Strength in numbers highlights ACC men’s soccer in 2016

Catherine Sullivan, UNC Sports Information,
Let 'em know
Atlantic Coast Conference,
Atlantic Coast Conference,

Kip Coons, TSN Correspondent

RALEIGH, N.C. – This will be the third year for the current alignment of 12 Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) men’s soccer teams, following Louisville’s replacement of Maryland in the league in 2014.

In each of the past 15 years, at least one ACC team has advanced to the NCAA College Cup, the Final Four of college soccer, and won the tournament seven times.

In the last two years, however, three ACC teams have reached the College Cup.

None of those teams – Virginia in 2014, Syracuse and Clemson last year – finished first in the ACC regular-season standings.

Not since Maryland shared first place with Notre Dame in 2013 has the regular-season winner made it to the College Cup.

Both Notre Dame and Maryland accomplished the feat that year, with the Irish going on to beat the Terrapins 2-1 in the NCAA championship game.

UVa placed only sixth in the league in 2014, then went on to win the national championship.

Syracuse, which lost to Stanford in the 2015 NCAA final, was seventh in the ACC last year.

Clemson was a more respectable third.

So why has the regular season become such an unreliable predictor for success in the NCAA tournament?

Blame it on the murderers’ row of teams in the league lineup.

The ACC has been one of the strongest leagues in the nation top-to-bottom for years, and the addition of former Big East powers Syracuse, Boston College and Louisville have only strengthened the field.

Even bottom-feeding Pittsburgh, which has struggled since joining the league, should become a more formidable opponent now with the return of coach Jay Vidovich to the ACC.

Vidovich led Wake Forest for 21 years, winning an NCAA championship in 2007 and five ACC titles.

He spent 2015 as coach of the Portland Timbers 2, the MLS franchise’s entry in the United Soccer League (USL), before deciding to rejoin the collegiate ranks.

So with so many strong teams involved, there are lots of candidates capable of getting hot at the right time and going on a long postseason run.

For the record, North Carolina is the ACC coaches’ prediction this season to win the Coastal Division and the ACC championship, with Clemson the pick in the Atlantic Division.

Interestingly, UNC was the choice of only five of the league’s 12 coaches to claim the title.

Four other teams – Clemson, Notre Dame, Virginia and Wake Forest – also got votes, which might suggest that soccer fans are in for another wide-open ACC race.

There is no shortage of contenders, with seven ACC teams ranked in the preseason NSCAA coaches’ national poll.

They are Clemson (3), Wake Forest (5), Syracuse (6), UNC (8), Notre Dame (9), Boston College (11), and Virginia (17).

There will be one change to the ACC tournament.

The 10 teams that qualify for it will play at campus sites of the higher seeds through the semifinals, with the championship game set for MUSC Health Stadium in Charleston, S.C., on Nov. 13.

That is the home of the USL’s Charleston Battery.

The ACC’s unbalanced schedule, in which each team doesn’t play three league opponents, has led to a couple of oddities.

UNC and N.C. State aren’t scheduled to meet in ACC play, but the two backyard rivals will play a “nonconference” game at Chapel Hill on Sept. 2.

Duke and Clemson also weren’t scheduled for a league match, but they got together last Friday to play an exhibition game at Duke and tied 2-2.

The three local ACC teams open the regular season this weekend.

Duke will host San Diego (Fri., 7:30 p.m.) and UNC Asheville (Sun., 5 p.m.) in the John Rennie Nike Invitational.

UNC draws Cal Poly (Fri., 7:30 p.m.) and Saint Louis (Sun., 7:30 p.m.) in its Carolina Nike Classic.

N.C. State will go on the road to Harrisonburg, Va., and play Radford (Fri., 5 p.m.) and James Madison (Sun., 4:30 p.m.) in the JMU Invitational.