990 and an assistant coach in 2002 -- and came close to winning another in his third season in charge of the program.
“It would mean so much,” said Salcedo, who played for four Major League Soccer clubs, including the Galaxy, and Morelia in Mexico. “I quietly always hope that it's going to happen, and now, once again, we have another chance. The loss [to UC Santa Barbara in the final] in 2006 left a bitter taste in my mouth, because we were a good team back then, I think ready to win a championship. But I think we're even more ready now as a program to win one.”
The Bruins have ample talent, extraordinary depth -- especially in attack -- and solid upperclass leadership, and there's that destiny thing at work, too. At least Hoffman believes so.