Chris’ Pac-12 Projections
10. Arizona State
11. Washington State
12. Oregon State
Stanford faced almost unspeakable cruelty in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season. In a typically tight match with rivals Santa Clara, Stanford stood on the edge in extra time and saw their fate changed when Andi Sullivan suffered an awful knee injury that would later be revealed to be a torn ACL. The Card would be shell-shocked and then eliminated when SCU scored not soon after. It was a heartbreaking end to a season in which Stanford had been the best team for so long. They began the year with six straight wins and were unbeaten in eleven before losing their only match of the regular season to USC. Downed in the process were sides like Florida, Marquette, Minnesota, that aforementioned Santa Clara side, and everyone in the Pac-12 but the Trojans. They had shown a little vulnerability throughout, but many felt that the Card were the best, most consistent team in the NCAA Tournament and had a great shot at glory, only to be dealt one of their most painful losses in program history.
The best news is that Sullivan is healthy enough to begin the season on the field for the Card, though she is undoubtedly going to have her minutes managed having torn that ACL in November. Stanford aren’t going to be cowed by their leader not playing ninety minutes though, as they’re absolutely loaded. Again. Sullivan, even if she’s not 100%, is one of the best to have suited up for the Card, which is high praise. A complete midfielder, Sullivan is the likely #1 pick in January’s NWSL Draft and has a bright future with the full USWNT. The other two in Stanford’s first-choice midfield essentially combined to form the college game’s top unit. Tierna Davidson is seen by many as the next big thing at Stanford and was simply phenomenal as a rookie here. Junior Jordan DiBiasi has a penchant for big goals and had seven overall last season to finish tied for second on the team and is only scratching the surface of her vast potential.
While the frontline does have to bid farewell to Megan Turner, there are plenty of returning weapons. Kyra Carusa isn’t a huge scorer in front of goal but still managed five and added ten assists as a well-rounded option up top. Michelle Xiao is a slashing type winger to add a different dimension to the frontline and also had seven goals for Stanford last season. Mariah Lee returns after missing all of last season and is a nice X-Factor based on previous potential. But the Card are, of course, welcoming another ridiculously talented rookie class to the Farm. Up top, Belle Briede, Madison Haley, Civana Kuhlmann, Sophia Serafin, and Catarina Macario are all in the frame to see major minutes as rookies. Opposing defenses will likely be most wary of Kuhlman and Macario given their vast reputations, but this group as a whole could be lethal with time. Paul Ratcliffe needs to find the right combo up top, but if he does, opposing defenses could get eviscerated.
There’s work to be done on defense given some graduation losses. The biggest loss is in goal, where the Card must find a way to replace superstar Jane Campbell, one of the most decorated netminders in program history. There’s no ready made superstar replacement, but Ratcliffe does have two capable options on paper. Junior Alison Jahansouz looks first choice given her filling in for Campbell when she was on international duty and serving a ban for a red card last year. However, sophomore Lauren Rood could be hot on her heels and could push her for minutes.
On the backline, All-American Maddie Bauer graduates, leaving a pretty big hole in central defense. Stanford look likely to fill it with only the second transfer in program history, with big time recruit Sam Hiatt coming from Boston College after one season. The other center-back is Alana Cook, who looks to be another in a long line of sensational center-backs to be churned out by this program based on two years’ evidence.
Out wide, left-back looks securely in the hands of Tegan McGrady, who can absolutely fly down the flank and has star potential over the next two seasons. Right-back is a much sorer subject, with the likes of Beattie Goad and Ceci Gee getting run outs there last year. The hope is probably that Kiki Pickett, an undersized rookie, but an absolute stud based on her youth club and international showings, can fill that spot. Serafin and Jojo Harber could also get looks on the backline if need be. Ratcliffe has another undoubtedly talented team that should not be lacking on motivation after how 2016 ended. They look like Pac-12 favorites and have another great shot at picking up their second national title if Sullivan returns to full health and enough rookies make an impact.
The offseason’s longest and strangest soap opera came to an end with UCLA seeing Mallory Pugh decide to go pro instead of sticking it out in Westwood. After one of the worst seasons in program history in 2015, the Bruins were under pressure to rebuild in a hurry last year. The Bruins would take a few knocks in losses to Florida and North Carolina early on, but they showed their potential with wins over Texas A&M and Penn State among others before league play kicked in. League play brought bright spots, such as wins over USC on the road but also some growing pains, with defeats to Colorado and Utah mixed in as well. When all was said and done, UCLA finished fifth in the Pac-12 but looked like a side nobody wanted to play in the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins showed why that was the case, beating Seattle and Nebraska by multiple goals to set up a huge showdown with West Virginia in the last sixteen. UCLA would give the eventual national runners-up all they could handle, only bowing out on penalties after a 1-1 draw in a match that showcased the long-term potential of this program.
That long-term potential might become a present reality in 2017 with another tremendous recruiting class making its way to Westwood. The hope has to be that some of those rookies are going to offset the loss of four starters for the club. The frontline in particular takes some major hits, as two of the team’s three leading scorers, Darian Jenkins and Amber Munerlyn, both graduate after combining for thirteen goals last year. Jenkins’ departure is a particularly difficult blow, as she looked on course for her best season as a collegian with seven goals in eleven matches before suffering a horrific injury that ended her college career.
The Bruins return just one player that scored more than three goals last year, but it’s a singular talent in Canadian wunderkind Jessie Fleming. Fleming missed the first few games of the season while playing at the Olympics, but she hit the ground running and scored eleven goals and added five assists while looking every bit the superstar she was touted as. Also impressive as a rookie was Anika Rodriguez, who may have been a bit wayward with her shooting but who was great setting teammates up with a team leading eight assists for the Bruins.
Beyond Fleming and Rodriguez, it’s a question of which of UCLAs’ bright young newcomers is going to make the biggest impact. The odds on favorite might be Ashley Sanchez, one of U.S. Soccer’s most promising prospects and a player who figures to be in the full USWNT mix before she leaves Westwood. The midfield gets its own injection of blue-chip talent with Marley Canales, who would have been here last year if she was not with the U.S. U20 team last year, as well as Viviana Villacorta, another strong prospect who could see a lot of time early. There are plenty of other dark horses here that would be surefire starters elsewhere, such as forward Issy Bellinghausen and midfielders Melanie Sheehan and Olivia Athens.
Defense has been a sore spot here for a few years, and though they improved last season, they were still rather average by Pac-12 standards. However, this group still has some young key pieces, meaning a breakthrough might just be around the corner. Junior Hailie Mace is a converted forward who still shows some of those roots on forays up the pitch but has a lot of potential and could round into one of the Pac-12’s best defenders with a little more seasoning at center-back. Joining her as an anchor is sophomore Kaiya McCullough, another highly thought of recruit heading into Westwood last year who stepped right in to solidify the spine of the UCLA defense.
The forecast at full-back is a little cloudier, with numerous contenders to fill the gaps, including Mackenzie Cerda, Jacey Pederson, Gabrielle Matulich, and Zoey Goralski, though there aren’t really any stars apparent from that grouping. This group also adds some great prospects as well, with Canadian starlet Kennedy Faulkner another potential star at full international level, as well as American Karina Rodriguez. Towering rookies Dani Satterwhite and Hannah Sharts probably aren’t going to displace either starting center-back, but they’re also both solid prospects who add nice depth here.
After a frightful 2015 in between the pipes, UCLA added some stability with Australian Teagan Micah last year. Micah’s still a little raw but has the potential to be one of the league’s better keepers.
Had Pugh stayed with UCLA, the Bruins probably would’ve been earmarked by many as a potential national title winner. They still might get there this year, but the elite talent might take some time to gel, which means UCLA will be fearsome but perhaps just short of the big prize at season’s end.
Cal’s existence for the past decade has been punctuated by a maddening inability to get beyond the opening few rounds of the NCAA Tournament despite having talented teams and access to a pipeline of some of the nation’s best youth players in California. While Cal has now made every NCAA Tournament since 2003, they also haven’t been past the second round since 2005 and have been knocked out in the first round in three of the past four seasons. Last year, the Golden Bears racked up ten wins in their first twelve, though they also didn’t get an RPI bump given the iffy non-conference strength of schedule. Cal would allay any fears about that early in league play, going 5-0-2 in their first seven and beating eventual national champs USC along the way. But Cal also seemed to hit a wall late, losing three of their final four in the regular season to sink to sixth in the league. Pepperdine were a tough opponent in the NCAA Tournament first round, but Cal took them to penalties before falling short.
This year’s Golden Bears side is likely going to have a very different look on offense thanks to a major chunk of last year’s attacking core graduating. The two big pieces that depart are the deadly frontline duo of Arielle Ship and Ifeoma Onumonu. Ship couldn’t match the pace of her junior season but was more efficient with her eleven goals last season. Onumonu shook off serious injuries in previous seasons to score ten goals herself and ended up being taken early in the NWSL Draft by Boston. Also gone is Emma Fletcher, an attacking midfielder with a lightning quick trigger who had four assists for Cal last season.
Nobody returning netted more than five goals, and just one netted more than three, meaning there’s a massive question as to where the goals are going to come from in 2017. There are high hopes for Abi Kim, who was the other member of Cal’s three-pronged attack last year and who had a solid season with three goals and three assists, though she figures to take on a much bigger role in the attack this season. The frontline also boasts newcomer Emma Westin, a Swedish youth international who could see major minutes early. It could be a bit more stable in midfield despite the loss of Fletcher. Veterans Kelly Fitzgerald, the team’s leading returning scorer, and Miranda Nild should provide some much needed experience, while Mia Corbin is another youngster with a ton of potential in her sophomore season. There are even more impact rookies in midfield, with U.S. U18 international Luca Deza one of the crown jewels of this class. New Zealand international Daisy Cleverley and Carolina Clark are also highly regarded rookies capable of contributions this year.
Cal’s defense is probably going to have to be the unit that leads it to victory while the offense tries to gel. The Golden Bears benefit from having senior Emily Boyd, one of the nation’s best goalkeepers as their last line of defense. A U20 international for the U.S., Boyd is a potential All-American as a senior and likely will hear her name called in the NWSL Draft if she chooses to go that route in January.
The best on the backline in front of her is likely going to be senior full-back Haley Lukas, who saw time on the left and right last year and was generally one of the league’s best defenders. The other full-back spot figures to be filled by Heather Walleigh, a converted forward who was a constant on the backline last year for the Golden Bears. Center-back could be a little less settled, as though senior Indigo Gibson returns for her fourth season, the other spot could be up for grabs with Lynsey Hromatko and Anna Mejia both departing. U.S. U19 international Emily Smith is one of the best defenders in this rookie class and could be an option, while fellow rookies Kailee Gifford and Kai Henderson have also been tipped for big things in Berkeley.
The Golden Bears are a bit tricky to project, as they have a rebuilding offense and a defense which could potentially be one of the nation’s best and most experienced. They’re largely going to be dependent on a great rookie crop coming in and impressing, but they look like a high ceiling side who could become even more fearsome in the next few years.
The Women of Troy marched to the top of DI last season, as USC won their second national title in domineering fashion. The Trojans were a sleeper for a lot of observers considering their growth under Keidane McAlpine, but few honestly expected them to be the last team standing in December. This was especially true once USC had lost their first two matches to Santa Clara and Long Beach State. But USC opened a lot of eyes on a ten match winning streak that featured multiple goal margins of victory in all ten, including triumphs over Pepperdine, Auburn, North Carolina, and Stanford. A few slip-ups in the league down the stretch meant USC would have to be content with second in the Pac-12, but they looked a dangerous side going into the NCAA Tournament. Texas A&M (after penalties), Utah, Auburn, and Georgetown all fell to set up a College Cup final showdown with West Virginia. USC would emerge victorious in one of the most thrilling finals in DI WoSo history, riding to victory to cap off an unbelievable season.
As great a job as McAlpine did last year, he and his staff might need to pull a giant rabbit out of the hat to repeat as national champions. The Trojans get gutted by graduation, as a conference high six starters graduate. In particular, the defense gets hammered, with Mandy Freeman, Savannah Levin, and defensive midfielder/full-back Kayla Mills all departing. Add in goalkeeper Sammy Jo Prudhomme’s graduation, and you’ve got quite the situation for the Trojans to handle. In goal, the club is likely to decide between senior Julia Murphy and redshirt freshman Kaylie Collins, though true freshman Emily Cuthbert is also highly rated.
The new anchor on the club’s backline is likely to be Ally Prisock, though she’s not a newcomer, having served two very accomplished seasons for the Trojans thus far. Also back is Julia Bingham, whose performance at full-back as a rookie allowed the club to move Mills to defensive midfielder, potentially changing the course of USC’s season early last year. Filling the gaps left by Freeman, one of the Pac-12’s best defenders of the decade, and Levin will be crucial. Dominique Randle returns as a fifth-year senior after missing last year through injury and should immediately contend for a starting spot given her quality. Other returnees who could make an impact include sophomore Ashleigh Plumptre and redshirt freshman Samantha Bruder. Rookie Tara McKeown is listed as a forward but played full-back in scrimmages and is considered an elite prospect, while Georgia’s Jessica Haidet isn’t far behind her in terms of freshman quality.
The attack takes some big hits as well. Katie Johnson wrote herself into USC lore with her goals on College Cup weekend and finished as joint top scorer with ten goals as a senior. Also gone is Morgan Andrews, who went out a champion after transferring from Notre Dame a few seasons earlier and also had ten goals for the club last season. Much of USC’s offense this season is likely to be based around the duo of Alex Anthony and Leah Pruitt. Anthony was a transfer from Maryland and was hyped as someone who could be the pure scorer USC needed going into last season. She fit the bill with ten goals, including four match winners and will like her chances of going from strength to strength this year. Pruitt’s probably more of a raw talent and was a super sub for most of the year after transferring from San Diego State but finished with four goals and eight assists herself.
There are many who could step up into bigger roles this year such as Nicole Molen, who netted five goals last year, Amanda Rooney, Sydney Sladek, and Sydney Johnson. The new names to watch are Savannah DeMelo, who delayed enrollment to play with the U20 World Cup team last year, and Arlie Jones, another very promising prospect who could make her mark early here.
Matching last year is probably going to be impossible for these talented but reloading Trojans. They should still be good for a nice Pac-12 finish and a few NCAA Tournament wins, but deeper progress could be dependent on many new stars coming to the fore in L.A.