-- Most college soccer teams would be more than happy to take a trip to the College Cup final four every three or four years, but for Maryland and UCLA, the wait has been torture. Perennially positioned to be among the sport's elite, the Terrapins and Bruins have recently overcome frustrating, and occasionally bizarre, circumstances to retake their place in the championship picture.
They meet today in an NCAA semifinal at Gerald J. Ford Stadium on the Southern Methodist University campus, where the winner will earn a long-overdue title shot against Stanford or Creighton on Sunday.
Grounded in a winning tradition that goes back to college soccer's roots and revitalized under a charismatic coach able to mold the talent required to compete in the highly competitive ACC, No. 1 Maryland (20-4) has had the championship pieces in place for nearly a decade.
A semifinal berth in 1998 appeared to set the stage.
Then trouble set in. A first-round loss to St. John's in 1999 was followed by an astonishing rash of injuries in 2000, when seven Terrapins were lost for the season. Injuries to sophomores Abe Thompson and Domenic Mediate, this season's leading scorers, and the absence of sophomore defender Clarence Goodson left Maryland undermanned in 2001. In the three years that followed the College Cup berth, Coach Sasho Cirovski's Terrapins won one NCAA tournament match.
There are no seniors on this year's team, but there is plenty of perspective.
"I came in here and they had just been to the final four. We were expecting big things," said junior Scott Buete, a 2000 redshirt whose tenacious effort in midfield has been a key to the Terrapins' playoff success. "After all the injuries the last two years people started to doubt us. It didn't feel good around [College Park]. But we knew we had the team. We were just unlucky."
Said Thompson: "We're having fun. The past two years were really frustrating. Now all the success, the ACC championship, the tournament run, we're enjoying that all the work we've done is coming to fruition."
Things also are brighter for the No. 6 Bruins (16-3-3), who endured an offseason of tumult and tragedy. A three-time national champion and the country's leading producer of professional and national team talent, UCLA is playing in its 11th final four, all since 1970. The Bruins lost their 1999 semifinal to Indiana in four overtimes, then suffered earlier exits the following two seasons.
Those defeats paled compared to what transpired last spring. After three key players left school early to go pro, third-year coach Todd Saldana was dismissed following an investigation into his educational background. In 1997 Saldana had received a degree through correspondence courses from Columbia State University in Louisiana, which was declared a "diploma mill" and closed by the state the following year. The two-month search for a successor was controversial, and the athletic department ignored candidates with UCLA connections, including former U.S. World Cup coach Steve Sampson. Former Columbus Crew boss Tom Fitzgerald was hired.
"I just know that the players were looking for some consistency, more of a positive influence," Fitzgerald said. "I don't know Todd or his coaching style; all I know from what the guys have told me is that there was negativity around the team. . . . The guys were looking for some guidance, to really show them they were good players."
Over the summer, senior midfielder Ryan Futagaki, a national player of the year candidate, lost his father to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (often called Lou Gehrig's disease). The Bruins won five of their first nine games but have pulled together late, especially on offense.
A balanced scoring attack led by senior forward Tim Pierce (12 goals, seven assists) has produced 14 goals in three NCAA tournament matches.
The tactical matchup is intriguing -- will UCLA's five-man midfield run through and around the Terrapins' three-midfielder, three-forward alignment, forcing Mediate and forward Nino Marcantonio to withdraw and play defensively? The psychological battle should be compelling as well.
Each team feels they belong, yet most players lack College Cup experience.
"When we reached the College Cup as freshmen, I think we started to expect this level of success and it became an expectation for every season," Pierce said. "Now we realize how difficult it is to get here and how important these next two matches are."
Soccer Notes: Virginia junior forward Alecko Eskandarian was awarded the Hermann Trophy as the national men's player of the year. Eskandarian set a school record with 25 goals in 20 games and is the fifth Cavalier to win the award. He will leave school and is expected to be one of the first selections in the MLS draft on Jan. 17.
Santa Clara midfielder Aly Wagner won the women's award.