BY IVES GALARCEP
The 2014 college soccer season kicks off today and while Notre Dame heads into the new campaign wearing the crown, several teams look ready snatch it off of the heads of the Fighting Irish.
The reality of the new college season is that there is no clear-cut favorite, no juggernaut comparable to the 2008 Maryland team or 2010 Akron side that finished undefeated. There are a half dozen teams that you can call title contenders, and as many as a dozen teams with strong chances of reaching the College Cup semifinals this season.
The Pac-12 will once again feature some powerhouses, with UCLA and Washington leading the charge out west. Some conference shifting has perennial powers Notre Dame (ACC) and Maryland (Big 10) playing in new places, against newly-minted rivals.
Conference title races will be fun to watch, as well the continued growth of some outstanding pro prospects in the college game, like UCLA’s Leo Stolz and UConn’s Cyle Larin and Washington’s Cristian Roldan. MLS scouts will have their eye on a draft class that should yield some good defender and midfield options in 2015.
So which teams are the best heading into the 2014 college season? Here is the SBI College Soccer Top 25:
SBI COLLEGE SOCCER TOP 25
Led by midfielder Leo Stolz and defenders Michael Amick and Aaron Simmons, the Bruins will be balanced and deep. If a reliable goal scorer emerges, the Bruins can finally live up to high expectations after disappointing in recent years.
The Hoyas graduated star forward Steve Neumann, but still boast forward Brandon Allen, goalkeeper Tomas Gomez and defender Joshua Yaro among others. This Georgetown team is deep, boasts one of the best midfields in the nation, and should make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
The Terrapins lost Hermann Award winner Patrick Mullins, who leaves a major void, but with one of the nation’s most dynamic goalkeepers in Zack Steffen, and one of the nation’s best defenses, the Terps should enjoy a strong first season in the Big Ten. Finding someone to help replace Mullins’ goal production will be what ultimately determines if the Terps can win another NCAA crown.
Losing a star goalkeeper like Andre Blake is never easy, but the Huskies return enough key pieces to actually field a stronger team in 2014. Led by standout forward Cyle Larin, strong central defender Sergio Campbell and senior playmaker Adria Beso Marco, UConn has the weapons to finally break their streak of exiting the NCAA Tournament in the quarterfinals.
The Huskies lost some key players, including flip-throw specialist Michael Harris, but when you boast arguably the best playmaker in the nation (Cristian Roldan) and arguably the best goalkeeper in the nation (Spencer Richey), you are going to be a force. The Huskies also feature Seattle Sounders Academy product Darwin Jones, a speedy forward who will terrorize Pac-12 defenses this season, as well as skilled central midfielder James Moberg.
6. NOTRE DAME
The defending champs return the bulk of their starters from the national championship team, but the one player the Fighting Irish did lose was star forward Harrison Shipp. His creativity and explosiveness will be sorely missed, but Notre Dame will still be a force. Senior midfielder Nick Besler is a strong presence in the middle of the park, while junior midfielder Patrick Hodan will be tasked with filling the void left by Shipp’s graduation.
7. NORTH CAROLINA
The Tar Heels aren’t receiving as much consideration as some other teams in the ACC heading into the new campaign, but UNC is very much a team poised for a big year. The defensive duo of Jonathan Campbell and Boyd Onkwuonu is as good as any in the nation, and the return from injury of forwards Andy Craven and Robbie Lovejoy will provide a significant boost to the attack. Sophomore forward Omar Holness is another attacker to keep an eye on.
The Cavaliers enjoyed a surprising run deep in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, and return many of the key figures behind that run. That includes attackers Eric Bird and Darius Madison, as well as sophomore forward Riggs Lennon.
9. MICHIGAN STATE
The Spartans reached the Elite Eight in last season’s NCAA Tournament, but are poised for a potentially deeper run thanks to the return of midfielders Jay Chapman and Fatai Alashe, one of the best tandems in the country. Senior forward Adam Montague is a handful, while Virginia transfer Zach Carroll should help fill the void in central defense left by the departure of Kevin Cope.
The defending Big East champions shouldn’t surprise anybody, but they probably deserve more consideration as an NCAA title darkhorse. They boast a dangerous forward in C. Nortey, a strong midfield led by Louis Bennett, and a defense anchored by 6-foot-7 junior Axel Sjoberg. Throw in standout goalkeeper Charlie Lyon, and the Golden Eagles could wind up much higher on this list by season’s end.
13. NEW MEXICO
16. COASTAL CAROLINA
17. UC IRVINE
19. PENN STATE
21. GEORGE MASON
22. WAKE FOREST
23. CAL-STATE NORTHRIDGE