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Soccer Shangri-La

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From the beginning, this was an entertaining spectacle. And that was before you even saw a soccer ball.

Just getting into the sold-out SAS Soccer Stadium in Cary was enough to cause confusion as the will-call lines were hopelessly long if your name happened to start after the letter H. By my count, around 700-1,000 people missed the first 25 minutes of Friday night's semifinal game as they struggled to get their tickets. This is a pity because the first half, between ACC rivals Wake Forest and Virginia Tech was nothing short of the best soccer that has ever been produced in NCAA's Division I.

The 49th College Cup had all the classic elements of a Final Four tournament. In the first semifinal, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest played an open, flowing, attacking game generally reserved for the Dutch or Argentines. (Fans had more than enough time to think about how good these teams were as they stood in 50-deep lines for $3 hot dogs.) Later that night, the other side of the bracket featured long-shot overachievers Ohio State and no-hope Cinderella UMass. After the end of the raucous evening, filled with a standing-room crowd of more than 8,000, the two teams remaining were Wake Forest, with its electrifying striker Marcus Tracy, and the rugged Ohio State Buckeyes, now riding a 15-game winning streak.

Click for larger image • Wake Forest junior Michael Lahoud celebrates with teammates after the victory. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

The unseasonably warm night was followed by a day of hard, cold rain, and the final was played on Sunday in conditions that seemed to have been airlifted in from Minnesota: clear skies, but bone-chilling wind that created a disadvantage for the team playing into it.

Despite the absence of fans from Friday night's losing schools, SAS Stadium was nearly full as the underdog Buckeyes scored a shocking early goal in the 13th minute. And so the score remained 1-0 for the rest of the first half and well into the second as the increasingly antic Ohio State fans began sniffing upset. But when, in the 65th minute, Marcus Tracy of Wake Forest equalized after an Ohio State misplay, it was clear that the Buckeyes' moment was over. The crushing emotional swing that took place here—as the jubilant Tracy raced around the field with upraised palms—is utterly unique to soccer, simply because it is so difficult to score. Twelve minutes later, Wake Forest sophomore and Cary native Zack Schilawski made the outcome official with a point-blank shot off an assist from Tracy.

There is something about college sports that brings out emotions more readily than the cold calculations of the professional game. Perhaps it is because despite every evidence to the contrary, we assiduously hold on to the notion that college sports are somehow more innocent, more authentic, more genuine, more for the love of the shirt, the school, the collective essence of a university community, however scattered, invented or hackneyed.

Click for larger image •Photographers capture the jubilation of the Wake Forest squad as the dejected Ohio State team looks on. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

So, on this December weekend, it was indeed a pleasure to hear the cries of "Wake!" echoed by "Forest!" on the other side of the stadium. Equally intense were the spelling lessons offered by the Buckeyes "O-H!" from the east seats, "I-O!" from the west (now if only they could count their votes properly). It was quaint, even touching, to see middle-aged UMass alumni having a slagging match with rabid young punks from Ohio. The Hokies were out in numbers, as usual, though it is always a mystery to me where they come from and why they are so devout—perhaps because they have never quite won anything.

In addition to being featured as the classic suburban non-place in a National Geographic article called "Suburbia Unbound," Cary has put itself on the map through the hosting of top-level soccer. On alternating years the SAS (soon to be Wake Med) Soccer Park hosts the men's and women's NCAA Division I soccer championship. This might not be so interesting but for the fact that the tournament is but a side show in comparison to the action in Raleigh. More than 200 teams come to town to strut their collective and individual stuff before 300-400 college coaches, who are trying to convince players to play for their schools.

Although the odds are long that their young Pelé will stand out among the more than 2,300 players on display, Wake Forest's Schilawski, who scored the winning goal, is a product of Triangle youth soccer. On television, he would be the game's designated golden boy, and viewers would hear airbrushed, homespun accounts of Schilawski's upbringing in the quaint little village of Cary.

Click for larger image • Wake Forest senior Julian Valentin celebrates the win. - PHOTO BY DEREK ANDERSON

The reality of success in American youth soccer is much less romantic, and there is a distinct pay-to-play component to the youth camp that takes place in Raleigh. With all the travel and expense undertaken in the hopes that a coach will see something in each kid's brief moments with the ball (and, to be fair, off the ball, for that is what most good coaches look for) that will warrant further attentions, lavish praise, dozens of phone calls, commitment letters, training, sacrifice, travel—all to get to the Shangri-La of college soccer: Cary, N.C.

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