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Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Traditional soccer powers fight to stay on top

By Graham Hays

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Four of college soccer's royal families were in residence at Notre Dame over the weekend, each in its own way facing a quandary increasingly familiar to royalty: staying relevant when lineage carries less currency.

Connecticut, North Carolina, Notre Dame and Santa Clara, the four participants in the adidas Invitational won by the Tar Heels, claim 54 College Cup appearances between them, or 45 percent of every appearance made in the event that is now three decades old. All four coaches rank among the top five in NCAA all-time wins, including North Carolina's Anson Dorrance (730 wins) and Connecticut's Len Tsantiris (493) atop the list.

There have been 30 national championships in NCAA history; three of those programs account for 24 of them.

Yet, if you can't write the game's history without those four programs, you also can't explain the sport's present and future without noting that only two of the participants entered the tournament ranked this season, and barely, with North Carolina at No. 19 and Santa Clara at 24. The weekend's most likely College Cup preview, at least by rankings, came in a 1-1 draw between No. 4 Stanford and No. 7 Boston College, two programs that combined for seven NCAA tournament wins before 1999.

There used to be some easy games where you could kind of rest your starters and not play your players that had little injuries. Every single game is a grind now, so it's a much tougher road.

-- Santa Clara coach Jerry Smith

"I remember pretty much there were three or four of us that would be at the final four almost every year," Santa Clara coach Jerry Smith said of the game as it was. "It would be Carolina and us and Notre Dame and Portland -- UConn back in the early days. There's a lot more parity now; there's a lot more good teams. And there are no easy games. There used to be some easy games where you could kind of rest your starters and not play your players that had little injuries. Every single game is a grind now, so it's a much tougher road."

This is not to say the traditional powers are afterthoughts. We're three years removed from the Tar Heels, arguably the most dominant program in the history of college team sports, winning their third title in a four-year span and 20th overall in the NCAA era. The Fighting Irish followed with a championship of their own in 2010, becoming the first program other than North Carolina to win at least three titles. But last year nonetheless marked just the second time that none of the four teams appeared in the College Cup. Santa Clara hasn't been since 2004; Connecticut since 2003.

"Now there is a team with an RPI of 75 that can take you out if you're not on that day," Dorrance said. "There's no real easy game if you're playing a team in the top 75 in the RPI. What's interesting is, back in the old days, back when Lenny [Tsantiris] and I were trying to fight our way into a championship, a team outside of the top 10 would not have a player on it that could start for you. Now you see teams in the top 150 that will have two or three kids where you're looking at them like 'Where were we when that kid was recruited?'

"All these teams, even down to 150, have two or three kids that would play for you."

The depth of talent makes it imperative that even programs like North Carolina avoid personnel missteps. An injury here, unfulfilled promise, bad chemistry or a transfer there and you have a situation like last season, when North Carolina totaled just one goal in falling against Florida State in the ACC tournament and Central Florida in the NCAA tournament, and Notre Dame tumbled to a 10-8-3 record and first-round exit. Perhaps that's why Dorrance seemed positively giddy about the chance to show off freshman Summer Green. Green, who turned 17 in May and graduated from high school a year ahead of her peers, was the best player on the field in South Bend, albeit a field missing seven key players because of the ongoing Under-20 World Cup in Japan.

Green had a goal and an assist in a 2-0 win against Connecticut and set up Maria Lubrano's winner with five minutes to play against Notre Dame, gaining the end line against a defender and delivering a perfectly weighted ball for her teammate. Earlier, Green charged down the left side and, in stride, sent a sculpted pass 30-plus yards across the field with the outside of her right foot that missed a teammate by the smallest of margins, the kind of pass few players would think to attempt, let alone be able to execute. She's the kind of recruit North Carolina now shares with a dozen or more elite programs.

"Summer Green is freaking awesome," Dorrance said. "Electric player, unpredictable, quick, fast, clever, impossible to man up. Almost like every time she got the ball you almost see defenders backing up in fear because she's just so quick and clever. She's a wonderful player."

History still matters. North Carolina already had 12 NCAA championships when Green was born in 1995. Asked about her first North Carolina memory, the Michigan native immediately mentioned Mia Hamm, a name that resonates for girls, but someone who finished her college career two years before Green was born.

"I didn't watch much as a kid, but I knew the style was exactly what I wanted," Green said. "Just coming in, the legacy of it, it really was all there, and that's what I wanted to do."

But history is also just that, and at some point powers wake up to find they are former powers. That's the fate Santa Clara, which made seven College Cups in nine seasons between 1996 and 2004, strives to avoid. Even after playing 110 minutes in a draw against Connecticut with a back that offers discomfort in the best of times as a result of past injuries, defensive standout Allie Vernon spoke with passion about the pride the Broncos take in their lineage, the videos they watch of the 2001 championship. They still have elite talent, even with stars Julie Johnston and Sofia Huerta absent because of the U-20 World Cup, but history is balanced against the realities of an athletic department in the small West Coast Conference.

Consider the fact that Santa Clara holds an 18-14-5 advantage in the all-time series against neighbor Stanford, but the Broncos are 1-8-1 against the Pac-12 power since 2005.

"We're getting outspent for sure, but I still think we have enough to compete," Smith said. "I really believe this year, this team, once we get Julie and Sofia back, I think we'll be able to beat just about anybody in the country. In fact, we'll be able to beat anybody in the country when we get those guys back. … It's 11 players out there and a few subs, and any given day you should be able to beat anybody. I believe in that. I think coaches and teams and conferences that use [resources] as a crutch for not winning is a weak answer, quite honestly. We won't use that. We have enough to win and go to the College Cup and to win the championship."

North Carolina can contend for a championship this season; Notre Dame next season at the latest. Once whole, Santa Clara could be as good as it has been in some time. Even Connecticut looks improved.

But what such a concentration of the game's history underscored more than anything was how much the sport has changed. Their success ensured it.

"There are no guarantees for any of us now, not even Carolina anymore," Smith said.