By J.R. Eskilson
College soccer is a bit of a fickle pastime to understand for the casual soccer fan. The easiest description is to say that it is a third or fourth division of United States soccer (no promotion) with players between the ages of 18-23 that are not financially compensated, but represent universities across the country. An exotic system to comprehend, but it can be a fun league to follow.
Let’s start with some terminology to get everyone familiar with college soccer:
NCAA: National Collegiate Athletic Association. Head organization of college sports in America. It is the same as UEFA to Europe.
Conference: The same as a league in Europe. Most conferences are geographically based.
Hermann Trophy: The Heisman Trophy for soccer, or the Ballon D’Or for college.
NCAA Tournament: Similar to the Champions League, except it only occurs at the end of the season. Winner of the playoff formatted event is called champion of NCAA for the year.
To further the understanding of NCAA soccer, in this preview the conferences have been broken down alphabetically with a blurb about the top teams in the upcoming season, player(s) to watch, and a comparison to a UEFA league to give an idea of the level of the conference.
America East Conference
The oft-forgotten Northeastern conference is not one of the top conferences in college soccer, but Boston University are putting together an impressive team that is poised to make a run in the NCAA tournament this year. Boston University will see 10 of 11 starters return from last year and is the clear favorite to repeat as league champion. Vermont have a good class coming in, but is still a year away from challenging for the regular season title.
Player to watch: Michael Bustamante, Sophomore, Midfield, Boston University.
Comparison to UEFA: Ukraine Premier League. There are some solid teams in this league that play sound, defensive soccer. There was only one goal scored per game in league play last season, so don’t expect the score-lines to be high.
Schools: Albany, Binghampton, Boston University, Hartford, New Hampshire, Stony Brook, UMBC, Vermont.
Three teams from the Atlantic 10 made the NCAA tournament in 2008 (Dayton, Saint Louis, and Massachusetts). Only Saint Louis was able to advance to the second round. Dayton are the pre-season favorite to win the conference, but this league is more competitive and open than it seems. A talented Saint Louis side that brought in thirteen new recruits this year could be the team to watch.
Player to watch: Andy Stadler, Senior, Midfield, George Washington.
Comparison to UEFA: Turkey Superliga. Just on a scale of what tier to place the A-10, this is a realistic expectation for this season. Saint Louis are always dangerous, but it's hard to believe a team that young will advance far in the NCAA tournament.
Schools: Charlotte, Dayton, Duquesne, Fordham, George Washington, La Salle, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Richmond, St. Joseph’s, Saint Louis, St. Bonaventure, Temple
Atlantic Coast Conference
The. Best. Soccer. Conference.
ACC has won four of the last nine championships, and produced some top talent lately (Charlie Davies, Marcus Tracy, Omar Gonzalez, Sam Cronin, Rodney Wallace). It truly is the gem of college soccer. This season, North Carolina is the pre-season favorite, barely edging out Virginia (by one first place vote). Both teams are very skilled and capable of being in Cary, North Carolina, in December for the NCAA championship. Wake Forest is always one of the most skillful sides in NCAA, so it can never be counted out. Maryland, the reigning NCAA champions, is in this conference too. The team may have lost quite a few players to Major League Soccer, but still boast Matt Kassel in midfield and Zac MacMath in goal, and should still challenge for the title.
Players to watch: (Some players will miss time to play for the USA U-20s)
Ike Opara, Junior, Defender, Wake Forrest.
Corben Bone, Junior, Midfielder, Wake Forest.
Billy Schuler, Sophomore, Forward, North Carolina
Andrew Wegner, Freshman, Midfield, Duke.
Comparison to UEFA: England Premier League. ACC will always have teams in the final four, much like the EPL in the Champions League.
Schools: Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Maryland, North Carolina, NC State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest.
Atlantic Sun Conference
There is not much MLS talent found in the ASC, but there is attacking soccer and goals to be seen. Jacksonville University is the pre-season favorite to win the title after a dramatic conference tournament win last year. However, Campbell hasn’t lost a league game in two years. It is going to be a battle at the top for the one birth to be had to the NCAA tourney.
Player to watch: Miguel DaSilva, Junior, Forward, Lipscomb
Comparison to UEFA: Norwegian Premier League. Not among the top conferences in the country with a few teams that occasionally stir up interest with a late post-season run.
Schools: Belmont, Campbell, East Tennessee State University, Florida Gulf Coast University, Jacksonville, Lipscomb, Mercer, University of North Florida, University of South Carolina-Upstate, Stetson
Big East Conference
The largest conference in the land is broken into two divisions during league play, red and blue. Notre Dame is the clear-cut favorite to win the blue division. Notre Dame head coach, Bobby Clark, is one of the best coaches in the land, and he seems to have the right blend of talent in South Bend for a magical season. St. John’s, fresh off a Final Four berth in the NCAA tournament, is the team that should come out as the winner of the red division. The Red Storm is returning nine starters from last season and is hopeful to duplicate a Final Four run in 2009.
Player to watch: Bright Dike, Midfield, Senior, Notre Dame.
Comparison to UEFA: Bundesliga (Germany). Technically proficient players that are generally solid, but lack the championship pedigree of Big Ten or ACC.
Schools: Blue: Connecticut, Georgetown, Marquette, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh, Providence, Seton Hall, West Virginia. Red: Cincinnati, Depaul, Louisville, Rutgers, St. John’s, Syracuse, USF, Villanova
Big South Conference
Winthrop is the repeating champion in the league and is followed by Coastal Carolina, which has produced a few MLS players in the past. This is a small conference that is a long shot whenever a team reach the NCAA tournament. Winthrop is a good team, and Coastal Carolina usually have very fast players that are dangerous going forward, but there is not much merit to the rest of the league.
Player to watch: Matthew Skonicki, Midfield, Senior, Winthrop.
Comparison to UEFA: Liga I Frutti Fresh (Romania). Lower profile league with a few notable sides.
Schools: Coastal Carolina, Gardner-Webb, High Point, Liberty, Presbyterian, Redford, UNC Asheville, VMI, Winthrop.
Big Ten Conference
Indiana is the pre-season favorite and one of the top teams in the nation. It faces an incredibly challenging schedule this year with games against St. John’s, Wake Forest, and Akron. If Indiana can stay healthy through the season, there is no reason to doubt that it could be a final four team. Northwestern was a very solid squad last year and will challenge Indiana for the league title. Michigan State could be in the race too, if things fall its way.
Player to watch: Mark Blades, Defender, Senior, Northwestern
Comparison to UEFA: Serie A (Italy). This is a very physically demanding league, but there are very defensive teams and a rich history of titles.
Schools: Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State, Wisconsin.
Big West Conference
This is the most exciting league in the nation. There is no argument that it is not as skilled as the ACC, but the parity in the league with the highly competitive games make it impossible not to be a fan of the Big West. UCSB has been the top dog in the conference for a handful of years now, but UC Davis, Cal Poly, and UC Irvine are very capable teams that could all make the NCAA tournament and push UCSB for the regular season title. Combine the tactics, speed, and skill with the rabid fans and clearly the Big West is a fan favorite for the casual soccer fan.
Players to watch: Irving Garcia, Forward, Senior, UC Irvine.
Patrick Sigler, Defense, Sophomore, Cal Poly.
Comparison to UEFA: Portuguese Liga. The teams are extremely difficult to beat at home in the NCAA tournament (best conference attendance in the nation).
Schools: Cal Poly, Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Northridge, UC Davis, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, UC Santa Barbara
Colonial Athletic Association
George Mason is the odds-on favorite to repeat as conference champion. This year it is returning six starters, although the starting XI lost mostly defenders, which could cause chemistry issues with three freshmen starting. The team is led by one of the top coaches in the nation, Greg Andrulis, and has senior Sean Kelley playing 'keeper. North Carolina-Wilmington could be the sleeper pick of the conference with ten returning players, including the offensive player of the year, Devan Carroll, and defensive player of the year, Indy Smith.
Player to watch: Devan Carroll, Forward, Senior, North Carolina-Wilmington.
Comparison to UEFA: Erste Liga (Austria). Occasionally, a team from CAA will make a run in the NCAA tournament, but for the majority, it is a solid league with a couple of decent teams.
Schools: Delaware, Drexel, George Mason, Georgia State, Hofstra, James Madison, Northeastern, Old Dominion, Towson, UNC-Wilmington, Virginia Commonwealth University, William and Mary.
There are five players on the Hermann Trophy watch list from this conference. It is indicative of the amount of quality players that can be found here. Kentucky has been the bridesmaid of the conference four years in a row and has a very strong side that should be close to the top again. Tulsa and South Carolina will likely be challenging all season long.
Players to watch: Ashley McInnes, Forward, Junior, Tulsa.
Barry Rice, Defender, Senior, Kentucky.
Comparison to UEFA: Eredivisie (Netherlands). There is always a player in this league that is on the national radar, and rightfully so: skillful and tactical performers emerge here.
Schools: Florida International University, Kentucky, Marshall, Memphis, SMU, South Carolina, Tulsa, University of Alabama-Birmingham, University of Central Florida.
University of Illinois-Chicago is the pre-season conference favorite and among one of the best teams in the nation. After reaching the third round of the NCAA tournament last year, UIC will be looking to build on that success this season, but Loyola was the regular season champion last year and should offer a challenge to the favorites.
Player to watch: Jovan Bubonja, Goalkeeper, Senior, UIC.
Comparison to UEFA: Russian Premier League. Top players that could take this league to the next level.
Schools: Butler, Cleveland State, Detroit, Green Bay, Loyola, Milwaukee, UIC, Valparaiso, Wright State.
Dartmouth is the early favorite to win the league and repeat as champion. The Big Green is capable of that, with eight returning players, and has put together a challenging schedule that takes it from coast to coast. It should provide the team with the experience that will have them ready for a late season NCAA tournament run. Harvard and Princeton are the two other teams to keep an eye on in this conference. Harvard has prized forward Andre Akpan, and Princeton has a surprisingly good class coming onto campus in the fall.
Player to watch: Andre Akpan, Forward, Senior, Harvard.
Comparison to UEFA: Allsvenskan (Sweden). Players don’t go to the Ivy League for the quality soccer, much like tourists don’t go to Sweden for the soccer; it is just a quality consolation.
Schools: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, Yale
Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference
Loyola (MD) is the favorites in this conference and is probably going to be underrated nationally. The rest of the conference is playing catch up. After starting the year with eighteen wins last season, Loyola should be able to do it again. The opponents are not challenging, weak conference, and a weak out of conference schedule.
Player to watch: Jamie Darvill, Forward, Senior, Loyola (MD).
Comparison to UEFA: Jupiler League (Belgium). A league that is typically dominated by an average side.
Schools: Canisius, Fairfield, Iona, Loyola (MD), Manhattan, Marist, Niagara, Rider, Saint Peter’s, Siena.
Say hello to the Akron Zips. It is an incredibly talented team about to put its name in the national spotlight. Head coach Caleb Porter has done a tremendous job of bringing top talent to the Ohio college and this season’s recruiting class is no different. Widely regarded as the top recruiter in the land, Porter will be looking for a new star to replace the recently departed Steve Zakuani. The other six sides in the league will be in a nice battle for second.
Player to watch: Anthony Ampaipitakwong, Midfield, Junior, Akron.
Comparison to UEFA: French Ligue 1. Akron is Lyon with a top class brought in, and will likely run away with the title and hide.
Schools: Akron, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Florida Atlantic, Hartwick, Northern Illinois, Western Michigan.
Missouri Valley Conference
Tied for the top conference with Hermann Trophy watch list candidates, MVC is a powerful conference with a couple sides that should be making noise in the NCAA tournament. Creighton is the pre-season favorites, and were NCAA quarterfinalists in 2008. Drake could be an obstacle in its quest to repeat as league champions, as Drake returns ten starters from last season’s side.
Player to watch: Chris Schuler, Defense, Senior, Creighton.
Comparison to UEFA: Scotland Premier League. There is more parity in MVC than SPL, and Creighton is capable of going further in the NCAA tournament than any SPL team will go in CL, but the leagues are about at the same level in terms of popularity and respect.
Schools: Bradley, Creighton, Drake, Eastern Illinois, Evansville, Missouri State.
Mountain Pacific Sports Federation
Denver is a good team that has had two very good recruiting classes in a row. New Mexico is the other team in this league that could have potential, but neither is a likely threat to be in the NCAA tournament past the first round.
Player to watch: Sam Garza, Forward, Sophomore, Denver.
Comparison to UEFA: Danish Superliga. Good possession league that actually does knock the ball around fairly well. There are a few good teams here, but not one team that screams that it will be a factor in the late rounds of the NCAA tournament.
Schools: Air Force, Denver, New Mexico, Sacramento State, San Jose State, University of Nevada Las Vegas.
Monmouth is the four time defending regular season champion and favorite to repeat the feat again this year. Farleigh Dickinson is the defending tournament champion, and has a fairly skilled side. Those are the two sides that could be in the NCAA tournament.
Player to watch: Samson Malijani, Forward, Senior, Farleigh Dickinson.
Comparison to UEFA: Bulgarian A Professional Football Group. Not one of the top ten conferences in the nation, but there are some players here to keep an eye on for their prospects as professionals.
Schools: Bryant, Central Connecticut State, Farleigh Dickinson, Long Islan, Monmouth, Mount St. Mary’s, Quinnipac, Robert Marris, Sacred Heart, St. Francis (NY), St. Francis (PA).
Never underestimate the worth of the PAC-10. California is the pre-season favorite, but lost goalkeeper extraordinaire Stefan Frei to MLS. UCLA is dangerously good, but hasn’t been able to put together a consistent season lately. If Michael Stephens comes back to UCLA after the U-20s, it should be the team to beat from the west.
Players to watch: Michael Stephens, Midfield, Senior, UCLA.
Andrew Wiederman, Forward, Junior, California.
Comparison to UEFA: La Liga (Spain). Great coaches? Check. Skillful players? Check. Underachieving team (UCLA/Real Madrid)? Check.
Schools: California, Oregon State, San Diego State, Stanford, UCLA, Washington.
Colgate is the pre-season favorite to repeat as three-time champions of the Patriot League. The main competition is American University, but Colgate currently has two Hermann Trophy watch list players in its attack and should be the best offense in the conference.
Player to watch: Kyle Miller, Forward, Sophomore, Holy Cross
Comparison to UEFA: Grambrinus Liga (Czech Republic). It is fair to say that these teams are occasionally going to win out-of-conference games, but they will not be a factor in the late rounds of the NCAA tournament.
Schools: American, Army, Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Lafayette, Lehigh, Navy.
Clint Dempsey and Ricardo Clark once blessed the fields of the Southern Conference, yet this league has never brought back an NCAA title. Furman and Elon are very good programs that seem to be doing well with bringing talent to their schools, but until they prove their worth in the actual tournament, it is hard to give this league a fair ranking.
Player to watch: Justin Wyatt, Forward, Senior, Elon.
Comparison to UEFA: Super League Greece. Watch the league, you will see good players. Just no one outside the conference will believe that until they make it the big stage.
Schools: Appalachian State, College of Charleston, Davidson, Elon, Furman, Georgia Southern, University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Wofford.
UMKC won the league last year and should do it again this year. It is returning six starters and twelve players overall, so there is plenty of experience to go around on this team. Oakland, the runner up last season, has a new coach and only three returning players. This is going to be a rebuilding year for the Golden Grizzlies.
Player to watch: Bryan Perez, Midfield, Senior, UMKC
Comparison to UEFA: Prva HNL (Croatia). UMKC could actually be a good team in the NCAA tourney, but the conference is weak.
Schools: Centenary, IPFW, IUPUI, Oakland, Oral Roberts, UMKC, Western Illinois.
West Coast Conference
There are a few teams in this conference that are worthy of a fan's time. Most of the teams are undervalued, and for the most part, will underperform, but there is always a possibility that the right parts could come together and one of these talented sides could make some noise. San Francisco is the favorite picked before the season, but it should be a three-team race with Santa Clara and Loyola Marymount joining the chase for conference champion.
Player to watch: Conor Chinn, Forward, Senior, San Francisco.
Comparison to UEFA: Ekstraklasa (Poland). Good enough league, sometimes it makes you wonder if it should get more recognition, yet it has failed to produce recently on the big stage.
Schools: Gonzaga, Loyola Marymount University, Portland, Saint Mary’s, San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Clara.
J.R. Eskilson covers college soccer for Goal.com
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