USWNT – U.S. Eases Past New Zealand in Front of 30,596 in Cincinnati

wnt

The USWNT had few problems topping New Zealand on Tuesday night in front of a massive crowd in Cincinnati. Here are a handful of talking points:

1. Horan Doesn’t Need Ninety – Lindsey Horan may have just come on as a sub after Rose Lavelle’s homecoming cameo, but her impact was unmistakable in less than a quarter of an hour. A classy looping header off a Sam Mewis cross over NZL keeper Erin Nayler was a gorgeous opener, but putting a pass on a slide rule for Mallory Pugh to finish minutes later to double the U.S.’ lead was just as stunning. It’s a bit overwhelming to think that Horan is just twenty-three years old, the equivalent of some NWSL collegiate rookies or second-year players, yet also a player who has looked well on her way to making the leap towards stardom given her club and international form. While the competition for time in central midfield is deep with Carli Lloyd, Lavelle, and Morgan Brian amongst Horan’s rivals, her form and growth is making it harder to justify keeping her on the bench to begin.

2. Morgan’s Hot Streak Continues – It was aided by some self-inflicted wounds, including some particularly criminal defending and goalkeeping on the first out of the halftime break, but Alex Morgan’s Summer of Goals continued in earnest on Tuesday, with two venomous strikes early in the second half. Erin Nayler should have done better with Morgan’s first at the near post, but her second, crashing off the underside of the bar was nigh-unsavable. Morgan’s health has been a frequent worry over the past few seasons, to the point that some were wondering if she was first choice up front any more for the USWNT. However, Morgan has stayed healthy for much of the year and has been crucial in the impressive displays for the U.S. this past week as well as arguably being the difference for Orlando in their late playoff run. There are few in the world with Morgan’s finishing ability when in form, a fact she’s reiterated over the past few months. Said ability will be crucial again as the U.S. looks to defend their crown in France in 2019. Continue reading

NCAA – Chris’ Bracketology – v1.0

(Next update: After September 22 matches)

As always, take with a giant but ever decreasing grain of salt as the season goes along. Seeds in parentheses, auto bid winners listed with asterisks. Auto bid winners currently teams with highest RPI in conference but will shift to conference leaders as teams cross point of having played half of league matches.

Bubble Watch will begin in early October.

AAC – (1) UCF*, Cincinnati, Memphis, SMU
ACC – (1) North Carolina*, (2) Wake Forest, (2) Duke, (3) Virginia, (4) NC State, Clemson, Notre Dame, Virginia Tech
America East – New Hampshire*
Atlantic 10 – Saint Louis*
Atlantic Sun – Florida Gulf Coast*
Big 12 – (2) West Virginia, (4) Texas*, Kansas, Baylor
Big East – Marquette*, Georgetown, Butler
Big Sky – Montana*
Big South – Radford*
Big Ten – (3) Wisconsin, (4) Rutgers, Purdue, Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern, Indiana
Big West – Long Beach State*
CAA – College of Charleston*
C-USA – Rice*
Horizon – Milwaukee*
Ivy – (3) Princeton*
MAAC – Monmouth*
MAC – Kent State*
MVC – Loyola (Ill.)*
NEC – Bryant*
OVC – Murray State*
Pac-12 – (1) Stanford*, (3) Washington, UCLA, Cal
Patriot – Navy*
SEC – (1) South Carolina*, (2) Florida, (4) Tennessee, LSU, Ole Miss, Alabama, Vanderbilt, Texas A&M
Southern – Furman*
Southland – Lamar*
SWAC – Mississippi Valley State*
Summit – South Dakota State*
Sun Belt – Coastal Carolina*
WAC – Texas Rio Grande Valley*
WCC – Loyola Marymount*, Pepperdine

Last Eight In: Indiana, Baylor, Texas A&M, Northwestern, Ohio State, Butler, SMU, Vanderbilt
Last Seven Out: Utah, Washington State, Mississippi State, Florida State, Maryland, Colorado, Boston College

Multi-Bid Conferences

8 – ACC, Big Ten, SEC
4 – AAC, Big 12, Pac-12
3 – Big East
2 – WCC

NCAA – 2017 Big 12 Preview

Chris’ Big 12 Projections

1. West Virginia
2. Texas Tech
3. Texas
4. Baylor
5. Kansas
6. TCU
7. Oklahoma
8. Oklahoma St

9. Iowa St
10. Kansas State

Last year, West Virginia finally shed their tag of being the best program in DI women’s soccer to have never reached the College Cup. In reality, the Mountaineers came achingly close to lifting their first national title but fell just short against USC in the final. The Mountaineers opened up their 2016 campaign with eight matches unbeaten, including wins against Clemson and at Duke before an extra time loss to Georgetown. It was WVU’s last loss in a long, long time as they ran the table in the Big 12 before winning three more matches in the Big 12 Tournament to do another league-conference tournament double. The Mountaineers’ NCAA Tournament road would be an adventure, as they needed extra time in the second round to beat Ohio State, penalties to down UCLA a round later, and a mighty defensive effort to take out Duke in the Elite Eight. WVU would overcome North Carolina in the College Cup semi-final before running up against USC in the final and giving a valiant effort in defeat. It was a painful end to what had otherwise been a brilliant season.

The Mountaineers will go into the 2017 season with nine starters returning, but it’s the two that don’t that could be tough for WVU to overcome. Gone are Canadian internationals Kadeisha Buchanan and Ashley Lawrence, who were two of the NCAAs best players last season and two of the brightest hopes for their nation’s footballing future. The offense is hit particularly hard by Lawrence’s departure, as the midfielder led the club with ten assists last season while also chipping in with four goals to the WVU cause.

With Lawrence gone, the offense now likely revolves around Michaela Abam, a potential first round pick in January’s NWSL Draft. Abam chipped in with twelve goals and nine assists last season but is also a high volume shooter whose efficiency can suffer at times. There are plenty of other intriguing weapons for the Mountaineers. Sh’Nia Gordon had a breakout season as a sophomore and netted seven goals, second most on the team last year. Senior Heather Kaleiohi also had six goals as she locked down a starting spot for most of the season. The key though could be senior midfielder Carla Portillo, a silently brilliant midfielder who’s been overshadowed by Lawrence here for the past few seasons. Portillo had five goals and seven assists last season and is a good bet to have a big jump towards stardom this season at WVU. Newcomers could make their mark as well, with Heather Kaleiohi’s sister, Malia, a highly rated prospect in midfield, with New Zealand youth international Issy Coombes another contender for early minutes in the middle of the park.

Overcoming Buchanan’s departure on defense isn’t going to be easy either. Buchanan has emerged as one of the world’s preeminent center-backs and was worth her weight in gold as a four-year superstar on the backline for WVU. The Mountaineers do return the other starters on the backline though, meaning this unit isn’t about to drop off a cliff. It seems likely that the surest thing at center-back in Buchanan’s wake is Canadian junior Easther Mayi Kith, who started every match on the backline for WVU last season. The other center-back spot is a mystery, with Carly Black graduating and Dalanda Ouendeno transferring to Miami (FL).

The full-back spots are probably a little more settled with a veteran Canadian connection. Amandine Pierre-Louis actually finished third on the team in shots and can play an attacking role as well as a converted forward. Bianca St. Georges missed about half the season on international duty but remains a steady presence at the back as well. WVU brings in some cover in the form of English youth internationals Lois Joel and Grace Smith who could both work their way into the rotation early on in their WVU careers.

In goal, Rylee Foster should be the undisputed #1 after splitting time with Michelle Newhouse, who transferred to East Carolina in the offseason. Foster is a Canadian youth international and missed a chunk of last year at the U20 World Cup but has outstanding potential to develop into one of the nation’s best keepers.

This West Virginia side will be hard pressed to repeat a trip to the national title match as last year’s side accomplished. However, there’s still a ton of talent on display, meaning WVU are again Big 12 favorites and could make a solid run in the NCAAs.

Few will argue that luck wasn’t with Texas Tech in 2016. The Red Raiders got a fortuitous berth to the NCAA Tournament despite having what looked to be on paper a pretty hollow resume. They’d started out non-conference play well enough, but a draw with a middling Arizona side and 4-0 loss to Cal at home probably revealed much about this TTU side as league play approached. The Big 12 season itself was a nightmare in most respects, as Tom Stone’s side won just one of their first seven, a big win over Iowa State that probably factored into their NCAA appearance. They needed a result in their regular season finale against Oklahoma to just make the Big 12 Tournament and held out for a nervy 1-0 win against the Sooners to claim the #8 seed. Most thought TTU’s goose was cooked after a 3-0 loss to WVU in the Big 12 Tournament considering their awful league performance and dearth of non-conference results, but the Red Raiders were spared and netted an at-large bid. Hopes of a dark horse run in the NCAAs died early, the club losing to Utah in the first round.

The Red Raiders will take heart in knowing that last year was largely a rebuilding effort after the loss of some big hitters, and ten starters returning makes the Lubbock side immediately interesting in the topsy turvy Big 12. It seems crazy for a Tom Stone team and this TTU program in particular, but the Red Raiders’ offense was painful last season, netting just five goals in the league and twenty overall. The club had to replace Janine Beckie’s offense up front, but even with some big time recruits, the task proved a difficult one. Just one player netted more than three goals last season, that being sophomore Jade King, who scored six times but needed a whopping seventy-shots to get there. King clearly needs some help, but the question is where is she going to find it amongst the returners. Rebekah O’Brien was second on the team in shots but isn’t really a true attacking player despite three goals last year, while Jordan Duke’s return of one goal on thirty shots was a big disappointment.

The hope has to be that sophomore Jordie Harr can continue to develop this year after coming into Lubbock as a highly touted prospect last season. Harr missed six games though and finished with two goals and three assists, so the Red Raiders will be hoping for a complete season this year with more production on the stat sheet. Junior Gwennie Puente didn’t make a big dent in the stat sheet but still returns as one of the league’s best midfielders. Much may depend on the club’s addition of Kirsten Davis, a U.S. U20 international who could make a big impact early in the attack. Other newcomers with early potential here include forwards Ally Griffin and Brianna Stewart and midfielder Macy Chilton.

Defensively, Texas Tech probably had one of the league’s better sides last year. However, the Red Raiders could face an uphill climb to match 2016’s pace defensively without the graduated Lauren Watson in goal. Watson was seldom mentioned in the ranks of college WoSo’s superstar keepers, but she was solid enough here in her time as the club’s starter. It would be a surprise if the gloves weren’t passed down to rookie Marissa Zucchetto, a Canadian youth international who has featured extensively for her nation at U17 level and who could become this program’s next great keeper. The backline takes a few hits through graduation as well, with Meagan McCullough and Jade Dapaah graduating. Among the returning candidates at full-back are Gabbie Puente, Cassie Conarty, Margaret Begley, and Cassie Boren. Boren and O’Brien could also factor in at center-back, along with fellow returners Brooke Denesik and Mary Heiberger. TTU also adds some newcomers to boost the ranks as well, with Californian Alexis Rushlow a player who could make a difference early here.

My projections think the Red Raiders have a good shot of rocketing back up the table this season thanks in no small part to a great recruiting class. If the rookies can make a big impact, don’t count this team out of making a little run in the NCAA Tournament either. Continue reading

NCAA – 2017 Pac-12 Preview

Chris’ Pac-12 Projections

1. Stanford
2. UCLA
3. Cal
4. USC
5. Washington
6. Arizona
7. Utah
8. Colorado
9. Oregon
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.
Continue reading

NCAA – 2017 SEC Preview

Chris’ SEC Projections

1. South Carolina
2. Texas A&M
3. Florida
4. Vanderbilt
5. Arkansas
6. Auburn
7. Tennessee
8. Alabama
9. Missouri
10. Ole Miss

11. Kentucky
12. Mississippi State
13. Georgia
14. LSU

2016 was almost a complete dream season for South Carolina. The Gamecocks would draw on opening night against Oklahoma but then won eighteen matches in a row, taking down the likes of NC State and Clemson before SEC play and everyone in their path en route to the SEC Tournament. Maintaining that kind of excellence for such a long period did wear on the club though, and it wasn’t really a shock to see them lose closely to Florida in the tournament semi-finals. SC didn’t get an easy road to the College Cup getting drawn against great Colorado and BYU teams for their regional but edging past both on the way to the Elite Eight. But despite a valiant effort against North Carolina with a spot in the College Cup on the line, the Gamecocks came up just short in a 1-0 defeat in Columbia. It was an unfortunate end to an amazing season that had seen South Carolina put up a perfect league season and break records at the box office thanks in no small part to their success on the pitch.

There are definitely reasons to expect SC to tail off a bit this season. Gone are six starters, tied for most in the SEC. But Carolina’s fortunes may be more about who is here than who isn’t, as they return one of the best attackers in the country in Savannah McCaskill. McCaskill’s growth has been incredible over the past few years, with the senior netting seventeen goals and adding in eleven assists to go with them last season. McCaskill’s profile has risen to the point that she has been in to train with the full USWNT and will likely be an early pick in January’s NWSL Draft.

Where else the goals are going to come from is a massive worry for the Gamecocks though. The club’s next four top scorers all depart, meaning Carolina doesn’t have a single player other than McCaskill that netted more than two goals last season, with the loss of Sophie Groff and Chelsea Drennan, who combined for seventeen goals and sixteen assists, particularly tough to overcome. It might be up to newcomers to help charge up the attack this season. Freshman Breukelen Woodard is probably the heaviest hitter of the rookies and could get early minutes in midfield. The attack could rise and fall with the addition of Meaghan Carrigan though. Carrigan scored twenty-seven goals for Richmond in her career there but never reached the ceiling of her potential because of injuries. If healthy, she could be the transfer signing of the season, but SC could be in trouble if Carrigan can’t get amongst the goals.

The potential one-dimensionality of the attack means there’s going to be more of an emphasis than ever on the SC defense. Fortunately, the Gamecocks have constructed more than one rock solid defense over the years. Part of that starts from having a strong spine through deeper midfielders, with returnees Lindsey Lane and Dominique Babbitt massively important figures both from an experience standpoint as well as from a talent perspective. As is the case with the frontline, the backline also gets rocked with graduation attrition. Gone are center-backs Kaleigh Kurtz and Paige Bendell and right-back Evelyn Robinson, creating a massive void of experience that Shelley Smith and her staff are going to be scrambling to compensate for. The one returner on the backline that started last year is Anna Conklin, the club’s left-back, who’ll need to be huge while the rest of the defense finds some chemistry.

A key will be a pair of highly rated additions. Rookie Jackie Schaefer is a U.S. U17 international and may need to step into big minutes right away. Sophomore transfer Grace Fisk stepped in admirably for Penn State last season and joins the team after the conclusion of the UEFA U19 Championship and should be a prime candidate for a starting spot as well.

The Gamecocks have been strong in goal more often than not over the years, and Mikayla Krzeczowski is another huge asset for the club after looking spectacular as a rookie. Her mettle will be tested again this year with a new look backline.

Carolina is a polarizing side according to my projections. Their star duo up front and in goal might be enough to lead them to SEC glory if they get enough from last year’s reserves and newcomers. But there’s also a very real downside with so many new moving parts, meaning this year might be more about coaching and system than anything else in Columbia.

2016 appeared to be set up for a big year for Texas A&M. The Aggies were coming off getting to the Elite Eight with a young squad that was returning most of its personnel for 2016. However, reality intervened in inconvenient ways. Ally Watt was chosen for the U.S. U20 team and redshirted as a result. Injuries piled up. And the side which had played beyond its years in 2015 suddenly dealt with some serious growing pains. The Aggies entered league play in a world of hurt, with their best result a victory at home over Rice, meaning there was serious work to do to bolster their RPI. But after two wins over league bottom dwellers LSU and Georgia, the Aggies hit a brutal stretch of six without a win in the league. They’d recover to win their last three in the league, but despite beating Auburn, most felt the Aggies needed a few wins on Orange Beach to keep their NCAA Tournament streak going. They’d beat Alabama but lose to South Carolina, with their RPI dropping to an extent that most felt they were dead and buried. However, not only did A&M get an at-large bid, they got a great draw as well, being sent to NCAA Tournament rookies TCU. The Aggies would win that one and take eventual national champion USC to the limit before losing on spot kicks, which seemed utterly implausible considering Texas A&M’s superhuman record on penalties over the past two decades.

With eight starters and the returning Watt back, it’s easy to look at this Texas A&M team as one that could challenge for a spot in the College Cup, especially given the depth of talent in attack. This Aggie side scored just twenty-seven goals last year, a number that seems almost sacrilegious on paper considering the attacking history in College Station. The number one weapon amongst the returners is likely to be junior Haley Pounds, leading returning scorer last year with eight goals, though her numbers were an ugly five in sixty-five shots if you factor out penalties. Pounds hit double digits a season before, so the talent is there, but she needs a bit of a sharper edge in front of goal.

And some help. Watt might be looked to to provide some of that help after earning her stripes as a super sub at the U20 World Cup last season. Watt scored seven goals as a true freshman in 2015 and has pace to burn but also was a bit inconsistent in that rookie season. Junior Emily Bates could ultimately be an important figure again, as the Aggies often floundered with her out of the lineup through injury. She netted five goals despite that and could be the straw that stirs the drink in 2017 for the Aggies.

More than likely though, this attack could live and die with the contributions of Mikaela Harvey in midfield. The SEC’s resident l’enfant terrible is a wizard with the ball at her feet and space to roam but also was wasteful with her shooting last year with two goals on forty shots. With a full complement of attackers to work with this year, including sophomore standout Grace Piper added to the above, she could be set for a seismic senior season. Unsurprisingly, A&M has also done their part to add even more weapons from this freshman class. The big names are Abby Grace Cooper on the frontline and Addie McCain in midfield, though it could be tough to squeeze into the starting lineup given the returning talent. Also in the mix are Sophie Salverino and Rheagen Smith, giving A&M an injection of young depth on the attack.

It’s not so cut and dry for the Aggies on defense, especially with the club in flux in goal. Danielle Rice went from a transfer who was deep on the depth chart to a cult heroine here after saving A&M’s bacon in between the pipes countless times the past few years. She graduates, and the club loses Mia Hummel to a transfer, meaning the Aggies have two new keepers in 2017. The favorite might be Olivia Ausmus, a U.S. U18 international and highly regarded freshman. The wild card is junior transfer Cosette Morche, an absolute giant at 6’2” but a largely unknown commodity after toiling for two seasons on an insipid Louisiana-Lafayette team. A&M churns out great goalkeepers as well as any program in the nation, so they’ll likely be fine, but there could be some growing pains early.

The backline could be a bit of a puzzle as well. Margaret Schmidt and McKayla Paulson look set to return at center-back after being the first choice pairing last season, though the Aggies might also see Florida State transfer Briana Alston in the mix for major minutes as well. Out wide, Kendall Ritchie returns at left-back, though the club has to find a new right-back with the graduation of Grace Wright. It remains to be seen who emerges with the job, with a returnee likely to get the nod. Though the number of defensive newcomers is much smaller than on offense, the addition of Mexican youth international Jimena Lopez could be worth watching. A&M looks like the top of the class in the SEC this season and should be in the running for silverware once more.

They should win multiple games in the NCAA Tournament but need some stars to emerge in the defense and a breakout season from one of their attackers to still be standing on the final weekend of the season.

It was the same old song for Florida in 2016, for better and for worse. The Gators were largely dominant in stretches in the regular season. A win at UCLA early was indicative of the quality on hand, but the Gators then conspire to lose two of their first three in the SEC. They’d rally with seven wins in their final eight to land in fourth in the final table. While that was undoubtedly disappointing considering Florida’s usual station in the SEC, they made up for it with a run to an SEC Tournament title by beating Missouri (on penalties), South Carolina, and Arkansas. With fresh momentum, some suspected that the Gators could be a contender to reach the College Cup. They started out well, beating Florida Gulf Coast and then getting past Wisconsin in extra time in a thriller. Florida would come up against an Auburn team they had lost to 3-0 in the regular season, thirsting for revenge. They wouldn’t find it. A 3-1 loss was a bitter end to their season that had begun with College Cup promise.

The Gators face the end of an era with the graduation of Savannah Jordan. Jordan finished out with sixteen goals as a senior, finishing with eighty-one for her career to seal her place in history as one of DI’s best ever in front of goal. Losing Jordan hurts, but the club also loses the club’s playmaker in chief, Meggie Dougherty Howard, as well. Dougherty Howard was joint second leading scorer here with eight goals but was more known for pulling the strings, leading the club with twelve assists from central midfield.

Often, the Gators have just churned out more stars once others have graduated, and there’s certainly no shortage of potential on Florida’s roster in the attack this year. The next great Florida midfielder might be junior Mayra Pelayo, who has shown glimpses of brilliant talent through two years but hasn’t been able to put it together consistently. Pelayo netted four goals and had eight assists and could be the Gators’ creative influence, either in the middle or out wide. The club’s leading returning scorer is Melanie Monteagudo, who picked up an efficient eight goals, despite not event starting half of UF’s matches last season. Other returners who could see major minutes include the junior trio of Briana Solis, Samantha Chung, and Sarah Troccoli.

As expected, UF fortified their attack with some promising additions. The highlight is Canadian international Deanne Rose, one of the biggest signings in recent memory here and widely thought of as a future star for her nation. Rose has heavy expectations coming in to Gainesville but could be a replacement for the scoring of Jordan in time. The Gators also bring in some intriguing transfers, with former Kansas midfielder Parker Roberts now eligible after redshirting last season while at the U20 World Cup, and Brazilian JUCO transfer Lais Araujo, another potentially prolific weapon. True freshmen Madison Alexander and Lauren Evans come in with less plaudits but still a solid amount of potential and could fight their way into major minutes here.

Defense has never particularly been Florida’s calling card, but they were among the SEC’s best. At least in league play. But the Gator rearguard actually has a lot of upside this season, as they were a bit young last year. The most intriguing piece is senior Gabby Seiler, a converted attacking midfielder who has slotted in as a “libero” type center-back with license to roam from the back. While it remains to be seen if Seiler’s future is truly on the backline, she helps build play in the customary Florida style and can punish teams who aren’t willing to press from the front and can also play as a full-back if necessary.

Senior Kristen Cardano will occupy the other center-back spot in all likelihood and had a nice season last year as well and could turn into one of the league’s steadier options in central defense. Out wide, Julia Lester figures to be the favorite at right-back, having netted three goals and three assists as a rookie. The other full-back slot could be a free for all, with Sara Wilson, Rachelle Smith, and Sammie Betters having all seen starting duties there last year. Florida has also fiddled with a 3-5-2 in recent years, which could open things up even more given the interchangeability of much of their personnel.

In goal, Kaylan Marckese has shown potential but also inconsistency and could potentially face a challenge from sophomore Susi Espinoza, who did indeed start UF’s opener against Florida Atlantic.

The Gators probably aren’t going to be SEC favorites, but they still have a sneaky amount of quality on display. Their postseason hopes probably rest on a few players making “the leap”, but they’ll still be solid enough to beat most SEC foes this season.
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NCAA – 2017 ACC Preview

Chris’ ACC Projections

1. Florida St
2. North Carolina
3. Duke
4. Virginia
5. Notre Dame
6. Louisville
7. NC State
8. Clemson

9. Syracuse
10. Boston College
11. Wake Forest
12. Virginia Tech
13. Miami (FL)
14. Pittsburgh

For the first time since 2010, Florida State’s season didn’t end in the College Cup. In fact, the Notes’ second round exit in the NCAA Tournament was their earliest exit since 2004. It was an altogether weird year for FSU, as they beat the likes of Texas A&M and UConn in non-conference play but also lost in stunning fashion to South Alabama, one of the very few losses to a mid-major in program history. Then in league play, FSU endured a stretch of just one win in four matches that included a shock draw at Syracuse. A three match win streak that included victories over NC State and Duke put FSU in with a chance of winning the ACC title on the final day of the season, However, the Noles would fall to North Carolina, dropping them into a tie for fourth in the standings. FSU would conjure up some of their postseason magic in the ACC Tournament, beating Duke on penalties, topping Clemson, and then edging past UNC on spot kicks to lift another tournament title. Hopes of repeating that run in the NCAAs were broken by a second round loss to Utah that was hardly a fluke, as the Utes proved more than a match for an off-song FSU side.

Anyone hoping for Florida State to continue to stay out of the College Cup conversation is going to be disappointed. The Seminoles were still incredibly young last season, and they return ten starters from last year’s squad, tied for the most in the ACC. The offense was hit and miss at times last season, with nobody finishing last season with more than seven goals scored. However, that could change in a major way this year, with a ton of attacking potential for these Noles. On the frontline, FSU boasts one of the world’s most promising prospects in the form of Deyna Castellanos. The Venezuelan missed almost half of the season through international commitments, but she likely would have finished with double digit goals had she been with the club all season and remains a talent capable of spectacular things. There are also high hopes for Irish international Megan Connolly, who couldn’t quite match her unreal rookie season, but still scored seven goals as an attacking midfielder and is one of the game’s top midfield prospects.

The underrated Kaycie Tillman, dangerous as a winger, also returns following a three goal, five assist return, and could be set for a breakout season in the FSU attack. Big forward Kristen McFarland also muscled her way into starting minutes and scored a handful of goals in the first half of the season last year and could be a big factor with a little more consistency.

If all of that offensive muscle wasn’t enough, FSU adds a ton of new talent to their attacking corps. Adrienne Richardson is a U.S. U17 international and one of the best forwards in this rookie class. Angeline Daly and Claire Griffiths are two more highly touted prospects who should fortify the midfield. On the international front, FSU adds their customary big names, with few more hyped than Gloriana Villalobos, a Costa Rican international who could follow in Raquel Rodriguez’s footsteps and turn into a DI player of some renown in the midfield. Of equal reputation might be Canadian international Gabby Carle, another midfielder who has seen a burgeoning reputation as another of her nation’s young and promising prospects. It’s less a question of if Florida State has the quality in midfield and attack and more of an issue of the Noles can find the right mix, though they certainly do not lack for options.

While FSU is naturally getting a lot of attention from a wide set of newcomers in the attack, the defense is mostly the same group that took the pitch last season. The one exception is the graduation of Kirsten Crowley, the club’s All-American center-back who continued a long line of fantastic central defenders to have come through Tallahassee over the past decade. Florida State likely won’t be cowed though, as they return another All-American at the other center-back spot in Natalia Kuikka. The only junior to win All-America honors last year, Kuikka is a converted attacker who turned into a brilliant central defender and will again be looked at as a key defender here.

Out wide, Florida State could have two of the best full-backs in the nation. Senior Emma Koivisto is already one of Finland’s brightest prospects and has continued the FSU tradition of having fearless full-backs capable of zipping up and down the line to aid in the attack. Malia Berkely was also an absolute star here as a rookie, one of the best freshmen in America and may be tabbed to answer the pressing question of who starts alongside Kuikka at center-back given her size and skill. The center-back vacancy could also fall to another newcomer, English youth international Anna Patten, part of a golden generation of youngsters reigniting her nation’s fortunes.

FSU will be rock solid in goal as well, returning the nation’s best keeper in senior Cassie Miller and also add great depth with East Carolina’s starter last year Caroline Jeffers and rookie Brooke Bollinger, who reclassified after being one of the top keepers in the 2018 recruiting class.

Florida State looks absolutely loaded with talent going into the 2017 season. They’re deserved favorites to win the ACC and should be on the shortlist of national title contenders if the offense can gel together many talented parts.

A year after a shocking NCAA Tournament exit, North Carolina returned to the promised land, even with a squad that faced injuries and absences during the season and the loss of dependable seniors to graduation before it. The Heels certainly started out well, with a six match unbeaten run that included a win at UCLA. But UNC also faced a challenging period of just one win in five including a stunning 3-0 loss at eventual champions USC. Carolina would turn it around later in ACC play to finish tied for fourth in the league and topped Virginia and Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament before losing a heartbreak on penalties to Florida State in the ACC Tournament final. The defense would clamp down in the NCAA Tournament as they grinded out wins against Liberty, Kansas, and Clemson to put them on the verge of unit another College Cup. The Heels would overcome South Carolina on enemy territory to make it to the final weekend of the season, where West Virginia awaited. UNC fell just a bit short, but had still gone a long way in erasing the postseason nightmare of just one year earlier.

The bar is much higher this season for the Tar Heels. There are injury returns, redshirt returns, and another super recruiting class to raise expectations to the point that UNC should be on the shortlist of national title contenders this year. Not that there aren’t losses to overcome, as the defense and midfield in particular take some hits. In the middle of the park, the club loses key deep midfielder Darcy McFarlane, as well as winger Cameron Castleberry.

Among the returners from last year’s squad, senior Megan Buckingham is among the most intriguing. A winger, Buckingham has teased hints of stardom for three years but showed signs of breaking through last year with four goals and six assists. There will also likely be major minutes for attacking midfielders Annie Kingman, team leader in assists with eight last year, and Dorian Bailey, another year removed from a 2015 ACL tear. There’s big hopes for Joanna Boyles in midfield, coming back from two ACL tears. When Boyles is healthy, she’s been an electrifying presence in the middle of the park with deadly skill on set pieces.

Added to the mix is Emily Fox, a U.S. U20 international expected to make a massive early impact here. Up top, Carolina went without a ten goal scorer last year but probably won’t for a second straight season. Bridgette Andrzejewski was a hit as a rookie here, scoring nine goals and looking like a potential top scoring option the club has been thirsting for. There could be big roles as well for Zoe Redei, who endured an injury interrupted rookie season but looked quality when healthy, and super sub Madison Schultz, who was lethal off the bench. There are plenty of incoming options for UNC as well. Rookies Alea Hyatt, Taylor Otto, and England’s Alessia Russo are all big talents who could get major minutes early.

The return of Jessie Scarpa might be the biggest addition of all though, as she was a revelation as a sophomore with eight goals and eight assists in 2015 before missing last season with the U20 World Cup. Anson Dorrance has almost unlimited options for his front seven (or six), but finding the right mix could be a challenge with so many new and returning pieces.

The defense could be a bigger worry going into the new season. Gone on the backline is the graduated Hanna Gardner, while the Heels suffered another huge blow when Maggie Bill was ruled out for the season. Down two starters, UNC will be hoping for more from junior Julia Ashley, one of the nation’s most underrated defenders and the next in a line of great professional defensive prospects to be churned out in Chapel Hill. Who joins her on the backline is a major question. Otto, as well Maya Worth, who saw action on the frontline last year, could be options on the backline for Dorrance. The arrival of Lotte Wubben-Moy, one of England’s best youth prospects, could be a huge boon if she shows the form of her appearances at international level at U17 and U19 levels. Promising domestic rookie Brooke Bingham could also be pushed into major minutes given the needs on the backline for UNC.

It’s a year of transition in between the pipes as well, as Lindsey Harris graduates following a brilliant senior season in which she stood on her head on more than one occasion to keep the Heels in matches. A program with many a talented keeper over the years, UNC has one this season. As in just one keeper: Samantha Leshnak. The Heels don’t have an established backup, meaning it’s going to be all Leshnak, all the time, for better or for worse given her relative inexperience.

Carolina has plenty of weapons, the envy of most of the nation, and should be able to put together one of the elite attacks in DI with a little luck. But the defense has more questions than answers right now, and though UNC is in the top tier of teams in 2017, it could leave them just short of the big prize.

Injuries are often the first and easiest excuse coaches reach for when a season starts to go haywire. But Duke and their head coach Robbie Church had a legitimate grievance with the injury bug, which ravaged their side in 2016. Rebecca Quinn never got healthy after returning from the Olympics with Canada. Kayla McCoy went down before the halfway point of the season. Taylor Racioppi was lost just a few games after that. It was nigh-incredible that the Blue Devils did as well as they did, beating the likes of Big Ten double winners Minnesota in the non-conference schedule, before going to within a point of an unlikely ACC title. They’d suffer a heartbreaking loss to Clemson to see them fall just short of a share of the title. There’d be no joy in the ACC Tournament either, as Duke bowed out in the quarterfinals to Florida State after penalties. Though some might have believed that the Blue Devils had ran out of gas, they went on to prove that their reputation as serial overachievers in the NCAA Tournament was well deserved. Charlotte and Illinois State fell first, but Northwestern was the first real big test, which was passed with flying colors. Duke would fall just short against West Virginia in the Elite Eight, but considering the challenges faced by the club on the injury front, it had been another stellar season in Durham.

Time heals all wounds, and it’s brought the above injury victims back to full health and put the Blue Devils back amongst the favorites to make it to Orlando and the College Cup. Which isn’t to say that Duke doesn’t have some losses to compensate for, as they do lose three starters from last year’s squad. The biggest losses come in the attack, with the loss of midfielder (and defender) Christina Gibbons looming largest. Gibbons did a little bit of everything in her Duke career, but she was more of an attacking force last year, scoring four goals (mostly from the penalty spot) and leading the team with eight assists en route to All-America honors and ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Also departing is Toni Payne, a counter attacking marvel who hit opponents for nine goals and six assists as a senior.

The returning firepower is plentiful. Many eyes will be focused on senior Imani Dorsey, who has upped her scoring total in each of her three seasons with the club and had seven assists to go with her seven goals last year. Last year’s breakout star was rookie Ella Stevens, who came into Durham as one of the nation’s most coveted recruits. She more than lived up to the hype with ten goals to lead the team while also adding six assists. If there’s not a sophomore slump, Stevens is a potential All-American. It’s the returners who could ultimately make or break Duke’s season. Racioppi was being tipped as a potential Hermann Trophy candidate last year after a blazing rookie season. The New Jersey native chose to forego a chance to return to the U20 team for the U20 World Cup and had three goals and five assists through roughly half the season before being lost for the year. If healthy, Racioppi is one of the nation’s best attacking midfielders. Duke also will be counting on McCoy’s return this year to give the club a top level threat on the frontline. McCoy had been brilliant as a rookie and was solid last year before injuring her Achilles’ which is not an easy injury to come back from, meaning a return to peak form isn’t guaranteed.

All of which makes the incoming Blue Devil rookie class that much more important. Church has helped turn Duke into a recruiting juggernaut, and this year is no different. Tess Boade and Gabi Brummett look to continue the program’s long string of having rookies come up big early in their careers, but the player to watch might be Tennessee native Karlie Paschall, long regarded as one of this class’ best overall prospects.

Duke looks solid on defense despite the loss of veteran Lizzy Raben. Raben’s graduation might be offset by the return of Quinn to the lineup. The Canadian international is an elite prospect but has serious red flags on her due to durability concerns exacerbated by the fact that Quinn hasn’t made it through a single college season healthy yet. If she does stay healthy, she can be one of the best defenders in the country, though she could also be used as a defensive midfielder.

There are plenty of other contenders to fill the other backline slots. Schuyler DeBree recovered from an ACL injury in 2015 to start every match last season and could be set for her best year yet a further year removed from that injury. Out wide, Morgan Reid and Chelsea Burns look most likely to start and return with the pair combining for six assists last season. The sleeper might be sophomore Mia Gyau, a heavily tipped player coming into Durham last season who saw time in both midfield and defense and who is an intriguing attacking option at full-back. Added to the mix are rookies Caitlin Cosme and Taylor Mitchell, two more promising prospects who should give Church even more options for his backline.

The goalkeeping situation could bear some watching as well. EJ Proctor would appear to be a safe #1 option going into the season given her showings in goal over the past few years. But the Blue Devils also have Brooke Heinsohn on the roster now, a mountainous 6’1” keeper who is a U.S. U20 international and likely didn’t sign with Duke to play second fiddle to anyone. How Church manages the situation is another tasty subplot going into the new year.

The Blue Devils are again loaded with veteran talent, returning talent, and new talent. They’re easily a top ten team and could be potentially much more if all the pieces fall into place.
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NCAA – 2017 Big East Preview

Chris’ Big East Projections

1. Georgetown
2. DePaul
3. Butler
4. Saint John’s (NY)
5. Marquette
6. Villanova

7. Xavier
8. Providence
9. Seton Hall
10. Creighton

Most believed that Georgetown were going to have a very good season in 2016 with a talented core of returners, including some of the nation’s best players. But few probably believed that that season would extend into the final weekend of the season. That’s perhaps less of an indictment on the Hoyas as it is the modern DI WoSo landscape, which is predominantly tilted towards “Power Five” conference teams. An early season 3-0 loss to Stanford at home didn’t exactly reveal the Hoyas to be hotly tipped for a title challenge either. But they rounded into form as the weeks passed, racking up big wins over Rutgers, Virginia, and West Virginia. Given the Hoyas surge in non-conference play, a Big East title appeared easily attainable. But Georgetown would struggle for consistency and ended up in a shock third place when all was said and done. The Hoyas would put it together in the postseason though, winning three matches to win the Big East Tournament before taking down Saint Francis (PA), Rutgers, Virginia, and finally Santa Clara to advance to their first College Cup. USC would edge them out in the semi-final, but it had still been an unbelievable campaign for a program that has grown exponentially in the past decade.

With the loss of three key starters, it might be hard to replicate that College Cup season, but the Hoyas still have a ton of talent. The biggest of which is senior Rachel Corboz, who has done a more than convincing job of filling her sister Daphne’s shoes with GU, and given last year’s heroics, perhaps eclipsing her legend. Eleven goals and sixteen assists was a stunning return, with Corboz netting at least one goal or assist in six straight postseason matches at one point. At this point, it’s about surrounding Corboz with enough offense to ensure she’s not triple-teamed out of matches.

This is hardly a sure thing, as the club’s two other top scorers others than Corboz graduate, with the twenty-five combined goals of Grace Damaska and Crystal Thomas both gone after each had tremendous senior seasons. The hope has to be that Amanda Carolan, a revelation here with ten goals on just twenty-seven shots, can avoid a sophomore slump and take on more of the scoring responsibility. Others like junior Caitlin Farrell may need to have a big breakthrough for the Hoyas’ offense to not skip a beat.

That turnover on offense might mean an increased emphasis on GU’s defense, which gave up the fewest goals in Big East play last year. This unit also takes a big hit though, as All-American and Big East Tournament Defensive Most Outstanding Player Marina Paul graduates after a typically brilliant season. GU does return a cadre of veterans who could slot in on the backline though, including Drew Topor, Elizabeth Wenger, and Taylor Pak. The Hoyas also add some nice recruits in the form of Lauren Hess and Kelly Ann Livingstone, who could work their way into the lineup quickly. In goal, Georgetown took a risk on Arielle Schechtman, who was unimpressive at UCLA, an watched her blossom into a fine goalkeeper at this level. She should again be a big asset for the Hoyas’ defense which will be in a tiny bit of flux without Paul anchoring it.

The Hoyas probably won’t be able to replicate last year’s College Cup run given some of their losses, but this is still a dangerous team. A Big East title should be within their reach, as could a nice NCAA Tournament run.

If DePaul and the NCAA Tournament selection committee hadn’t become permanent enemies before last year, that might be the case now after another controversial omission of the Blue Devils from the Big Dance. The Blue Demons captured a share of another league title, but the club’s lack of creditable non-conference results would prove fatal in the end, as they would win just one of their first seven. DePaul would win seven of their first eight once league play rolled around, though they ceded important ground in the RPI and a share of the league title by losing on the last day of the regular season to Marquette. The Blue Demons knew that their NCAA Tournament fate might depend on their Big East Tournament performance, which made the shootout defeat in the semi-finals to Georgetown a crushing one. Despite having beaten and technically drawn a Hoyas side that was #7 in the RPI heading into Selection Monday, the Blue Demons were one of the highest profile snubs to miss out on an at-large bid.

Odds are, DePaul is going to come into 2017 fighting mad after last season, and they’ve got a squad that should be able to do some real damage. The Blue Demons have scored goals for fun the past few years and again have a loaded attack despite the loss of Big East Offensive Player of the Year Abby Reed. Reed’s eleven goals and six assists aren’t going to be easy to replace, but the Blue Demons do have their fair share of players that could be capable of picking up that slack.

Reigning league Midfielder of the Year Alexa Ben has twenty goals and twenty-one assists in three seasons and is likely to go out with a bang and could repeat as an All-American with more of the offense likely to go through her this season. Also back is Franny Cerny, who had a breakout season, with nine goals and six assists to her name on fabulous efficiency numbers. Things bottom out a bit after that though, with nobody else who returns having netted more than two goals last year. It might open up a few more opportunities for some newcomers, including highly touted midfielder Mikaela Hoard, the top pick of this class for the Blue Demons.

Defensively, DePaul looks to be in solid shape again, though it also faces a big loss with one of the league’s best defenders in Taylor Schissler graduating after a great senior season. The new leader of the backline is likely to be senior Lucy Edwards, who had a quietly impressive 2016 season, while Avery Hay will also be looking to build on a great rookie campaign. Senior Lauren Frasca is likely to be first choice in goal after taking over as the club’s starter last season.

DePaul are a tick behind Georgetown in my projections, but I do feel there’s enough quality on the roster to warrant a belief they’ll be NCAA Tournament bound this year.
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NCAA – 2017 WCC Preview

Chris’ WCC Projections

1. BYU
2. Pepperdine
3. Santa Clara
4. Loyola Marymount
5. Saint Mary’s (CA)
6. Pacific
7. San Francisco
8. San Diego
9. Portland
10. Gonzaga

The stage was set for BYU in 2016, with almost all of the previous season’s impressive squad returning for the Cougars. BYU entered the season with College Cup dreams and showed why those were realistic ambitions with wins at Penn State, Utah, and Ohio State and over SMU and Long Beach State at home in non-conference play. While BYU would dominate most of the WCC, they did slip up against title rivals Santa Clara and Pepperdine, which resulted in them sharing the league title with the latter. The Cougars would begin their march to the College Cup with wins over UNLV and Oklahoma but fell in the Sweet Sixteen to South Carolina in a close, contentious affair. With West Virginia finally breaking through to the College Cup, it probably leaves BYU with the unwanted mantle of being the best program to have never reached women’s college soccer’s Final Four despite dominating every league they’ve been in and being a national player for ages.

While BYU’s probably never going to totally need a rebuilding season given their traditional strength in depth, there’s no question that the Cougars might need to retool given some of their personnel losses through graduation. Most of those hits take place in the attack, where BYU loses the high powered duo of Ashley Hatch and Michele Vasconcelos, both high NWSL Draft picks, and the former a newly capped USWNT player. They combined for a whopping thirty-five goals and eighteen assists, and their departure, along with losing Elena Medeiros as well leaves a massive gap on the frontline.

The big hope has to be that Nadia Gomes, the third member of BYU’s tremendous frontline trio last year, takes the next step towards superstardom. A lightning quick forward who shined when Hatch missed much of 2015 through injury, Gomes netted six goals and twelve assists last year and will need a big season for BYU to contend again. Where the goals will come from if Gomes is held quiet is a big question, with top reserve Maddie Lyons a contender to step up.

The midfield could also be a bit of a work in progress with Medeiros and fellow standout Paige Hunt Barker graduating. It puts a lot of pressure on senior Bizzy Bowen, the lone returning starter in the middle of the park, to keep the Cougars humming in that area of the pitch while newcomers get settled. One such newcomer is Mikayla Colohan, cousin of club legend Cloee Colohan and a player tipped to be a big factor early here.

Those losses on offense mean BYU might be in the unfamiliar position of being a defense-first side in 2017. This group essentially returns intact, which is a good thing considering they gave up just eleven goals all season last year. The cornerstone of that backline is senior Taylor Isom, an All-American center-back, reigning WCC Defensive Player of the Year, and one of the nation’s best defenders. Opposite her is Danika Bowman, is sophomore who played well beyond her years as a center-back in 2016. Stephanie New and Alyssa Jefferson patrolled the flanks last year, with Jefferson another impressive member of last season’s rookie crop. Newcomer Josie Guinn, is another solid addition and could work her way into the rotation sooner rather than later.

The Cougars should also be fine in goal, with senior Hannah Clark one of the nation’s best. Clark stepped in when Rachel Boaz broke her hand early in 2016 and was a revelation, retaining the starting spot all season and looking excellent in the process.

Despite the drain of offensive talent, this BYU side is still very dangerous, with one of the nation’s best defenses. I don’t think they’ll match last season’s effort, but they have every chance of winning the WCC again and claiming a few more wins in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

A year after their first losing season since 2007, Pepperdine entered 2016 needing a response. The Waves didn’t quite match their amazing sixteen win season of 2014, but they did manage to win the WCC title and earn a return to the NCAA Tournament. Pepperdine managed to pile up wins early in the season that didn’t end up meaning as much as they likely though they would and went through a stretch of just one win in six, though they did manage a good draw against Kansas. After a scoreless draw with Portland to open up the WCC season though, Pepperdine hit a groove and won six in a row to come closer to a championship. A loss to Loyola Marymount put those hopes in danger, but the Waves earned their share of the crown with a win over Pacific in the regular season finale. Pepperdine would threaten to make an NCAA Tournament run, bouncing Cal out on penalties in the opening round but was promptly shocked by NC State in round two, ending a nice season in Malibu.

The Waves look poised to again challenge for honors in the WCC. Though Pepperdine loses four starters, most of the club’s other rivals lose that many or more, and Tim Ward’s side returns some big hitters. However, Pepperdine does have to find a replacement for goalkeeper Hannah Seabert, one of the nation’s best the past few years and another in a long line of great netminders for the Waves. Senior Brielle Preece has seen mop-up duty earlier in her career, but the job looks likely to fall to Zoe Clevely, a former U.S. U18 international.

The backline loses Meghan Schoen but does return many other starters, including Michelle Maemone, Danielle Thomas, and Jamie Van Horn. A year further removed from an injury that cost her 2015, Meagan Harbison is the wild card of the group, while Pepperdine also adds top prospect Erin Sinai to their ranks.

The offense was solid but still lacks the scoring power the club had when Lynn Williams was terrorizing the WCC. Complicating matters is the loss of Rylee Baisden, last year’s leading scorer, though she only netted six goals on sixty-one shots. Realistically, Pepperdine needs more from the three-headed monster of Bri Visalli, Christina Settles, and Hailey Stenberg, who all played a big roll in the offense last year, with Visalli leading the way with five goals. Junior Hailey Harbison is another big X-Factor, a once burgeoning star whose career has been wrecked by injuries. Harbison might also end up on the backline, though with the experience returning there, she might be better served as a winger. Pepperdine also loaded up with promising attackers in their freshman class, with Laura Ishikawa, Calista Reyes, and Brie Welch all tipped to make an impact early.

Pepperdine’s not a perfect squad, they’ve got concerns in between the pipes and in front of goal, but they’re generally solid. I’m not sure they’ll win another WCC title, but Pepperdine still looks like an NCAA Tournament team.

Santa Clara were a bit of an enigma in 2016. They showed their quality on the opening weekend of the season with wins over USC and Cal but then won just one of their next ten matches, though they included four draws in that span. But the light would come on for the Broncos a bit late, as they ended up winning six of their final seven to finish third in the WCC, three points off co-champions BYU and Pepperdine. While most figured Santa Clara might be good for a win or two in the NCAA Tournament, few likely tipped them for a deep run considering a very hard road they were dealt. However, SCU would go on an impressive run, dominating Long Beach State in the first round before shocking the world by upsetting Stanford in Palo Alto in the second round. A win over NC State in the Sweet Sixteen put Santa Clara on the verge of becoming the rare unseeded team to reach the College Cup. They’d bow out to Georgetown though, albeit not before a fantastic run to the final eight of the NCAA Tournament that raised expectations going forward.

There’s some good and some bad for Santa Clara heading into the 2017 season. The Broncos get hit by graduation and attrition, losing six starters from last year’s Elite Eight team, tied for the most in the conference. Particularly problematic are losses to an offense that struggled for scoring form at times, with just one player who netted more than two goals last year returning. Most prominent among the departures is Jordan Jesolva, who netted ten goals and four assists to double anybody else’s scoring totals for SCU, with many of her goals being clutch ones as she enjoyed a wonderful senior season. Add in the loss of the talented midfielder Julie Vass, and SCU’s attack could be a work in progress in 2017.

The lone returner of real note is sophomore Maddy Gonzalez, who is the club’s leading returning scorer with five goals despite starting just about half of the Broncos’ goals. But there’s reason for hope, because Santa Clara has added an armada of new attacking talent. The big hitter amongst the group is Idaho State transfer Maria Sanchez, who sat out last season due to transfer rules, but who looked spectacular playing for Mexico in the U20 World Cup. Also transferring in is attacking midfielder Kelcie Hedge from Washington, who also redshirted last season while playing for the U.S. at the U20 World Cup, and who was once a superstar recruit. SCU has also added a pair of coveted freshmen to the frontline as well, with Julie Doyle and Kelsey Turnbow both having extensive experience in the U.S. youth international setup.

Things should be a bit more stable on defense, where Santa Clara should be one of the best in the WCC. Iceland’s Gudrun Arnardottir was quite the find for head coach Jerry Smith and the Broncos, and all she did last year was win WCC Newcomer of the Year honors and looks like becoming one of the nation’s very best. Also back is senior Kellie Peay, who has quietly been one of the WCC’s best defenders and is a three-year starter for the Broncos. Also added to the mix is another top notch prospect from this class, Arizona native Taylor Culver, who could work her way into the rotation sooner rather than later. Junior Melissa Lowder didn’t completely claim the starting job in goal as her own until about midseason, but she did well for the most part at a program known for its excellent goalkeeping.

Expect Santa Clara to get a lot of hype after last year’s finish, but the Broncos look a functionally different team on paper with all the turnover in personnel. They’re still going to be a dangerous team, but a College Cup run might still be a year away.
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NCAA – Chris’ Crystal Ball: Preseason Top 25

While you wait for my final six previews to drop this weekend…

1. Penn State
2. Stanford
3. Florida State
4. North Carolina
5. UCLA
6. Duke
7. West Virginia
8. Northwestern
9. Rutgers
10. Georgetown
11. Texas A&M
12. BYU
13. Virginia
14. Notre Dame
15. NC State
16. Cal
17. Michigan
18. South Carolina
19. USC
20. Utah
21. Florida
22. Pepperdine
23. Colorado
24. Santa Clara
25. Arkansas

Also considered:

Auburn, DePaul, Long Beach St, Loyola Marymount, Northeastern, SMU, Texas Tech, UC Irvine, Vanderbilt