The plots to watch in NCAA this season.1. Development Academy Influence
College soccer teams are beginning to see the influx of Development Academy players on their rosters this season. On one hand, it is a positive thing as players entering the NCAA level have more experience against higher level talent. For instance, Harrison Petts (Indiana), Soony Saad (Michigan) and Martin Ontiveros (Akron) will all be expected to make an impact in their freshman campaigns due to success at the Development Academy level. On the other hand, a handful of schools have lost out on a recruit because they signed early with MLS through the academies. Not to suggest that is a bad thing for player development, just to imply it has altered the make-up of recruiting.
2. Foreign Prominence
The top pick in the last two MLS SuperDrafts have come from African descent (Steve Zakuani and Danny Mwanga). Most schools across the nation have a few players of African descent on their rosters. It has shifted the dynamic of college soccer to a point -- more and more players are tactically strong with good technique, the days of long balls up front with a big physical forward to bowl people over are slowly dying. Meanwhile, the changing demographic of the players is an often unspoken dilemma of programs. Players from other countries are staking claim to more scholarships than before and the quality of play is increasing. While some programs have built successful programs with domestic talent, others have pursued untapped resources in other countries, it is a developing story-line in NCAA ranks.
3. Favorites to win it all
Entering the 2010 season, there are question marks surrounding every team in the top 10. The top teams from last season all lost players to the draft early. Akron lost their prolific forward, Teal Bunbury, and midfield anchor, Blair Gavin. Virginia lost their midfield general, Tony Tchani. Wake Forest lost their defensive stalwart, Ike Opara. North Carolina didn’t lose any players early, but they lost Zach Loyd, Brooks Haggerty, and Jordan Graye to graduation. All were key contributors to their defense last season. Not to say these teams won’t be back at the top by the time December rolls around, but there are questions that remain unanswered as to how they will fill holes. Akron is the odds-on favorite to lift the title in Santa Barbara, but in the last decade, Indiana is the only school with a repeat trip to the final in consecutive years.
4. Dillon Powers
The Notre Dame center midfielder enjoyed a very successful summer with the U.S. U20s. Now, he is back in South Bend and looking to return the Irish to prominence. A lot of eyes will be on the center midfielder from Texas as he remains a slowly dying breed -- U.S. U20 players still in college. Zac MacMath, goalkeeper from Maryland, is another player on this list. With the emergence of the Development Academy and MLS home grown rule, this might be the last U20 cycle where key contributors to the national team still play in college.
With both UCSB and Akron already selling over 500 season tickets, it might be the year we see rising attendance numbers at college games across the country. The last three seasons, UCSB has led the country in attendance at around 3,400 per game. With over 25 teams averaging over 1000 a game in attendance, ticket sales have been slowly going in the right direction for college teams. For the selective few who have not seen a college soccer game at one of the rabid stadiums (Akron, Cal Poly, Maryland, UCSB, etc) do yourself a favor and go see one this season. Intimate atmosphere, crazy fans, and passionate players, it is a great experience for any soccer or sports fan.
6. Will the West Rise Again?
With the College Cup in Santa Barbara this year, there is more pressure on a California school to step up and make the final four than ever before. UCSB and UCLA are the likely candidates as each has enjoyed success in the tournament in the last decade. Also, Stanford have a realistic shot at making the trip down the coast in December. The dominance by the ACC in the last few Final Fours have unmistakably staked their claim to the title as top conference in the country. If the PAC-10 has any hope of remaining close to the discussion, they are going to need to put at least one team (read: UCLA or Stanford) in the Final Four.
7. Recommended Viewing
Here are a handful of games to mark on your calendar for the upcoming season:
- Wake Forest vs Akron, Sept. 5: two of the best coaches in the nation square off in an early season game. Both teams will be showcasing new pieces in what should be one of the best games of the year.
- Wake Forest-Virginia, Sept. 18: the defending champions open their ACC campaign with one of the toughest games on the schedule.
- Tulsa-Akron and UCSB-UCLA, Sept. 24: A double header on the 24th with Akron facing off against a team that gave them a very tough test last season. Out West, a battle of the California schools should be as charged as ever. UCLA ended UCSB’s season last year and, frankly, these two teams just don’t like each other.
- Maryland-Duke, Oct. 1: a clash that could go a long way to securing the ACC title for one of these squads. Plus, any game in College Park is worth your two hours of time.
The new regime is in place, but there won’t be any patience from the fans of this program to rebuild. New coach, Todd Yeagley, knows all to well the pressures of the Hoosier faithful; his father’s name is on the field his team plays on. The younger Yeagley might already be feeling a restless crowd after a disappointing preseason loss to Xavier. A lot is expected of this team in Yeagley’s first year in charge, it should be an interesting plot to watch develop in Bloomington.
9. Sleeper Teams
Last season, Drake went on an impressive run in the post-season and advanced to the Elite Eight. In 2008, Northwestern emerged from Big Ten sleeper status to Elite Eight power behind victories over Notre Dame and Akron. Almost every year, there is a team that gets hot at the right time and takes advantage of a soft bracket. While that is difficult to predict prior to the tournament field being set, here are a couple of teams not in major conferences to keep an eye on:
Not a surprise pick as Tulsa have been knocking on the door the last few years. With a heavy contingent of returning players, and a challenging schedule, Tulsa is set up for a deep post-season run. Other teams to keep an eye on are Monmouth and Butler. Monmouth has the post-season experience now and should have no problem booking their ticket back to the tournament this Fall. Butler is a very stout defensive team, which teams could have trouble breaking down.
Of course, there are the rather popular names of Zac MacMath (Maryland, GK), Bobby Warshaw (Stanford, DEF), Michael Farfan (North Carolina, MID), and Darlington Nagbe (Akron, FWD). There are also players a bit further off the beaten path to keep an eye on including:
- Rafael Baca, midfield, LMU: He is one of the few players in the country who opposing teams game-plan against. Baca reminds me a bit of Irving Garcia sans some of the pace but with better vision.
- Anthony Ampaipitakwong, midfield, Akron: is the creative mind who runs the Akron offense. If he decides to pursue a professional future in MLS, he will definitely be among the first names taken off the board in January.
- Brent Richards, forward, Washington: Richards really stamped his place on this list following a very impressive PDL season, PDL MVP and Rookie of the Year. He will be looking to duplicate that form in his junior year with the Huskies.
J.R. Eskilson is the youth soccer editor at Goal.com. Follow him on Twitter @NCAAsoccer and join Goal.com USA's Facebook fan page!