Top seed are teams to beat, but upsets lurk
The NCAA women's soccer tournament field is set, so it's time to go after the bracket. While anything is always possible in college sports, ESPNU.com has a pretty good idea of what the quarterfinals of this tourney will look like. Resident women's soccer expert Graham Hays breaks down the four potential regions.
Chapel Hill Regional
Best first-round game: LSU vs. Washington
Neither team is easy to get a read on, but it feels like the winner could be dangerous. Washington showed poise bouncing back from consecutive losses against Portland, USC, UCLA and Stanford to go 5-0-1 down the stretch. But the Huskies were still 2-5-0 against NCAA tournament teams. LSU went 3-2-2 against NCAA tournament qualifiers but only one of the wins was on the road.
Upset alert: Central Florida vs. No. 2 Florida (second round)
One of unseeded Central Florida's three wins against teams in this region came against Florida in Gainesville, albeit in a game in which the Gators dominated in both shots (17-6) and shots on goal (8-2). The Gators have the unusual distinction of being the only seeded team that has been outshot to this point in the season.
Playing for Cary: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 3 Texas A&M
This may not be Texas A&M's best team of recent vintage, but the Aggies have found a way to give the Tar Heels as good a run as any team over the past few years. Assuming Florida escapes its upset watch, Texas A&M would likely need to win in Gainesville in the third round, and the program hasn't recorded a win away from home in the NCAA tournament since beating UCLA in 2002. But as long as Kansas hasn't been involved, the Aggies have shown enough defensive acumen this year to grit out road wins.[+] EnlargeUWM Sports Information Sarah Hagen's NCAA-leading goal scoring should help Wisconsin-Milwaukee in a first-round clash with Michigan State.
North Carolina advances unless: It collectively oversleeps and forfeits a game? All right, that's not fair to the rest of the teams that could pass through Chapel Hill, but the Tar Heels control their own fate. It may not be a requirement for success, but it will help if, in their first NCAA tournament, rising stars Jessica McDonald (41 minutes per game) and Courtney Jones (51 minutes per game) seize opportunities to help ease the loss of Nikki Washington and Meghan Klingenberg to the Under-20 World Cup.
South Bend Regional
Best first-round game: Wisconsin-Milwaukee vs. Michigan State
Even if it's just a preview of coming attractions for two of the most prolific goal scorers in the country, this one should be entertaining. Wisconsin-Milwaukee freshman Sarah Hagen leads the nation with 24 goals entering the NCAA tournament, and Michigan State freshman Laura Heyboer isn't far behind with a Big Ten-best 19 goals. Milwaukee shut out NCAA qualifiers Marquette and Boston University and beat both Ohio State and Wisconsin -- teams the Spartans split against -- en route to a top-25 RPI.
Upset alert: Minnesota vs. No. 4 Colorado (second round)
Unseeded Minnesota hosts the first two rounds, and the Big Ten regular-season co-champions are 10-0-0 at home this season. That could spell a second-round upset against No. 4 seed Colorado, which is 6-1-1 on the road but won't have star Nikki Marshall (Under-20 World Cup).
Playing for Cary: No. 1 Notre Dame vs. No. 2 Florida State
The Fighting Irish and Seminoles split College Cup semifinal meetings the past two seasons, but only one of them can make it to Cary this time around. And the road does seem to set up nicely for the rubber match to happen. No. 3 seed Boston College played Florida State to a near standstill in Chestnut Hill earlier this season, but losing Gina DiMartino to the U-20 World Cup hurts the Eagles' attack as much, if not more, as it hurts the Seminoles to lose Becky Edwards to the same event.
Notre Dame advances unless: The Fighting Irish played the Big East final without Kerri Hanks and Brittany Bock, and while bad luck and lousy weather played a big part in keeping it a scoreless draw until overtime, the attack understandably wasn't the same without its two senior stars. Both are expected to be ready for the first round. With the number of set pieces Florida State generates, not to mention their overall skill in the run of play, Notre Dame keeper Kelsey Lysander would also be cast in a more prominent role than she's played to this point in the season should the top two seeds meet.
Best first-round game: Denver vs. Kansas
Only Notre Dame and Minnesota enter the NCAA tournament with more wins than Denver, which quietly swept through the Sun Belt. The conference player of the year two years ago, Taryn Hemmings missed the 2007 season after hip surgery but has scored 16 goals so far this season. A middle-tier team from a power conference, Kansas showed flashes of something more in a pair of wins against Texas A&M and offers a perfect first-round foil for a would-be Cinderella.
Upset alert: Georgia vs. No. 3 Wake Forest (second round)
Georgia needs to get past James Madison to even put this upset in play (assuming Wake Forest holds off Morehead State), but it has momentum. After struggling through an early schedule that included eight NCAA tournament teams in its first 10 games, Georgia went 8-2-0 down the stretch. The Demon Deacons are fundamentally solid and may be able to stymie a Georgia offense that is still occasionally erratic, but the ACC side doesn't always dominate the attack (eighth in the league in shots per game in conference play).
Playing for Cary: No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 2 Portland
Portland's biggest challenge early will come from within. Already down bodies after injuries to Rachael Rapinoe and Kendra Chandhoke, the Pilots will compete without Under-20 World Cup players Michelle Enyeart, Keelin Winters and Eli Reed. As the WCC champs adjust, Texas could prove their biggest external obstacle in the first three rounds. Until the floodgates opened against Missouri in the Big 12 tournament, Texas had allowed just three goals in six games against NCAA tournament qualifiers.
Stanford advances unless: Portland outplays the Cardinal. It's a game either team can take, without the other giving it away. For the Cardinal -- who could also face a dynamic offensive team in the third round if Oklahoma State advances -- valuing possession is critical. Oklahoma State isn't used to playing without the ball, and while Portland has more experience against other top-tier teams, it may not have the bodies left to chase the ball.[+] EnlargeScott Chandler UCLA will need goalkeeper Ashley Thompson and the Bruins' back line to come through in a tough regional.
Los Angeles Regional
Best first-round game: San Diego vs. Long Beach State
It's a battle of underappreciated conferences when the West Coast and Big West square off. It's also a rematch of a 1-0 San Diego win from early October in which the two sides of the stat sheet looked like mirror images of each other. Both teams deserve better than a potential second-round tilt with No. 1 seed UCLA.
Upset alert: West Virginia vs. No. 2 Virginia (second round)
This has to be on the radar, given West Virginia's 3-0 win when the two met earlier, although the Big East side needs to fend off a potential upset of its own against Princeton in the first round. Earlier result aside, two-seed Virginia is still the favorite at home, but the Mountaineers have the attacking talent to put their rival on the defensive.
Playing for Cary: No. 1 UCLA vs. West Virginia
To play a quarterfinal game against a Pac-10 team for the second year in a row, West Virginia would likely need to get past No. 3 seed Duke in the third round. The Blue Devils have nine goals in 10 games against NCAA tournament teams, a respectable total. But six of those goals came in just two games. Likewise, they have six goals in their past five games, but all six came in one game. On the right day, they're a team that can beat any side in the field, but will they be able to string together four "right days" in a row to reach the College Cup? The Mountaineers aren't paragons of consistency themselves and back-to-back wins in Charlottesville and Durham would be asking a lot. But upsets lurk somewhere.
UCLA advances unless: Its defense isn't as good as it looks. There's no reason to suspect the Bruins aren't as good as four goals allowed in 20 games suggests, but the back line and keeper Ashley Thompson are less-proven commodities than all the talent arrayed up front for the Pac-10 champions. On any given day, Virginia, Duke, USC and West Virginia are all capable of scoring in bunches. And regardless of whether the seeds hold in the bottom half of the bracket, sending either Virginia or Duke through to the quarterfinal, a potential third-round game against No. 4 seed USC looms largest. The Women of Troy outshot the Bruins earlier this season and would certainly know their opponent well.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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