- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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A soccer fan who regained his or her memory after a year's worth of amnesia might find the composition of this year's College Cup among the less surprising developments of the past 12 months.
It's the rest of us whose heads are spinning.
The defending champions won't be in College Station for the conclusion to the college season, but Florida State, Notre Dame and UCLA are back for another try, or a fifth consecutive try in UCLA's case, after losing out to North Carolina last year. But such familiarity was far from a foregone conclusion when the NCAA Tournament got underway.
UCLA was the only No. 1 seed to survive the first four rounds, while Pac-10 peer USC was the only other team from the top eight seeds to reach College Station -- and the Women of Troy only got to play one home game along the way to the program's first College Cup appearance. Fourth-seeded Notre Dame and third-seeded Florida State returned to the semifinals as experienced upstarts but upstarts all the same after coming out ahead in quadrants of the bracket that included higher-seeded teams like North Carolina, Stanford, Purdue and Texas A&M.
So with four teams that all have the firepower to win two more games, what happens next?
Will UCLA avoid a letdown?
Any deficit in the postseason carries with it a sense of foreboding commensurate with the possible premature demise of a season, but UCLA played nearly 30 minutes of overtime soccer in the last two weeks knowing that any goal was less a harbinger of doom than the black-robed guy with the scythe taking it upon himself to end the season.
That the Bruins remain the strong favorite in College Station despite their time on the brink sums up a crazy tournament.
In pulling out overtime wins against Virginia in the third round and Portland in the quarterfinals, UCLA did away with arguably the nation's best defense and its second-best team, in that order. What remains to be seen is whether the trip to College Station will be an anticlimactic coronation like the Boston Red Sox enjoyed after surviving the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS or a recipe for disappointment like the Oakland Athletics falling to the supposedly overmatched Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988.
The Bruins have the best record and the most talent, but the national championship will be the only plaudit recorded for posterity in the NCAA record book.
UCLA isn't winning in spite of a strong defense led by standout keeper Valerie Henderson, but it is winning largely because of its offense. The Bruins scored at least two goals in each of their last 12 games, including seven games with at least three goals. They scored a total of five goals in two overtime games against Portland. They scored four goals against Santa Clara. In the span of eight days earlier this season, they registered successive 2-0 wins against Pac-10 rivals and NCAA Tournament teams Stanford, Cal and USC.
They're also the only team to double their opponent's shot total in each of the first four rounds.
Lauren Cheney saved the day against Virginia, Danesha Adams scored two, including the golden goal, against Portland and Kara Lang and Christina DiMartino remain two of the most exciting offensive players in the game. All they have to do now is win.
Will USC start to sweat in the spotlight?
No team in College Station spent more time in airports and hotels during the first three weeks of the NCAA Tournament than USC, which played a single home game sandwiched between a trip to Missouri for the opening two rounds and a trip to West Virginia for the quarterfinals.
So perhaps it shouldn't be too surprising that the Women of Troy exude the unexcitable demeanor of business travelers, albeit unusually fit business travelers, intent on closing a deal and getting home.
That attitude begins with first-year coach Ali Khosroshahin, who offered the following tepid endorsement of the program's remarkable rise with only the hint of a smile.
"It took longer than I would have wanted it to, you know, being a perfectionist and all," Khosroshahin joked, sort of, before his team's game at West Virginia. "But they've really come on board. We're actually really enjoying being around each other. I don't think we've played our best soccer."
Maybe Khosroshahin's team hasn't played its best soccer, but it has played better soccer than just about everyone else in the NCAA Tournament. USC enters the semifinals as the only team not to have allowed a goal through four rounds, a feat accomplished less through bunkering on defense than controlling possession and tempo on offense.
Despite playing with a lead in three of four games (winning a second-round encounter against Missouri 1-0 on a golden goal in double overtime), USC outshot Missouri, Florida and West Virginia by an average of nine shots per game after it outshot first-round foe Creighton by a staggering 33 shots. Finishing may be of some concern after defender Kacey Johnson provided the team's entire scoring output against Florida and West Virginia with two goals in the air, but creating opportunities has not been an issue.
The real test for USC may be the surroundings. Not only is this the program's first appearance in a College Cup, but it comes complete with a semifinal showdown against UCLA, the crosstown rival playing in its fifth consecutive College Cup. The Bruins haven't lost to the Women of Troy since 1998, including a 2-0 decision in late October that represents USC's only multiple-goal loss of the season.
Will Florida State's one-sided exchange program continue?
The beginning of the college season coincided with the Women's World Cup in China, where both Brazil and eventual repeat champion Germany proved women's soccer is an increasingly global proposition. So what more appropriate way to close out the college season here in the United States than with Florida State's coalition of the skilled adding international flavor to the chase for the national championship?
No team has been more dominant on offense during the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament than the Seminoles, thanks in large part to Japanese junior Mami Yamaguchi, Finnish freshman Sanna Talonen and Dutch midfielder Kirsten van de Ven (not that Florida State's defense, behind Canadian keeper Erin McNulty and German defender Katrin Schmidt, has needed much help while keeping three clean sheets).
Consistently good throughout her first season in Tallahassee, Talonen has emerged in the NCAA Tournament as the perfect complement to play off Yamaguchi's creativity.
Talonen scored seven goals and took 28 shots in the first four rounds; Florida State's opponents managed just two goals and 33 shots.
Will Notre Dame's trinity keep piling up goals?
Notre Dame sees your cliché about defense winning championships and raises you a cliché about the best defense being a good offense.
Defense has been an issue for Notre Dame all season, highlighted by a 7-1 loss against Santa Clara in September -- just five fewer goals than USC allowed all season. And the Fighting Irish, who knocked off defending champion North Carolina in Chapel Hill in the third round, head to the College Cup as the only semifinalist which allowed multiple goals in multiple games during the first four rounds.
Randy Waldrum's team lost defensive mainstays Kim Lorenzen and Christie Shaner from the back line and Jill Krivacek from the midfield after last season's championship game appearance and then lost promising young defender Haley Ford to injury early this season. Relative to the challenge, allowing a total of 25 goals and an average of 7.5 shots through 25 games are impressive measures of how well Waldrum's defense responded to the personnel losses. That's even more true considering the back line in the team's quarterfinal against Duke consisted of two freshman, a junior transfer and a junior coming off a major knee injury. But in the context of a College Cup that includes attacking players like those dotting the rosters of Florida State, UCLA and USC, those numbers remain potentially problematic.
Which is where Kerri Hanks, Brittany Bock and Michelle Weissenhofer come in.
With Weissenhofer finally healthy after a season-long battle with an ankle injury, Notre Dame's decorated front line has played its best soccer in the postseason. In the three games they played together to this point in the NCAA Tournament (Bock missed the second-round game against Illinois with an injury), the Fighting Irish's big three accounted for eight of nine goals and 27 of 42 shots -- an 11 percent increase on their contribution to the team's total shots per game over the course of the entire season.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.