College Cup berths on the line
Louisville didn't take the path this season that most probably expected for the Cardinals. Yet here they are still just a step away from the men's College Cup.
And the team standing in the way for Louisville is a familiar one: Just like last season, the Cardinals will face No. 13 seed UCLA in a quarterfinal matchup. That's Saturday at 7 p.m. ET at Cardinal Park, where some extra seating has been added to accomodate the expected crowd.
Louisville, the 2010 NCAA runner-up, started this season ranked No. 1. But after an up-and-down season that included a loss in the Big East tournament semifinal to UConn, coach Ken Lolla's Cardinals are right where they want to be at the most important time.
"We had pretty high expectations going into the season," Louisville senior forward Colin Rolfe said. "With the type of schedule we played, it prepared us for this. And during the year, coach did a good job of keeping that in our heads: That every tough game that we had was just getting us ready for the postseason. And it's working out so far."
The Cardinals definitely did have some tough games, and a less experienced group might have had a difficult time believing everything was eventually going to turn out well.
Louisville started the season with UCLA, winning 2-0 on Aug. 27. In fact, the Cardinals won six of their first seven matches, with the loss coming at North Carolina, the team that earned the overall No. 1 seed in this tournament.
But then things got a little shaky for the Cardinals. They fell in back-to-back shutouts to Big East foes Notre Dame and Connecticut, allowing just one goal in each but still taking the losses. Louisville beat Indiana 3-2 in overtime, then played to a scoreless tie with Syracuse.
A 4-0 win over Cincinnati was followed by two more losses (St. John's and South Florida) and a tie (Rutgers).
"We didn't let it get to us too much," Rolfe said. "Last year, with only losing one game, it was a little different for the guys this year just experiencing more losses. But I think we handled it well, and just kept moving on. I think our experience is incredibly important.
"We had been playing well all season, we just weren't always getting the results that we wanted."
Louisville, which got the No. 12 seed, started NCAA tournament play with a 3-2 win in double overtime against Bradley. Then the Cardinals traveled to College Park, Md., to take on the No. 5 seed, Maryland. The Terps lost to a double-digit seed at home in the NCAA tournament last year -- then-No. 10 Michigan -- so they were very wary of it happening again.
It did, though, thanks largely to Rolfe's outstanding performance. He had a goal and tied his career-high with three assists in Louisville's 4-2 victory. Rolfe was all over the field in frustrating the Terps.
"I'm just fortunate to have the quality players around me to finish off the chances I give them and feed me chances," Rolfe said. "And this couldn't have worked out any better: Our last game at home, and to have [UCLA] coming here, with the history that we have with them."
Other quarterfinals matchups:
No. 7 South Florida at No. 2 Creighton (Saturday, 2 p.m. ET)
There were no upsets in this quarter of the bracket, as the top two seeds advanced to the quarterfinals. Although New Mexico's Lobos were upset -- as in angry -- that their undefeated regular season earned them only a No. 10 seed, and thus they had to go to Tampa, Fla., for the third-round game. After a scoreless tie through two overtimes, the Bulls defeated the Lobos 6-5 on penalty kicks.
South Florida's reward for that is a trip to Omaha, Neb., where the Bluejays will be trying to reach that program's fourth College Cup and first since 2002.
Creighton, which has 17 shutouts this season behind goalkeeper Brian Holt, has not lost a match at home in 2011. The Bluejays' two losses were at Maryland and at Missouri State; Creighton comes in having won 10 matches in a row.
The Bulls are one of three Big East teams in the quarterfinals, but they'll have to be prepared for some decidedly un-Florida-like weather Saturday in Nebraska. The forecast calls for a high of only 35, with a 90 percent chance of rain/snow mix.
Saint Mary's at No. 1 North Carolina (Saturday, 5 p.m. ET)
The biggest long shot still alive -- St. Mary's was 8-6-5 in the regular season -- takes on the tournament favorite. It's been quite a ride thus far for the Gaels, who won the West Coast Conference tournament for the first time and are making their second appearance in the NCAA field (they got an at-large berth in 2009).
Saint Mary's opened NCAA play with a victory at Cal Bakersfield, followed by a 2-1 double-overtime upset at UC Irvine. Next was a trip to Brown, which had upset No. 9 seed St. John's in the second round.
The Gaels needed overtime again, but once more prevailed, 3-2. Now, they'll play their fourth consecutive match on the road, this one against a UNC team that got a bit of a scare in the third round from Indiana.
Billy Schuler's overtime goal gave the Tar Heels a 1-0 victory against the Hoosiers, and now, with a win over Saint Mary's, UNC will be going to its fourth consecutive College Cup appearance. Schuler had to miss last season with a shoulder injury, but he's been tremendously effective this season. The game winner against Indiana was his 15th goal of the season.
The Tar Heels are 19-2-2, and those two losses came to underdog teams: Virginia Tech and Davidson. In both those 1-0 defeats, UNC dominated play but wasn't able to finish chances. So the Tar Heels know they have to be careful to avoid doing that again.
Charlotte at No. 3 UConn (Sunday, 1 p.m. ET)
In his typical blunt fashion, UConn coach Ray Reid said the Huskies' loss to St. John's in the Big East tournament final on Nov. 13 was a good thing. He predicted it would make his players all the more attentive to the coaching staff going into the NCAA tournament.
He seems to have been right. After a first-round bye, the Huskies beat Monmouth 2-1, then soundly defeated James Madison, 3-0. That latter win was the Huskies' 16th by shutout this season, which tops the program record of 15 in 2000. That season, UConn won the national championship.
To try to get there again, the Huskies will have to put their stellar defense up against the team that's tied for the most goals scored in this postseason. Both Charlotte and Louisville have seven.
The 49ers advanced to the quarterfinals by knocking off Furman, No. 11 seed UAB and defending NCAA champion Akron. The Zips versus the Huskies might have sounded like a classic marquee matchup for the regional final, but the 49ers earned this spot. Their 16 victories are the program's second-most for a season.
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.