CARY, N.C. — The site of this weekend's NCAA College Cup is the same spot the ACC used for its conference tournament, and with three of the league's teams back in town, it almost looks the same.
"We appreciate the ACC inviting us to their conference tournament this weekend," joked Caleb Porter, the coach of top-seeded Akron, the only non-ACC team among the final four. "No, we're aware that even though we've been ranked No. 1 in the country all year long and we have the record that we have, people are probably putting us as an underdog."
The Zips (23-0-0) are trying to become the first team in 35 years to win the NCAA Division I men's soccer title with a perfect record — but they're outsiders this weekend. They have traveled more than 500 miles to play fifth-seeded North Carolina (16-2-3), which had just a 23-mile commute, in Friday's semifinals.
No. 2 seed Virginia (17-3-3) and No. 3 seed Wake Forest (17-3-3) square off in Friday's first game. The semifinal winners will play in Sunday's championship game.
The ACC has put three teams in the national semifinals for the second year in a row. Wake Forest and North Carolina joined Maryland, the eventual champion, in last season's final four in Frisco, Texas. The year before, the last time the College Cup was here, the Demon Deacons took the title.
"Our conference is the best conference in the country, and they've demonstrated that over the years," said Virginia coach George Gelnovatch, whose team won the ACC tournament here nearly four weeks ago. "Two years in a row, having three ACC teams in the final four is unbelievable."
In the first semifinal, Wake Forest will be trying to finally break through against Virginia.
The Demon Deacons are winless against the Cavaliers in two meetings this season, losing 1-0 in the regular season and falling in penalty kicks after a scoreless game in the ACC semifinals.
Wake Forest is just the eighth school to advance to the College Cup in four consecutive seasons. The team's leading scorer, senior Zack Schilawski, gets to end his college career in his hometown.
"Obviously in 2007, probably the biggest moment of our careers took place on that field," Schilawski said. "It's a lot good memories and a lot of good moments, and we're excited to be back."
Wake Forest's inability to score against Virginia this season isn't unique. The Cavaliers, who have a 14-game unbeaten streak, lead the nation in goals against average (0.29). They have posted a school-record 11 consecutive shutouts and have not allowed a goal since Oct. 17, a span of 1,107 minutes, 34 seconds.
Akron, right behind Virginia in goals against average (0.30), also leads the nation in goals (2.5 per game). The Zips, who have tied the NCAA record for consecutive wins in a season, are seeking their school's first NCAA team title in any sport.
North Carolina, which won the 2001 College Cup, has claimed NCAA titles in field hockey and women's soccer in the past month. The men's soccer team enters the weekend with an eight-game unbeaten streak, including three consecutive shutouts.
"We are facing a team that knows what they're doing, and we try to claim the same thing for ourselves," North Carolina coach Elmar Bolowich said. "I'm just looking forward to a really good game and a really competitive game."
The ingredients are in place for three such games this weekend.
For the first time since seeding began in 1994, the top three seeds advanced to the final four. It's also the first time that four of the top five seeds reached the final weekend.
This group of semifinalists has the fewest combined losses (eight) of any final four since 1991.
"I honestly believe you have the four best teams here," Gelnovatch said. "Especially in our sport, it doesn't always work out that way. Hopefully that translates into some good, exciting soccer."