I. This Could Be One of The All-Time Great College Seasons
They’re all great if you’re a fanatic like myself, but 2013 could be a vintage year for all, as the ingredients are all there for a season for the ages. The talent level is as arguably as high as it’s been in a while, with three full USWNT internationals joining full and youth internationals from Canada, Norway, Mexico, Brazil, Germany, Holland, Japan, and beyond. The television coverage should again be able to provide something for everyone, even with the seeming death of the NSCAA Game of the Week. Before the SEC Network really raises the stakes next year, there’ll be plenty of games on the Big Ten Network, the Pac-12 Network, and the usual smattering of games on ESPNU, regional networks, and BYU-TV among others.
You’ve got great, experienced teams like North Carolina and Santa Clara, great, young teams like Notre Dame, new teams entirely like Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Colorado State, and teams moving up in divisions like Grand Canyon, Incarnate Word, and Abilene Christian. You’ve got great faces in new places like Amanda Cromwell taking over at UCLA, while some clubs (many clubs) find themselves in new conference homes. You’ve got a new conference entirely in the breakaway Big East and some conferences like the WAC just fighting for survival. New stadiums are popping up at places like the aforementioned TXAM-CC and Marshall, while others at places like Kentucky are getting grand renovations. The College Cup? Back on the East Coast and back on a field that hopefully isn’t going to be ripped to shreds by the final.
In other words? Buckle up, it’s going to be a fun ride.
II. Make No Mistake, North Carolina Are Favorites To Win It All Again
It’s been a running punchline that last season’s national champion is always voted preseason #1 no matter how much they lose in the offseason, but it’ll be a warranted ranking this year for a loaded Tar Heels club. UNC can legitimately claim to have two of the best five players in DI right now in Crystal Dunn and Kealia Ohai and have plenty of other stars in the making like Summer Green, Hanna Gardner, and Katie Bowen. As if the club couldn’t get any more frightening, the Heels also bring back defensive stalwart Megan Brigman from injury while adding the likes of Joanna Boyles, Emily Bruder, Cameron Castleberry, and Amber Munerlyn from a star studded freshman class.
It’s not all going to be a walkover. Keep in mind UNC still has to replace the team’s midfield heartbeat in Amber Brooks, whose leadership skills aren’t going to be easily replaced. Goalkeeper could be an area of contention as well, with a flood of rivals competing for the spot vacated by Adelaide Gay after a sterling senior season. If Anson Dorrance finds the answers, and he usually does, North Carolina should be odds on to carry home their twenty-third national title come December.
III. Crystal Dunn Has A Chance To Go Down As One of The Best Collegiate Players Ever.
Hamm, Parlow, Sinclair, Hanks. It’s a short list of players that have won two Hermann Trophies in their college careers. Crystal Dunn will try to add her name to the list of legends above as she tries to win her second crystal ball after walking away with the honor last year. Dunn has played virtually everywhere on the pitch for the Tar Heels in her three years in Chapel Hill thus far, but the USWNT defender was a monster down the stretch last year in an attacking midfield role that let her dribble right at the heart of defenses with devastating effect. It remains to be seen where Dorrance uses her this year on the pitch, but wherever it is, she’ll likely be front and center for the Tar Heels and their bid to repeat as champions.
Others in the mix for college soccer’s highest honor? Dunn’s teammate Kealia Ohai, Santa Clara duo Julie Johnston and Morgan Marlborough, Penn State forward Maya Hayes, and Virginia midfielder Morgan Brian to name just a few.
IV. Money Talks For NWSL Allocation Hopefuls
Dunn’s playing for more than personal and collegiate club glory though, she might also be playing for a future payday in the NWSL. The league will be in need of at least one new player for allocated status after Heather Mitts’ retirement and will likely need much more than that given injuries and age after the initial allocation earlier this year. Realistically, Dunn and Santa Clara’s Julie Johnston are the only seniors likely to be in frame for allocation money right off the bat, with Dunn looking like an inevitability given her entrenchment in the USWNT in recent months. She’ll want to erase any doubts with a strong senior season though, as the difference between allocation status and non-allocation status could be as much as five figures when all is said and done.
The stakes are even higher for young Canadians and Mexican players hoping to continue with their professional careers in the U.S. With the NWSL’s draconian international rules, not being in the allocation pool is tantamount to a death sentence for professional hopes in the league (not withstanding Tiffany Cameron), meaning it’s critical for seniors to shine this year. Canada will likely look towards the likes of Nkem Ezurike, Christabel Oduro, Jonelle Filigno, Shelina Zadorsky, and Rachel Melhado to drive some much needed youth into the ranks before the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Mexico is likely desperate to add some new blood into their allocation pool as well after suffering the embarrassment of having to yank some of their initial allocations late in the process. The Mexican senior class is nowhere near as deep as the U.S. or Canadian classes, but the likes of Charlyn Corral, Ari Romero, and Bianca Sierra all figure to get looks if they can excel this year.
V. Say Goodbye To A Great Senior Class…
As you might expect, a senior class whose backbone is the last U20 World Cup winners is going to be pretty damn great. NWSL front offices will likely be drooling at the prospect of a class that looks incredibly deep on paper. Everyone knows about now full USWNT’ers Dunn and Johnston, but this class has a little bit of everything for everyone. Need a goalkeeper? Say hello to Emily Oliver and Aubrey Bledsoe. Need a center-back? Natasha Anasi and Kassey Kallman can solve that problem. There’s Michelle Pao and Rafaelle Souza for teams in need of full-backs. Vanessa DiBernardo and Mandy Laddish for teams craving central midfielders. And up front, the likes of Maya Hayes, Kealia Ohai, and Katie Stengel to name just a few should all hear their names called on NWSL Draft day next January. With so much great talent and a limited number of draft slots available next year, the pressure should be intense to perform, and it’ll be enthralling to see which seniors can rise to the occasion this season.
VI. …and Hello To A Great Rookie Class.
The old guard still has one season left to shine, but the newcomers look to be tantalizing as well. The biggest headliners coming in domestically this year look to be prodigious goalkeeper Jane Campbell at Stanford and Notre Dame’s Morgan Andrews, arguably the most hyped prospect since Morgan Brian’s arrival at Virginia a few seasons back. Campbell may actually redshirt with Emily Oliver in front of her in the pecking order, but Andrews will be expected to help try and put the Irish over the top in their quest for another national title. Other American rookies that could become household names among college soccer fans come season’s end include Hayley Dowd (Boston College), Claire Wagner (Clemson), Toni Payne (Duke), Margaret Purce (Harvard), Joanna Boyles (North Carolina), Emily Bruder (North Carolina), Amber Munerlyn (North Carolina), Kaela Little (Notre Dame), Sandra Yu (Notre Dame), Brittany Basinger (Penn State), Danica Evans (Portland), Allison Weatherington (Portland), Morgan Stanton (Santa Clara), Stephanie Amack (Stanford), Ryan Walker (Stanford), Zoey Goralski (UCLA), Darian Jenkins (UCLA), Lauren Kaskie (UCLA), Gabrielle Miranda (UCLA), Miranda Freeman (USC), Kayla Mills (USC), Morgan Stearns (Virginia), Rose Lavelle (Wisconsin)
There’s also a ton of intrigue from the litany of international imports making their way to these shores this year. Alabama brings in Ghanian U20 international Beatrice Sesu. Butler welcomes Japan U17 captain Serina Kashimoto. UCF’s German invasion continues by welcoming U20 lynchpins Karoline Heinze and Lena Petermann. USC’s Tanya Samarzich could become one of Mexico’s bright hopes for the future after already becoming a crucial part of her country’s full WNT. Norwegian goalkeeper Nora Neset Gjoen is already a regular for her nation’s full WNT and will look to bring some of that same class to Florida this year. Compatriot Carlotta Fennefoss, Norway’s U20 captain, looks to spark a revolution at Lipscomb, while another Norwegian starlet, Maren Sjaaholm Knudsen will look to help put Maryland over the top. Kansas’ French full-back Aurelie Gagner follows in the footsteps of Florida State legend Ines Jaurena.
Most eyes will be focused on some of the new Canadian additions to DI. Clemson goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, Duke midfielder Rebecca Quinn, LSU forward Summer Clarke, Michigan goalkeeper Taylor Bucklin, Ohio State forward Nichelle Prince, Princeton midfielder Nicole Loncar, and West Virginia forward Ashley Lawrence all figure to shine bright in 2013. The biggest star could be Kadeisha Buchanan though, as the Canadian has already proven to be crucial to her nation’s defense at such a young age and could be a player that helps West Virginia finally content for a run deep into the postseason.
VII. Different Faces In Different Places Could Add to the Madness
You might need a scorecard to keep track of who moved where over this offseason as numerous programs took the money and ran to greener pastures. Here’s a quick and dirty version of what you need to know:
ACC – Hello Pittsburgh and Syracuse (meh). Also, hello Notre Dame to make an already brutal league even more taxing.
America East – Boston University’s off to the Patriot League, meaning this conference will be wide open come November.
American Athletic – The artist formerly known as the Big East keeps most of its better soccer playing members, adds in a handful of C-USA stalwarts, and also adds…Temple. With six or seven teams that can win the league though, it should be one of the more fun races to watch.
Atlantic 10 – Dayton and La Salle are still here, and the conference has gotten a little less bloated. Thankfully.
Big East – It’s Marquette, Georgetown, and a lot of dross from the Old Big East. The reborn league also added Butler (interesting) and Creighton and Xavier (not so much) to put it at an even ten for 2013.
Colonial – The College of Charleston comes in, but they probably aren’t going to content against the likes of Hofstra and William & Mary right away.
Conference USA – It’s a league of insane excess, as the C-USA swallowed up everything in its path to get to a ridiculous sixteen teams. Old guard Colorado College and Rice will battle to keep new threats Florida International and North Texas at bay.
Great West – Still here! With four teams and a double round robin. Can’t we find these guys a home?
Horizon – Oakland’s here and may just stand a chance of spoiling the party for perennial top dogs Wisconsin-Milwaukee
MAAC – Monmouth and Quinnipiac were poached from the NEC, and the former will likely contend for a title right away.
Missouri Valley – In the most ‘meh’ of moves, Creighton hopped over to the Big East, so the club added Horizon also-rans Loyola (Ill.).
Mountain West – Colorado State adds women’s soccer in a long overdue move, while San Diego State stays put after flirting with the Big East. The remnants of the WAC get vacuumed in, with Utah State being the most interesting addition.
NEC – No Monmouth, no Quinnipiac likely means another Saint Francis (PA) romp to the title.
Patriot – Boston University and Loyola (MD) both join in, and both are consistent threats to win titles based on their previous exploits, so the league’s stock just rose more than a little bit.
Southern – The aforementioned College of Charleston’s move to the CAA leaves the league without one of its iconic stadiums, and not much else really, as the Cougars haven’t been all that hot lately.
Southland – In come Abilene Christian and Incarnate Word from DII, as well as new side Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and their shiny new stadium. Houston Baptist also moves over from the Great West. I’d expect some lopsided scores in the league this year.
Summit – Say hello to Denver, say goodbye to most everyone else’s hopes of winning a major trophy most of the time.
Sun Belt – Well, there’s Western Kentucky, Texas State might be spry, and a whole lot of teams that weren’t very good at all last year. Egads.
WAC – Speaking of egads, how about the WAC. Abandoned by, uh, almost everyone, the WAC welcomed in just about anyone who’d expect an invitation, meaning DI independent Cal State Bakersfield, Great West powerhouse Utah Valley, Summit League side UMKC, and for profit DII side Grand Canyon. There’s a double round robin in the league, which’ll probably be the most interesting part about the WAC this year.
WCC – Pacific joins up and probably aren’t going to be in for a pleasant experience this year.
VIII. The ACC Will Be Especially Brutal This Season
It’s debatable whether the move to a full round robin with fourteen clubs was a bright move considering its effect on paring down non-conference schedules, but there’s no question it’ll make for gripping theatre in 2013. Pittsburgh and Syracuse aren’t going to set many pulses aflutter, but the addition of Notre Dame only strengthened the league’s grip at the top of the DI soccer world. The Irish look like the best hope for anyone wanting to avoid a Tar Heel dominated league this year, though the likes of Duke, Florida State, and Virginia will all also be in the mix for honors this season. Pity the clubs at the bottom half of the league. NC State and Pittsburgh figure to be in well above their heads against some of the ACC’s carnivores this year, while the late coaching change at Miami (FL) could make for a hard season in Coral Gables this year. Be on the lookout for Clemson though. The Tigers have suffered long and hard for a half decade, but with one of the nation’s top recruiting classes, Eddie Radwanski’s side could well shake things up this year for some of the favorites. With the ACC Tournament semi-finals and final in Cary again, the league’s best will be hoping to lift two trophies at WakeMed this season.
IX. The Battle Between Stanford and UCLA Should be Reignited Again
It’s the game that’s defined college soccer on the West Coast for the past half decade, and it’s the rivalry that’s defined the careers of many associated with both programs as of late. Ex-UCLA boss B.J. Snow did a creditable job in Westwood the past few years, but there’s also a sense some may never get past last year’s club’s inability to hold a lead on two occasions against the Bruins’ greatest rivals. There’s sure to be no quarter given in 2013, as the Bruins bring in former UCF boss Amanda Cromwell as their new supremo. Long considered one of the nation’s top managers, Cromwell’s Knights’ teams were known for their tenacious resolve and penchant for beating more highly regarded clubs during her tenure. She’s been given the keys to a talented machine with one of the nation’s top midfields with Jenna Richmond, Samantha Mewis, and Sarah Killion while also having one of the nation’s top defenders in Abby Dahlkemper. About the only thing missing is an A-level striker, a problem that shouldn’t be one their rivals in Palo Alto have to deal with. The Card welcome Minnesota transfer Taylor Uhl to the mix to partner Chioma Ubogagu in attack, a double dose of destruction that should carve Pac-12 defenses up. With Stanford having lost three-fourths of last year’s starting defense and midfield destroyer Mariah Nogueira though, dominance is far from assured. As has been the case so often, the Pac-12 will likely come down to the pair’s meeting in Palo Alto on October 10 in primetime, though the likes of Cal, Washington, Oregon State, and Arizona State will be waiting to pounce on any slips in form from either of the two league juggernauts this year.
X. Michigan Are A Legitimate Threat to Penn State’s Big Ten Title Streak
Penn State may be losing midfield talisman Christine Nairn and goalkeeper Erin McNulty, but don’t cry too hard for the Nittany Lions in 2013. Erica Walsh’s side gets a full season out of striker supreme Maya Hayes and could see Costa Rican star Raquel Rodriguez blossom as the centerpiece of the midfield with Nairn gone. The loss of Nairn, McNulty, and Maddy Evans does leave some vulnerability however, and PSU will likely face a grand challenge from a powerful Michigan side this season. We saw a precursor to this last season in the Sweet Sixteen, where the Wolverines pushed Penn State to the brink before being felled on penalties in a heartbreaking end to the season. Michigan comes into the new season loaded though, with nine of eleven starters returning, including almost all of their top talent. Nkem Ezurike figures to be one of the nation’s most dangerous strikers, while Holly Hein and Shelina Zadorsky should hold it down on defense. The big question is who replaces Haley Kopmeyer in goal, as the departed All-American was a massive presence in net for the Wolverines. Canadian youth international Taylor Bucklin should be the early favorite for a position battle which could be one of the nation’s most important. Other clubs like Wisconsin, Ohio State, and Nebraska will look to play spoiler, but the battle for the title will likely come down to Penn State and Michigan, who very well could cross swords on more than occasion in 2013.
XI. The Big XII Will Be No Laughing Matter in 2013.
Think the Big XII lost all its teeth when Texas A&M and Missouri left for the SEC? Think again. The league could be right in the mix with the Big Ten as the nation’s third or fourth best conference in what could be a banner season in the Midwest. Texas Tech, with two players in Jaelene Hinkle and Janine Beckie that could be future NWSL first round draft picks, and West Virginia, returning a strong squad and adding elite recruit Kadeisha Buchanan, both look like clubs that could make legitimate runs towards the College Cup if all goes to plan. There’s strength in depth behind them too. Baylor loses some real talent but aren’t going to fall too far, with a solid recruiting class and Marci Jobson at the helm. Kansas adds exciting French youth international Aurelie Gagner and should get Colombians Ingrid Vidal and Liana Salazar back, adding some star power to an underachieving side last year. Oklahoma State doesn’t figure to be down for too long, while young squads at TCU and Texas could also pull a shock or two out this season while building for the future.
XII. Portland vs Santa Clara Could Be More High Stakes Than Usual
Order figures to be restored in the WCC this year after the likes of Pepperdine, San Diego, and BYU revolted against the duopoly of Portland and Santa Clara that had ruled the league in perpetuity. But the Pilots and Broncos return loaded squads while adding huge recruiting classes to likely reestablish themselves as contenders on the national stage. Portland’s depth problems of the past seem to be put in the rear-view mirror with a healthy freshman class coming to The Bluff, including prized prospects Danica Evans and Allison Wetherington, who should combine with Micaela Capelle and Amanda Frisbie to give Portland a truly dynamic offense in the WCC this year. The rival Broncos get a more seasoned addition in Nebraska transfer Morgan Marlborough, the U.S. U23 striker finally eligible after a season in limbo as the nation’s best practice player. An offense with Marlborough combining with Mexican international Sofia Huerta could be frightening. Oh, and the club also returns one of the nation’s best players and a full USWNT international in jack of all trades Julie Johnston, who could see action anywhere on the pitch this season. How a supporting cast that includes goalkeeper Andi Tostanoski and midfielder Dani Weatherholt develops could settle how far SCU goes in the postseason, but they’ve got all the potential in the world and will likely battle Portland for league supremacy. The November 7 matchup at Merlo figures to be telling for both sides in the WCC title race and could have major seeding ramifications in the NCAA Tournament as well.
XIII. The SEC Will Be Utterly Unpredictable…Behind Texas A&M
For sheer blissful, unadulterated chaos, look no further than the SEC, which could be an immense crapshoot behind heavy title favorites Texas A&M. If A&M is finally able to put it all together, they might just be able to make a run towards Cary and the College Cup. The Aggies look likely to plow their way to a league title after last year’s late slips, but behind them looks like a hot mess. SEC Tournament finalists Auburn and Florida look perilously young after losing a ton of their top producers, meaning there’s going to be room for some unfamiliar names in the upper tier of the table. Tennessee has the league’s best forward in Hannah Wilkinson and is a good bet to be strong, while the likes of Missouri and Ole Miss might just be in the mix for great league finishes and a potential trophy in Orange Beach. Elsewhere, there’ll be international intrigue (LSU), higher expectations (Arkansas), and bosses on the hot seat (Alabama and Georgia). As has been the case so often, the race to just make it into the postseason will likely go down to the final day, even more likely now that the league abandoned last year’s fitful experiment with a thirteen round marathon league season. The vast majority of the league probably isn’t going to be long for the NCAA Tournament, but before then, it should be an enjoyable and (mostly) unpredictable ride all the way to Orange Beach.