Some of the unheralded teams across the country worth following in the fall
University of Central Florida: 2010 was a historic year for the Knights. They finished with a six-win improvement from the previous year and a second-round appearance in the NCAA tournament.
Beyond the positive results, the Knights play a beautiful blend of the game. With short interchanging passes and quick transition into attack, UCF is one of the best teams in the country to watch from a neutral perspective.
Next year, with many key components back in place, they should make an even bigger splash in the post-season. They have the speed to match dynamic teams and the physicality to go toe-to-toe with the aggressive sides.
Florida Gulf Coast University: After an undefeated regular season in the Atlantic Sun in 2010, the Eagles were ineligible for the post-season due to a NCAA reclassifying period. That period ends in 2011 when the Eagles will be eligible for conference and NCAA tourney berths.
They return 10 starters, including keeper Adam Glick, who was the defensive player of the year in the A-Sun. Up top, the Eagles bring back freshman striker Ryan Price, who had six goals in his debut season.
Bolstering the roster next year are two standout recruits in Yianni Sarris and Xavier Silva. Both players have experience in U.S. youth national team camps and play in the Development Academy.
Washington: Not necessarily an unknown program, but the Huskies are shaping up to have one of their best seasons in recent memory in 2011. They lose five seniors from their 2010 season, but return freshman keeper Spencer Richey and leading scorer Brent Richards.
The caveat to Washington on this list is they are currently without a coach. Former head coach Dean Wurzberger resigned on Dec. 12, 2010 and the search for his replacement is on-going.
The empty manager seat also throws a wrench into the stream of recruits heading to Seattle, including prized striker Vilyan Bijev. If Bijev does stay with UW and the Huskies find an adequate replacement for Wurzberger, this program has all the tools necessary to challenge UCLA for Pac-10 supremacy in 2011.
Denver: Next year’s challenge for head coach Bobby Muuss is replacing senior keeper Joe Willis, which will be a difficult task. Beyond that, he has a very strong core returning, including Goal.com freshman first team center back Blair Jeralds and attacker Jarod Stigall. With a new stadium, motivated coaching staff, and solid returning contributors, the Pioneers will be a tough team for anyone to face in 2011.
East Tennessee State University: The Buccaneers were thrilling to watch in the post-season in 2010. With last-second goals and a nearly remarkable comeback against College of Charleston in the first round of the NCAA Tourney that just fell short, the Bucs always kept fans on the edge of their seats.
With only one senior on the roster in 2010, the vast majority of the Bucs will be back in the fall and looking to expand on their successful season from the previous year. However, they will be challenged for league dominance by another team making this list, FGCU.
Cal Poly: Every handful of years, the Mustangs border on reaching national attention. Last year, they drew some acclaim for their home attendance, specifically against UCLA and UCSB.
In 2011 that acclaim will be for the play on the field; the Mustangs have been active in the recruiting game, landing prized recruit Steve Palacios, a member of the U.S. U18 national team pool.
Combined with a solid returning group (namely Patrick Sigler and George Malki), the Mustangs will be in the discussion to challenge the UCSB Gauchos for the Big West title in the fall.
Old Dominion: Goal.com contributor Jake Ullrich provided the insight to the 2011 Old Dominion team: “The Old Dominion Monarch’s introduced themselves on the national stage last season when they shocked defending nCAA National champions Virginia 1-0 in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"During the 2010 regular season, the Monarchs knocked off then-second-ranked North Carolina 2-1 at home, both goals from speedy freshman Gideon Asante.
"Asante was one of 19 underclassmen on ODU’s roster, a reason to believe the Monarchs will only improve in the 2011 season. With a solid recruiting class and the loss of three seniors, only one of which was a regular starter, shows the Monarchs could be an exciting team to following in the coming season.”
Virginia Commonwealth: Second year head coach Dave Giffard is changing the identity of the Rams one season at a time. Last year, he brought in a handful of recruits and transfers to exemplify his style of play. This year, he has 10 players lined up to join his squad. Giffard, a former Akron assistant coach, knows how to recruit and play attractive soccer, making the Rams a delightful team to watch.
ACC: Duke is the team to watch in the ACC this fall with their ridiculously strong recruiting class and significant returning starters. The ACC will also be boasted by NC State hiring one of the finest head coaches in the country, Kelly Findley. The Wolfpack could be in the title hunt before you know it.
College of Charleston: The high-pressure strike force and dynamic attack made the Cougars a nightmare for many teams last season. Do not expect any of that to change with three of the top four scorers on the roster returning.
The defense will get a shot in the arm via a strong recruiting class that includes athletic outside defender Tanner Clay.
High Point: When you show up to a Panthers game, you are pretty much guaranteed one thing: goals. The Panthers were only shutout once in 2010 on their way to a 9-1-0 home record and top five scoring offense in the nation.
The Big South finalists’ attack will only get stronger in 2011 with the addition of one of the Development Academy’s leading scorers, Mamadee Nyepon, to their roster.
J.R. Eskilson is the Youth Soccer editor at Goal.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @NCAAsoccer
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