2011 NCAA Soccer Preview – Pac-12 (Yes, Really!) – Subtraction By Addition?

Mariah Nogueira

The Wild Side - Stanford & Mariah Nogueira Will Try To Reign As Queens of The Pac-12 Jungle Again in 2011

The Pac-10 swells from ten to twelve members and morphs into the Pac-12 this season, leaving many to wonder about the effects that the league’s new members will have in both the short-term and in the long-term on one of the elite soccer conferences in Division I. A cynic might note that it might be a case of subtraction by addition given the very recent histories of new members Colorado and Utah. The fact that that statement could even be muttered is an indicator of just how fast fortunes can turn in the world of college soccer.

Colorado was once an annual contender in the Big XII and were again seemingly in a position to win some games in the NCAA Tournament in 2008 after doing well in the regular season and earning a national seed and hosting rights for a regional. But the Buffs would end up going down as the answer to a painful trivia question, now the most recent seeded team to lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, being shocked by minnows South Dakota State. The program has never really recovered, and though they had some moments last year with wins over UCLA and Texas A&M, the consistency hasn’t been there, and Colorado enters its new home very much an unknown commodity.

It’s no better for Utah who, up until a few seasons ago, were beating Pac-10 teams and contending for Mountain West titles with consistent regularity. Now, the Utes have seen some very, very lean years in Salt Lake City and were strugglers in the Mountain West last year, a frightening proposition considering the massive step up in class the team faces this year. While nobody’s realistically expecting the Utes to contend for a title right out of the gate in the Pac-12, it remains to be seen whether the newbies can even get within touching distance of mid-table in the wildly competitive league.

The real intrigue of course should be at the top of the league. All-conquering Stanford are in a good position to win yet another league title despite the departure of talisman Christen Press. The presence of Teresa Noyola, Rachel Quon, and Lindsay Taylor among others should ensure another national title run for the Card this year. State rivals UCLA have a new boss in B.J. Snow and plenty of new talent to partner up with Sydney Leroux, and the Bruins will be eager to make some noise of their own after an inconsistent year in 2010. Don’t count out Oregon State either, who return almost all of last year’s strong Pac-10 runners-up and are bossed by rising coaching star Linus Rhode.

It’ll be worth watching the middle of the pack and more specifically their RPIs though. If Utah and Colorado struggle again, the league’s overall bottom line come the postseason could be hurt, and the Pac-12’s days of thinking about seven or eight bids to the Big Dance might be a relic of the past like the league’s old moniker.

(Teams listed in order of final 2010 RPI ranking.)

There was a certain sense of deja vu for STANFORD at the end of the 2010 season, and it wasn’t a good one. The Cardinal found themselves in the national title game once again as favorites after another Pac-10 title winning campaign and were matched up against college soccer royalty. Once again, Stanford entered the final with an undefeated record. And once again, it all went horribly wrong in the title match. In truth, Stanford keeper Emily Oliver saved her side from a painfully lopsided loss, but despite the 1-0 scoreline, there were no doubts as to the better team on the day. It was another unflattering end to a great season for Head Coach Paul Ratcliffe and his talented charges. The Card have seemingly been a program eternally searching for that elusive first national title.

Stanford first made a name for themselves in the early nineties under Berhane Anderberhan, making it to the Elite Eight twice before reaching their first College Cup in 1993 under Ian Sawyers. After Sawyers left in 1995, Steve Swanson won a pair of league titles but could never get past the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament to the great frustration of Stanford fans. There’d be another change in the lead chair with Swanson leaving and Andy Nelson coming in in his place. Nelson managed to get the team to the Sweet Sixteen in his second year in charge, but a darker side to the Cardinal boss would soon emerge. After pushing down a pair of players during a practice session, Nelson would resign from the position, resulting in a hastily arranged situation with Paul Sapsford and Stephanie Erickson serving as Co-Head Coaches. They ended up doing pretty damn well, going 21-0-1 in the regular season and winning a league title with a perfect Pac-10 mark. Rivals Portland would end their season in the Elite Eight though, curtailing a dream season.

Surprisingly, Stanford went a new boss entirely, hiring St. Mary’s coach Ratcliffe to be the new head man. Progress was frustratingly slow under Ratcliffe at first. The Cardinal failed to make it out of the first weekend from 2003-2005, the zenith coming in 2005 with a loss to Saint Louis in the first round of the Big Dance. Patience was rewarded though at long last in 2008 when the Card put it all together and won twenty-two matches before reaching their first College Cup since 1993. Stanford would go one better in 2009 and finally dethroned UCLA from the Pac-10 summit before reaching the national title game with a perfect 25-0-0 record. They would be stymied by North Carolina, losing 1-0, with Hermann Trophy winner Kelley O’Hara seeing red in the process.

Though Stanford would be without O’Hara entering into 2010, they would be with no shortage of motivation to finally set things right and bring home the program’s first national title. There were no gimmes early on in the schedule, and Boston College and North Carolina both battled the Card to entertaining draws. Stanford would also be tested by Boston University and Duke in close matches before the schedule eased up a bit, before the Card had to beat back challenges from Georgetown, Portland, and Santa Clara. Ratcliffe’s side really found their groove once they got to league play though. Only USC and Washington were able to get within a goal of the Card, and they wrapped up their second straight league title in the penultimate fixture with a convincing 2-0 win in Palo Alto over an upstart Oregon State side.

It almost seemed that the Card were marching towards a coronation in Cary as they plowed through the NCAA Tournament, culminating with a masterful 5-0 win over Florida State in the Elite Eight. Boston College were beaten decisively in the semi-final before the Card hit a massive roadblock against Notre Dame. Outplayed and outcoached again, Stanford supporters were left wondering what could have been one more time after a final. In particular, Ratcliffe came under particular fire for odd coaching moves, including playing playmaker Teresa Noyola as a wing forward in the team’s 4-3-3 formation and switching Cami Levin into the playmaker role in addition to waiting so long to change it up when it was obvious that the tactics he had started out with weren’t working.

And so Stanford enters a new season with the same expectations: National Title or bust. Many of the challenges the Card face are the same as well. Difficult non-conference schedule, wildly competitive league, bullseye on their heads. Oh, and there’s also the little matter of replacing another Hermann Trophy winner. The $64,000 question is who on this team is going to replace the prolific scoring of Christen Press, who entered 2010 trying to get out of the shadow of the team’s last Hermann Trophy winner, Kelley O’Hara, and ended up leaving Palo Alto with a legend of her own.

With questions over whether Press could replace the massive goalscoring presence of O’Hara as the ex-Card led the line, all the striker did was go on a jaw dropping goalscoring binge, Press hammered in twenty-six goals, including nine in the league and ten match winners overall. Press gave Stanford their second straight Hermann Trophy winner while taking home a large cache of honors and would follow it up with a fine rookie season for MagicJack in WPS, taking home the league’s Rookie of the Year award in the process.

The logical choice for the Card in their search for a new lead gun would appear to be senior Lindsay Taylor. A quick and dangerous forward with one of the hardest shots in the college game, Taylor exploded onto the scene as a rookie, scoring sixteen goals and a stunning hat trick against Santa Clara. Taylor would be hampered by illness and injury as a sophomore but still managed six goals and eleven assists, which would have been a fine season for just about anyone else. Last year, Taylor was on hand to pick up whatever Press wasn’t smashing into the back of the net, finishing with eleven goals and six assists. Taylor clearly has the ability to become Stanford’s next great scoring machine this year, and twenty goals certainly aren’t out of question for the senior. The only thing that could possibly hold Taylor back is a slight streak of inconsistency, as she’s faded into the background at times, though the experience that goes with being a senior may curb those tendencies for the most part.

A pressing question is who will be stepping up to ensure that Taylor isn’t swarmed by pressure by opposing defenses. It was perhaps thought that junior Courtney Verloo would be the one fitting that bill, with the center-back having been recruited as a forward and having played up front for much of her freshman season. Verloo made the switch to defense last season and was a standout there, obviously capable of bringing the ball out from the back but also showing great defensive skill. Verloo’s on the shelf indefinitely with a torn meniscus though and could miss the entire season through injury, creating some real worries for Ratcliffe.

Sophomore Sydney Payne came to Palo Alto with a long line of club plaudits and was expected to make a reasonably big impact as a rookie for the Card. Instead, the big forward had problems cracking Stanford’s starting lineup, only starting four matches and finishing with a disappointing return of two goals and three assists. Payne still has a lot of upside though and could yet come good for Stanford with more playing time up for grabs. Another player with a blistering shot is junior Marjani Hing-Glover, one of the team’s top reserves the past two seasons. Hing-Glover did end up starting four matches last season and had goals against Santa Clara and Florida State in the NCAA Tournament last season. Don’t rule out the powerful forward from breaking into the starting lineup sometime this season. Another returnee in the mix for playing time could be sophomore Natalie Griffen who saw time off the bench in eleven matches last season as a rookie. Griffen could play as a winger or full-back in Stanford’s 4-3-3, marauding up the flanks for the Card.

Odds are though, Stanford’s going to be banking on a big contribution from some of their forward recruits. The hopes are highest for Texan Chioma Ubogagu, one of the brightest prospects in this class of recruits. Ubogagu comes into Palo Alto as a U.S. U20 international, a former Gatorade State Player of the Year for Texas, and a 2010 Parade All-American among other plaudits. A technically proficient player, Ubogagu is just as comfortable creating goals as she is scoring them and looks like a brilliant fit for the Card’s attacking system. Ubogagu figures to be a favorite to fill one of the slots in Stanford’s attacking band of three up top and has the potential to be in double digits in both goals and assists as a rookie for the club.

Ubogagu isn’t the only U20 team member vying to stake their claim as a starter for this Stanford squad up front though. Alex Doll was also a member of the U.S. U20s earlier this year and comes to Palo Alto as the two time Illinois Gatorade State Player of the Year. Like Ubogagu, Doll is a fine passer and should fit in nicely with the team’s style of play, even if she’s more likely to be phased in as a reserve in the attack at first. There’s clearly a great deal of raw talent to field alongside Taylor in the attack for Stanford. While the senior figures to be another deadly weapon leading the line in a long line of them for the Card, it’s up to Ratcliffe to mold that young talent to give the team a solid secondary scoring option up front.

The team could also get some of their scoring from midfield this season, or from one of the best midfielders in the college game to be precise. Teresa Noyola may have been one of Mexico’s top reserves for their 2011 Women’s World Cup adventure, but she’s been in outstanding form over the past three years in Palo Alto, pulling the strings for Stanford’s deadly attack. A creative dynamo who’s a perfect match for the Card’s possession and passing game, Noyola hit new heights as a junior last season.

The hometown product had been a reasonable threat in front of goal in her first two years with Stanford but turned it up to another level as a junior with ten goals added to her twelve assists. In the process, Noyola won First Team All-America honors for the second time, joining an elite club on The Farm that last saw Nicole Barnhart accomplish the feat a half decade prior. Noyola figures to be an early round pick in January’s WPS Draft and could be an important part of the future for the Mexican WNT. The senior definitely has her limitations (see last season’s disastrous foray as a winger in the National Title game) due to a lack of overwhelming size or pace, but Ratcliffe could hardly ask for a headier or more creative midfield general to make Stanford’s attack tick.

The yin to Noyola’s yang is junior Mariah Nogueira, a blunt object set up in a defensive midfield role who is simply one of the best at what she does in the college game. An uncompromising physical presence playing in front of the backline, Nogueira is the consummate midfield destroyer for the Card. Nogueira’s not all destruction though, as her ten goals and nine assists in two seasons show. The big junior is also a major aerial threat which comes in handy on set pieces, where Nogueira is always a threat to thump a header in.

The big question for Stanford in midfield is who will replace departed senior Allison McCann, who served as a link between Noyola and Nogueira for the Card last season. Nothing about McCann was flashy, but she did her job efficiently and started seventy-one matches over four years for Stanford. McCann also chipped in a little bit offensively as a senior, scoring four goals in her final season in Palo Alto after having only scored one goal in the previous three years combined.

The early frontrunner for inheriting the vacant midfield spot could be senior Kristy Zurmuhlen. After playing in just eleven matches off the bench in her first two seasons of collegiate ball, Zurmuhlen blossomed into one of Stanford’s top reserves last season, her workrate, energy, and fierce defending making her an invaluable asset for Ratcliffe coming off the bench to spell the starters. Zurmuhlen’s contributions rarely show up in the box score, but her hustle and tenacity could see her in the starting lineup as a senior on The Farm.

Another returnee who could see time in the midfield is Taylor McCann, who saw sixteen matches of action as a freshman and scored a pair of goals for the Card. McCann is one of the team’s most versatile players, able to line up out wide in attack or defense or capable of doing a job for Stanford in the midfield. Of Stanford’s many highly touted newcomers, the one most likely to make an impact in midfield this year is Californian Lo’eau LaBonta. A former U.S. U17 international, LaBonta is a playmaker in the Noyola mold and could be most likely to spell the senior this season or used in concert with Stanford’s creative talisman to give the midfield even more of a spark this year.

Though Stanford likely believed they were returning with their defense intact, the injury/positional switch of Verloo likely means some reshuffling for Stanford this season. One thing that certainly isn’t going to change for Stanford is the presence in central defense of their rock at the back, Alina Garciamendez. The junior was last seen in Germany at the heart of Mexico’s defense in the Women’s World Cup and has been just as vital for Stanford in her first two seasons in Palo Alto. Garciamendez stepped right into the starting lineup as a freshman and has started every game for the Card since, no mean feat for a player walking into a national title contending team. The Mexican international’s leadership is unquestionable with her being named as a team captain as a sophomore for the Card. Garciamendez should continue to be one of the college game’s top defenders and is the steady and calming presence at the back for this team.

Also likely to reprise their starting role in the back four is full-back Rachel Quon. Like Garciamendez, Quon has been a starter since her freshman season in 2009 and has been everpresent in the Stanford lineup since. A U.S. U20 international, Quon’s overlapping runs down the right flank have become commonplace for the Card over the past two seasons, and the Illinois native made no small contribution to the offense last season with a pair of goals and five assists to her name. Quon is one of the top full-backs in the country and provides a dangerous threat going forward out wide while also excelling in her defensive duties down the flank as well.

Quon could also be moved to the opposite flank depending on how the team uses senior Camille Levin. Levin is the team’s Swiss army knife, capable of playing just about anywhere on the pitch for Stanford. Boston College found out the hard way that Levin was a capable attacking midfielder in the College Cup semi-finals last season when she made the switch to the midfield role at the half and promptly scored a few minutes after the break. Levin spent most of the season in a forward role though and was a great compliment to the offense, racking up eleven assists on the season, including helpers in six straight matches in the early weeks of the season. Naturally, Levin’s attacking abilities down the flank also make her an inviting target to play full-back in Stanford’s system, and she could combine with Quon to give the Card one of the country’s top full-back duos this year. Levin’s playmaking abilities also make her a candidate to spell Noyola in the attacking midfield role, though she could also see action wherever she’s needed by Ratcliffe this season.

If Levin does indeed slot in at full-back this season, it will likely push last year’s starting left-back, Annie Case, to the bench. Case missed all of 2009 through injury but fought her way into a starting role early on as a redshirt freshman last season and never gave the job up. The sophomore from Washington D.C., like her full-back counterpart Quon, was a big asset to the offense, chipping in with six assists in seventeen starts last season. Even if she is displaced in the starting lineup, Case brings valuable experience from last season to the table and would likely be the first option looked to if Levin is thrust into a more attacking role by Ratcliffe.

If Verloo isn’t at center-back this season, the most likely contender to replace her looks like redshirt freshman Kendall Romine. Romine came into Palo Alto highly touted but coming off a broken leg and suffered more injury woe, missing the entire 2010 campaign. The U.S. U18 international appears healthy again and could be another great defensive stopper for the Card if she can shake off the rust in relatively quick fashion.

The other returning defenders for Stanford have experience, though almost entirely in reserve roles for the Card. Sydney Payne’s twin sister, Shelby, is also capable of playing in attack but could figure most prominently as a sub at full-back this season and started a few matches at left-back last season as a freshman. Juniors Nina Watkins and Madeleine Thompson have also seen minutes off the bench in the past two seasons and could feature as either central defenders or defensive midfielders for the Card this year, likely in reserve capacities once more. Also featuring off the bench for Stanford this year could be freshman Lauren Schmidt, another defender who can threaten on forays forward. Schmidt was Trinidad and Tobago’s captain in the 2010 U17 World Cup, and the international experience should be invaluable as she tries to force her way into minutes on a very crowded backline.

In goal, the team’s unquestioned starter and star is sophomore Emily Oliver. It didn’t take long for the highly touted freshman to replace veteran Kira Maker as the team’s starter last season, and Oliver showed why she’s considered one of the country’s rising prospects in goal with some dazzling saves throughout her rookie season. Oliver saved her best for last though, turning in an eye-popping display in the College Cup final as she made spectacular save after spectacular save to keep her side in it. In the end, it was Oliver’s heroics that kept the final from being a blowout, and it’s safe to say the Illinois native’s stock is soaring as she begins her second season between the pipes in Palo Alto.

Oliver will likely be everpresent again in goal, because there’s very little experience behind her. Junior Lindsay Dickerson appears most likely to win the primary backup role and is a former U17 international but only has seven relief appearances in two seasons thus far. Sophomore Aly Gleason could also battle for time in the Stanford goal this season and is the biggest keeper on the Cardinal roster at 5’10”.

Though Stanford loses another Hermann Trophy winner and the key cog of their offense for a second straight season, they look well placed to not skip a beat with an exceptionally talented group of returners combining with some outstanding newcomers to try and finally get this team over the hump. Oliver’s a rising star in goal, and the defense should be one of the nation’s best again if Romine can stay healthy and lives up to her advance billing at center-back. Noyola and Nogueira’s presence in midfield guarantees that that are of the pitch will be overflowing with quality as well.

The most questions would appear to be in attack, where Taylor gets the very difficult task of trying to replace Press as the team’s main scoring threat after the departed senior’s unbelievable final season in Palo Alto. She has the potential to do just that, but if she falters, it’s unclear whether Ubogagu, Payne, Levin or anyone else tasked to play in attack for the Card will be able to keep the offense cruising against tougher opponents this season. If Taylor does perform to the top of her abilities though and the rest of the team can stay healthy and on form, Stanford should again be one of the favorites to lift another Pac-12 title and make it back to the College Cup in Kennesaw. Once there, it’ll be up to Ratcliffe to push the right buttons and pull the right strings to ensure Stanford doesn’t leave empty handed once again.

Odds were it was going to take a lot to keep the new signing class at UCLA out of the headlines in the Spring of 2011. The Bruins’ have usually won the wars in the recruiting trenches at the beginning of each calendar year, making out like bandits come signing day every February. This class for UCLA might have been the one that took the cake though, as it included five youth All-Americans and a pair of full internationals to boot for starters and plenty of other dazzling newcomers to flesh out the class. But then the news that Head Coach Jill Ellis was immediately resigning her post came down the pipes. The long serving Bruins boss was taking up a full-time role with U.S. Soccer after having moonlighted as a youth international coach with the Red, White, and Blue, including being in charge of 2010’s disappointing outing at the U20 World Cup.

Dividing her attention between club and country simply wasn’t going to work any more though, and Ellis chose to stick with her international job, leaving the Bruins with a big hole to fill. Former USWNT great Joy Fawcett laid the foundation for the later work of Ellis with five solid seasons in charge, culminating with the program’s first Pac-10 title in 1997 and an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA Tournament to go with it. When Fawcett resigned after the 1997 season, Todd Saldana bridged the gap for a year and won another league title before heading off the to take over UCLA’s men’s team. When Ellis was brought in to head the program in 1999, it looked a bit of an odd choice as the former Illinois Head Coach had only been with the Illini for two seasons and had led the team to finishes of tenth and eighth in the league. It wouldn’t take long to repay the faith shown in her though, getting all the way to the College Cup final in 2000 and winning her first Pac-10 title in 2001 with the Bruins.

Much of the first decade of the new millennium were heady times for Ellis and UCLA, who won six straight Pac-10 titles in a row from 2003-2008 and made it to the College Cup in all of those seasons plus the 2009 campaign in which they ceded their Pac-10 crown to Stanford. But once at college soccer’s showpiece event, the Bruins would show a maddening inability to close the deal. Some defeats, such as the 2004 shootout defeat in the final to Notre Dame were just cruelly heartbreaking, but others like 2007’s stunning semi-final capitulation to USC, a team they had dominated for years, had many questioning whether Ellis would ever be able to win the big one with the Bruins. 2009 brought the first tiny signs that UCLA may have beginning to slip from their pedestal amongst the nation’s elite as the Bruins were destroyed in the opener by North Carolina, 7-2, lost their Pac-10 crown to Stanford and then saw their season ended by the Cardinal in the College Cup semi-finals in extra time, 2-1.

The big question heading into 2010 was how the Bruins were going to respond after finishing without a Pac-10 title for the first time since 2002. There were also questions about Ellis, who was coming off a fitful summer in which the U.S. U20 team she was guiding had been knocked out in the quarterfinals of the U20 World Cup by Nigeria. The blue half of Los Angeles started promisingly with a blistering 7-0 win over Cal Poly and a tough 1-0 triumph over Wisconsin in Madison, but cracks in the Bruins’ armor would soon appear. Namely, UCLA somehow couldn’t buy a result on Sundays. There was the shock defeat to Northwestern in the third match of the season, followed by a puzzling draw with UC Santa Barbara a few weeks later. The Bruins would also lose 1-0 at Colorado on a Sunday in non-conference play as well.

Despite these worrying results, Ellis’ side also showed trademark glimpses of true quality. Besides the aforementioned win over Wisconsin on the road, UCLA also toppled Notre Dame back in Los Angeles and decisively defeated Denver and San Diego as well. Further victory over Santa Clara had most thinking the Bruins had all the gremlins worked out just before league play, but then, UCLA fell to a shock defeat at home to Pepperdine. It was stunning in more ways than one as the Waves dealt UCLA their first loss at home in over five calendar years, the last defeat having come against Penn State on September 5, 2005, a span of seventy-three matches. It was undoubtedly a result that had the alarm bells ringing once again as UCLA entered Pac-10 action. Two wins in their first three league games helped, but the Bruins did lose, 2-0, to rivals Stanford putting them in a hole early in the title race.

They’d be buried completely after three straight losses in which the offense was shut out by USC, Oregon State, and Washington. The Bruins would rally to win their last three but still finished fourth in the league, the worst result of Ellis’ campaign and tied for the worst league finish in program history. Despite all that, UCLA would get thrown a bone by the selection committee, being chosen to host a regional despite not being a national seed. The Bruins would hold their nerve to beat BYU on penalties in the first round before gritting out a win over UCF in the second round to make it to their twelfth straight Sweet Sixteen.

But Stanford was waiting for them there and had no problem in dispatching the Bruins for the second time in 2010, ending UCLA’s season, and Ellis’ tenure with the club, with a 3-0 win. The decision to promote assistant B.J. Snow into the lead chair wasn’t exactly a difficult one. Snow after all had helped put together UCLA’s 2011 recruiting class, and keeping him on board would likely go a long way in keeping said class intact. Of course, Snow had also been an assistant on Ellis’ staff, and there was really no reason to disrupt continuity, even if 2010 had been atypical in many senses for the Bruins program.

The turmoil didn’t stop with the coaching staff in the offseason. Though the Bruins may be bringing in a tremendously gifted recruiting class, they also lose quite a bit of talent, and not just the players that were expected to depart through graduation either. Gone, is defender Natalia Ledezma, who decided to transfer out to UC Irvine at the conclusion of her freshman campaign. Another U.S. youth international, Ledezma started out the season as mostly a super sub but was a mainstay in the lineup come Pac-10 play. Her loss is a painful one in the immediate sense and in the grand scheme of things since she was only a freshman and conceivably had three more seasons to play for the Bruins. Also gone for good is another one of last year’s freshman class in midfielder Kylie Facinelli, highly regarded but only good for three matches off the bench last year for the Bruins. Like Ledezma though, she was only a freshman and was potentially a key ingredient for future success in Westwood.

Snow still has plenty of riches to work with in Los Angeles though, both returning from last year and coming in from all shores. Even with the amazing recruiting class, much of the focus is likely to fall on the shoulders of senior striker Sydney Leroux. Born in Canada, Leroux controversially made the switch to the United States at international level and has seemingly been in the headlines ever since. Leroux’s star ascended immeasurably with the U.S. U20 World Cup triumph in 2008 in Chile as she snared both the Golden Ball and Golden Boot in a star making performance. The explosive forward came back in 2009 and promptly put up a blistering season in college, scoring twenty-three goals for the Bruins, tying Lauren Cheney’s single-season record.

But Leroux was also on that doomed odyssey to Germany for the 2010 U20 World Cup and missed the fateful penalty that sent the U.S. out in the quarterfinal shootout against Nigeria, which will sadly probably be more remembered than the five goals she scored at the tournament. Leroux seemed to shake off the disappointment in style back in college for the 2010 season with four goals in the opening rout of Cal Poly, but she’d only score nine more throughout the season, which may sound silly offhand, but thirteen goals was a bit of a disappointment for a forward who had the world at her feet just a year prior. To be fair, Leroux did miss three matches while training with the full USWNT, which likely sapped a few goals or more from her final total.

More worrying though was the fact that Leroux was held mostly in check in UCLA’s biggest matches, adding to a burgeoning reputation as a streaky player who can dominate on her day but also fade into the background against top opposition. For the Bruins to be at their best this season, they’ll need Leroux to be at the top of her game. Her athleticism and predatory instincts are devastating when she’s in form, but she can’t do it all herself, and the absence of Cheney beside her may have taken a toll last season.

With that in mind, the Bruins will be looking for new options at forward to emerge. The returnee to watch looks to be junior Zakiya Bywaters, a U.S. U20 international with electric pace that she utilizes to great effect down the flanks. Despite being a fair shade undersized at 5’1″, Bywaters came right in as a highly touted freshman and made an immediate impact on the Bruins in 2009 with three goals and seven assists. Bywaters wasn’t quite as prolific last season, still scoring three goals but seeing her assists drop to four on the season. Still, she was first on the team in league assists and tied for second in Pac-10 points, although that might say more about the Bruins’ Leroux-centric offense more than anything else. But few can keep up with Bywaters on the wing, and the junior’s crosses will provide tempting targets for Leroux and the other forwards this season. Though she’s been used in midfield in the past, Bywaters could be a nice strike partner for Leroux if given the opportunity.

There are few other out and out forward options capable of starting coming back, meaning some of UCLA’s new talent could be on display early in 2011. Of which there is plenty along the frontline, with three hotshot forwards ready to make an impact. The most cultured of the trio is New Zealand international Rosie White, last seen with the Football Ferns at this summer’s World Cup in Germany. White established herself as something of a child phenomenon at the age of fifteen when she scored hat tricks at both the 2008 U17 and U20 World Cups. It’s obviously been a little harder at full international level, but owning thirty plus caps at the age of eighteen is no mean feat. White isn’t as big as many of UCLA’s other powerful strikers (5’5″), and it’ll be interesting to see what she can add to the Bruins right away.

She won’t be an automatic first choice though, because the Bruins also add in U.S. youth internationals Courtney Proctor and Kylie McCarthy, both California products, and both prominent members of the U.S. youth setup in past years. Both are plenty capable of wresting away starting spots and could form interesting partnerships with Leroux and/or Bywaters up front. Of the other returnees, the most likely to make an impact in the lineup may be junior Ahsha Smith, who was one of the team’s top reserves and had the game winner against Denver last year. Leroux’s presence ensures goals no matter who plays up front with her, but an effective running mate up top could bring a whole lot more of the for UCLA this year.

Much in the midfield depends on the health of sophomore Jenna Richmond. Late in the 2010 season the freshman went down with a serious knee injury that raised doubts over her status for 2011. Thought of as a potential star for the 2008 U17 World Cup team, Richmond missed out through an ACL injury then as well. The top recruit in the nation in many’s eyes going into last season, Richmond broke into the starting lineup as a freshman, never an easy feat in Westwood, and finished tied for second on the team with five goals, also tying for second on the team with four assists. If healthy, the sophomore will provide a scoring/creating virtuoso in midfield who will hopefully have to do a little less of the former and get to do a little more of the latter with a more complete complement of forwards on the roster. If she’s out, things become much more complicated. [Richmond is indeed healthy for the 2011 season and has started eight of UCLA’s nine games.]

The team loses a pair of midfielders through graduation in Kylie Wright and Dana Wall that will likely make things more difficult for Snow in his first season in charge. Wright, the first pick of the WPS’ Atlanta Beat in the 2011 WPS Draft, was a U.S. U23 international who was solid and steady in a holding role in the UCLA midfield for the vast majority of her career with the Bruins. Having come in with very high expectations as a freshman, Wright didn’t disappoint in four seasons in Westwood and even filled in on the backline in her senior season as injuries took their toll on the Bruins at times last year. Wall in many ways was an antithesis to Wright, not a top prospect out of high school and limited to key reserve duty for almost all of her career with the Bruins up to last year. But Wall stepped up as a senior and started seventeen matches in the midfield for the Bruins, contributing four assists in the process in her senior year.

Returning is Charney Burk, once a U.S. youth international at U18 level but also a player who saw her development stall at Portland as she fell out of favor with the Pilots in her sophomore season. Burk was a fixture in UCLA’s starting lineup for most of her junior year in 2010 but was only a middling threat offensively with just three assists over the entire season. The final returning starter in the midfield is another 5’1″ junior in Chelsea Cline, who like Bywaters, was a big hit in her freshman season with three goals and six assists after being a highly recruited prospect out of Shattuck-St. Mary’s. The U.S. U20 international saw her offensive production go up in smoke though last season with just a single goal and zero assists all season. The slump cost her a starting spot for much of league season, with Cline only starting four matches for the Bruins in Pac-10 play, though she did rebound to start all of UCLA’s NCAA Tournament matches.

It’s safe to say her, and maybe the others in midfield’s, spots will be under threat from another talented group of newcomers. Chief among the new midfielders is Samantha Mewis, sister of Boston College starlet Kristie and potentially just as good as her sibling. The younger Mewis sister was thought of by some to be this class’ top player and is already a U.S. U20 international and has raked in countless accolades at club and high school level in Massachusetts. The sky is the limit as far as Mewis’ future goes and she is a tantalizing option with Leroux running ahead of her for UCLA this year. Mewis adds much needed size to the Bruins’ midfield and is an early contender for the Pac-12’s Freshman of the Year honor, although she’ll face stiff competition from many of her teammates.

Sarah Killion, another big midfielder out of Indiana who has been ripping up the WPSL in the summer, is another contender for major minutes early on in UCLA’s star studded lineup. Returnees fighting for time include sophomore Chelsea Braun, who started eight matches as a rookie last year before going down with a knee injury against Stanford, and redshirt freshman Crystal Shaffie. There’s no question Snow has tons of raw talent at his disposal in his midfield, it’s just a matter of ensuring all of it gels by crunch time, not a given by any means.

The offense might have to be purring this season, because the defense gets waylaid by significant losses. The biggest of which is Lauren Barnes, a four-year starter who more than lived to big billing coming to Westwood and who ended up as the defensive general that kept UCLA a stalwart unit for much of her time in L.A. Barnes also turned into a factor on the offensive end toward the end of her career, having ten assists in 2009 and then being the team’s second leading scorer with five goals and six assists last season. Barnes is now a member of the WPS’ Philadelphia Independence after being a draft pick of Paul Riley this past January. The team also loses Elise Britt, a career reserve for much of her tenure but a player who stepped up into a starting role for almost all of the league campaign. Those two losses are exacerbated by the transfer of Ledezma to UC Irvine and leave massive holes to fill for Snow and his staff.

The surest thing UCLA might have in defense is junior Lucretia Lee, who stepped up from key reserve to full-time starter as a sophomore and looks set to be the team’s new defensive leader in 2011. Lee provides little going forward but is a solid defender and will be counted upon to marshal the troops this year in what looks like a very young backline. Also returning from starting duties last season is sophomore Ariana Martinez, a forward at club level but a defender with the Bruins last season. She chipped in with three assists for the Bruins as a freshman, including on both goals against Notre Dame, and could be a big contributor again this year after gaining valuable experience on the backline while making thirteen starts for UCLA as a rookie. Key reserves Summer Williams, almost always one of the first players off the bench last year, and Amelia Mathis, who can also fill in in the midfield, could also fight for major minutes if the freshmen don’t hit the ground running.

Naturally, there are a good many newcomers on this unit as well that should threaten for starting spots immediately. Menlo Park native Abby Dahlkemper is a U.S. U20 international and one of the best defenders in this class of recruits, meaning she should be favored to win one of the spots on the backline right out of the gate. Dahlkemper has enormous potential and could grow rapidly into one of the Pac-12’s top defenders. Ally Courtnall, much like Leroux, is a player with dual citizenship for both the U.S. and Canada and is good enough to feature in both countries’ youth international pool. Unlike Leroux however, Courtnall looks to have set her stall out with the Canadians for now. Courtnall’s also a multi-talented threat for the Bruins and is more than capable of holding her own as an attacker and could be used further forward for UCLA as well this year.

Also into the mix comes Hawaiian Caprice Dydasco, one of the best prospects out of the islands in recent years. Dydasco’s the state’s reigning Gatorade Player of the Year and is a U.S. U18 international who could also see a role in midfield for the Bruins. Another U.S. U20 international, Megan Oyster, comes in as highly touted as the others and will be in the starting mix as well. Oyster is the reigning Gatorade State Player of the Year from Illinois and is just another example of the great riches the Bruins have coming in this season.

The wild card in the mix could be sophomore transfer Chelsea Stewart, a full Canadian international who was once expected to be the cornerstone of a revitalized Vanderbilt program. Instead, Stewart dazzled as a freshman in Nashville in 2009 before not featuring last season due to international commitments with the full Canadian national team. Stewart’s high-level experience should hold her in good stead when fighting for minutes among this group, but even someone with her pedigree isn’t assured of anything going into preseason with such a talented group around her. Stewart’s versatility should her in good stead though, and the Colorado native could see time in midfield as well.

Though this unit imports a boatload of talent and many potential starters, the unit’s most important player this year could be its leader, Lee. Regardless of who fills the four slots on UCLA’s backline, it still figures to be perilously young and could take some lumps playing in a conference with such attacking power in almost every opposing side.

In goal, senior Chante’ Sandiford was the team’s undisputed starter for the second year running and should enter 2011 as the team’s first choice in between the pipes. But despite being fairly solid, Sandiford isn’t an elite level goalkeeper and isn’t going to win too many matches on her own for the Bruins. That certainly makes yet another one of Snow’s talented recruits an intriguing player to watch. Katelyn Rowland, a recent fixture in the U.S. U18 team, has been making strides at youth international level this year and looks like UCLA’s goalkeeper of the future. Whether she’s the goalkeeper of the present as well might be worth asking if Sandiford experiences a hiccup or two early in the season for the Bruins in goal.

Fair or not, there will be a great many eyes pointed towards Westwood this season to rule the roost over Snow’s first year in charge with a fine toothed comb. Such is the price one pays for being the man in the head chair when your program brings in one of the most talented recruiting classes in recent college soccer history. But said class can only paper over some of the cracks that were exposed about UCLA last season on the pitch. The offense was altogether too reliant on Leroux, and the team suffered dearly as a result. With five starters gone, UCLA is going to endure a big-time shuffle in the lineup, and chemistry could be a big, big thing for Snow to try and develop as he attempts to get his side to gel before the games get really important.

There’s also the small matter of starting minutes only being able to be split so many ways and massaging the egos of all the stars calling Westwood home for the next three or four years. You can bet almost everyone in that recruiting class expects to be getting major minutes as a freshman, and Snow has a mighty challenge on his hand in satiating all of his youngsters. UCLA will probably be a match for a good many of the opponents on their docket this year, but so much youth could also make them very volatile form-wise, meaning last season’s run of shock results might not be totally eliminated this year.

That inconsistency likely means a title challenge will be tough to come by, although nobody will fancy meeting the Bruins in a one-off situation in the NCAA Tournament. For better or for worse, the 2011 recruiting class combined with the presence of Leroux has turned the Bruins into a new Hollywood United. Over the next handful of years, Snow has the not-so-insignificant task of turning this UCLA program into a box-office smash and not the next Ishtar, not the easiest ask for a man in his first head coaching job.

Heading into 2011, OREGON STATE finds itself in the unusual position of being a realistic contender for supremacy in the state of Oregon this year and going forward. This is a rather surprising development for those far more used to seeing the Beavers playing the role of “opponent” in the Pac-10 for the longest time. Under the leadership of Tom Rowney in the very early years of the league, Oregon State did OK for themselves, finishing in the top tier of the league and reaching the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 1994.

Steve Fennah took over in 1998 but could never bring anything close to success to Corvalis. During a decade in charge, Fennah never managed to lead the Beavers to more than ten wins in a season and could never get the team above sixth in the league. OSU finished eight or worse in the league in seven of Fennah’s ten seasons, including propping up the table in 2006 and 2007. Unsurprisingly given all of the above, Oregon State’s NCAA Tournament drought stretched from their first appearance in 1994 all the way through Fennah’s final season in 2007.

In stark terms, Canadian Linus Rhode was taking over a team in desperate need of hope after more than a decade of despair. Some had to be doubtful initially over Rhode’s appointment, considering he had, after all, been the associate head coach during Fennah’s unsuccessful tenure. But the Beavers’ administration opted to take a chance on the captain of Clive Charles’ 1995 College Cup team at Portland, hoping that he was the man to make OSU relevant nationally or even regionally for that matter. Rhode’s first season didn’t offer up a lot of hope, or at least at first glance it didn’t. Keen observers would have noted that the Beavers ended up losing nine matches by a single goal that year, indicating they were getting closer, even if the final W-L-T record didn’t necessarily reflect that, as Oregon State finished on bottom of the league again.

The payoff came in Rhode’s second year, as the Beavers took massive strides forward in 2009. After a disappointing opening day loss, OSU strung together seven straight wins, a start that would propel them to a much improved Pac-10 season that saw them win four matches, including against USC and Washington, good enough to see them finish fifth in the league. It was also enough to send them to their first NCAA Tournament in fifteen years and only the second in school history. Oregon State would not be afflicted with stage fright in the Big Dance either, taking down Ohio State in Columbus before beating Florida in extra time, earning a Sweet Sixteen date with Notre Dame. Oregon State would fall on that evening but hardly did themselves any harm in a hard fought 1-0 loss.

Naturally, expectations going in 2010 were much higher for the resurgent Beavers, as OSU was tipped by many as a contender to make some serious noise. Rhode’s side opened up with five straight wins, although the opposition defeated wasn’t exactly a murderer’s row of teams. OSU would stutter against San Diego State in a 2-2 draw before falling to UC Irvine, a result that would look much better as the year progressed and the Anteaters kept winning. It’d be the last loss Oregon State would suffer for over a month. The Beavers would start Pac-10 play on a roll and keep rolling. OSU reeled off seven wins in a row, including six clean sheets in succession. This was a mighty impressive feat considering some of the teams they shut out included USC, UCLA, and Washington.

It turned Oregon State into surprise title contenders in the Pac-10 and set up a league title showdown against Stanford in Palo Alto. The Beavers battled valiantly but were beaten by the better side on the night, 2-0. Oregon State would go on to lose at Cal a few days later in a match that meant a lot more to the Bears than the Beavers, seeing as how OSU had already wrapped up second place in the league before the final day of the season.

Oregon State would get a nasty surprise on Selection Monday though, ludicrously not being one of the top sixteen seeded teams and ending up shipped out to Stillwater and Oklahoma State’s regional as a result. The Beavers took out a little anger on Memphis in the first round, smashing the Tigers, 5-0, in one of the first weekend’s most impressive performances. But Rhode’s team would end up in a matchup of likely Top 15 teams in the second round against the Cowgirls. Despite taking the lead just at the stroke of half-time, Oregon State would eventually buckle under late pressure and fall, 2-0. It was a tough way for the program’s best ever season to end, and you had to wonder how for OSU might’ve gone with a little more coherent bracket formation from the selection committee.

The somewhat premature end to the 2010 season for the Beavers should add no shortage of fuel to the fires of motivation in Corvalis for what could be a very special 2011 campaign. The vast majority of the squad that challenged for the Pac-10 title down to the wire last year returns and appears set to push on for silverware. Key to that challenge will be Oregon State’s withering defense, a unit that kept fourteen clean sheets in twenty-one matches last season, including streaks of five matches in a row to open up the 2010 season and six matches in the middle of league play, no mean feat considering the depth and talent of most Pac-10 offenses. That group returns more or less intact for the new season, a fact that should have opposing offenses nationwide worried.

It all begins between the pipes for Oregon State, with senior Colleen Boyd looking to continue her development as one of the nation’s top goalkeepers. A part-time starter for her first two seasons in Corvalis, Boyd made the position her own last year, playing every single minute in goal for the Beavers. Boyd’s a big, rangy keeper with real shot stopping ability and has turned into a key part of OSU’s turnaround in the past few seasons. She’s seen her value rocket up WPS Draft boards after last season’s excellent performance and could be worth a later round pick should she repeat those feats this season. Boyd’s understudy is likely to be a newcomer to the Beavers in the form of Canadian sophomore Audrey Bernier-Larose. The Saint Leo University transfer could be the team’s goalkeeper of the future but will likely see only minimal minutes behind the entrenched Boyd this year. Boyd should have no worries in front of her as Oregon State looks set to return their starting entire backline for 2011.

Senior Brittany Galindo is the leader of the experienced back four and should become a four-year starter for the Beavers this year as she marshals the defense. Galindo’s been a workhorse for the Beavers in defense in her three seasons with the club, leading the team in minutes played last season while also chipping in with an assist in the NCAA Tournament rout of Memphis. Fellow senior Ashley Seal took the road less traveled to Corvalis, going from former walk-on to key contributor who can also drop in the odd goal or two, as exhibited by her five strikes as a sophomore in 2009. That season, Seal scored the match winner in three straight wins, though her goalscoring form didn’t repeat itself for much of last season. Seal did tally the game tying goal against rivals Oregon but was mostly valued for her defensive qualities in eighteen starts for the Beavers.

Ashley Folsom and Milan Cabrera round out a big, physical group that gives no quarter. Cabrera grew into a full-time starter last season, scoring the game winner against Weber State and assisted on a goal in the rout of UCLA. Folsom’s a senior with forty-seven starts to her name and had the team’s match winning strike against Arizona while also dishing out a couple of assists and is another experienced campaigner in a unit full of them. The rearguard shouldn’t be lacking in experience with three seniors and a junior, with three starting every match last season, and the other, Seal, starting in eighteen of the Beavers’ matches.

If all that wasn’t enough, Oregon State adds in a key transfer, their only major addition this season, in ex-UNC Greensboro defender Morgan Kennedy. Kennedy started every match in defense for the Spartans last season and could conceivably challenge for such a spot in the OSU defense this season. The Beavers’ backline is a versatile bunch and could easily push Folsom or Seal into midfield to make room for Kennedy. Adding further depth is junior Justyne Freud, one of the team’s top reserves last season who finished with four assists in her sophomore season, and sophomore Jessica Niewoehner, who could be in line for an increased role after featuring rarely last year.

The only worry for the Beavers this season looks to be in that midfield which loses two starters this year. One of those players just happens to be one of the top players in program history in midfielder/defender Courtney Wetzel. Wetzel became a cult heroine in Corvalis in 2009 when she scored two goals in Oregon State’s 3-1 win over Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Wetzel earned a recall to the U.S. U23 team after that stellar season, and she followed it up with a dazzling display in midfield, dishing out a dazzling twelve assists over the course of her senior season. She won’t be easy to replace, and neither will Brit Jayne Eadie, an England U23 international who unexpectedly left the team after the 2010 season, transferring to Texas A&M.

The returning midfielders are led by the dangerous Melinda Ingalls, who scored the golden goal winner against Florida in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2009. Ingalls proved to be a deadly attacking threat from midfield last season with seven goals, four of them being match winners. The former Western Oregon player has made a smooth transition to DI and could also provide a spark on the frontline should the team need it this season. Lindsay Meiggs and Jacy Drobney also return after seeing a good deal of starting time last season as well and will be expected to continue to keep developing to help the Beavers’ cause.

Meiggs, a junior, started seventeen matches last year after barely seeing the field as a freshman, adding a goal against UCLA for the Beavers last season. Drobney was a hit for OSU as a rookie last year, starting the final fourteen matches of the season, and should be a prominent member of the Beavers’ lineup again if she can avoid a sophomore slump. Filling the gap from Wetzel and Eadie’s departures could be Meiggs’ sister Natalie, a big presence at 5’11”, highly touted sophomore Brittney Oljar, who didn’t see the field as a freshman, junior Megan Miller, who started eight matches last season, sophomore Haley Shaw, who saw most of her time as a reserve last year, or even one of the defenders who could be moved up if Kennedy slots right into defense. The Beavers’ midfield doesn’t pack a whole lot of star power but is full of experience and grit that should hold them in good stead in the massively competitive Pac-12.

It’s the OSU attack that’s going to grab most of the headlines for the Beavers this year though, and rightfully so. The frontline combo of Canadians Chelsea Buckland and Jenna Richardson has the potential of being one of the best one-two punches in the country. Buckland, a junior with slick dribbling and a low center of gravity that makes her tough to stop, looks poised on the precipice of stardom after a ten goal outburst for the Beavers last season.

As the story goes, Buckland, overlooked by the Canadian national setup for the longest time, had a highlight reel sent in to National Team officials after the season to try and get called up to a training camp. Roughly half a year later, Buckland found herself training with the full national team in preparation for the 2011 Women’s World Cup and made the squad as an alternate. Double digit goals should be within reach for the Canadian again this season, and the Vancouver native is a potential early round pick in 2013’s WPS Draft.

Buckland could eventually be eclipsed by Canadian teammate Jenna Richardson, a whippet quick sophomore who also comes from Vancouver and has featured as a member of the Canadian U20 team in recent years. Despite missing a few matches and only starting twice in non-conference play, Richardson proved more than equal to the hype she came in with after scoring nine goals and five assists as a freshman. The dazzling season was good enough to see her named the Pac-10’s Freshman of the Year, not an award to be looked down upon given the talent of the league.

A third Canadian, U20 international Erin Uchacz found it harder in her freshman season, only playing in thirteen matches and netting one start with two goals to her name in 2010. There’s still plenty of time for her to develop at this level though, and if she makes a big stride forward this season, OSU will be all the stronger on offense for it. Providing depth could be hometown product Marissa Kovac, who redshirted last year, or Ingalls, who has already shown her offensive capabilities for the Beavers.

Rhode has worked mini-miracles in Corvalis through three seasons as the Beavers’ supremo. A program once lumbering around the Pac-10 aimlessly has now become a hotbed of talent and one of the nation’s fastest rising programs. OSU’s strong run through the Pac-10 last year should have served as a warning shot to the rest of the league that they will be factors for years to come. Rhode’s Canadian background and connections have enabled him to establish a pipeline into Vancouver and bring some of the city’s best talents to Corvalis, giving Oregon State a huge boost in a short amount of time.

This year’s edition of the Beavers is strong all over the pitch and doesn’t have a discernible weakness if they can sufficiently replace the midfield combo of Wetzel and Eadie. They have experience all over the park, one of the best keepers in the country, strength on set pieces, and a scoring duo with the capacity for greatness in Buckland and Richardson. Rhode has proven to be a shrewd boss in a short period of time at the helm and has instilled a toughness and grittiness that has served the Beavers very well so far. Oregon State should be more than a little hungry after their season ended too early for their tastes last season, which is bad news for their conference rivals. Make no mistake about it, OSU has every opportunity to win the league this season, especially with Stanford coming to Corvalis in the Fall. And they might not stop there either. This Beavers team has every chance to make it to Kennesaw in December. Ignore them at your peril.

Heavy is the head that wears the crown. A maxim that rings true, as discovered by USC the hard way over the past few seasons. Now four seasons after one of the most shocking triumphs in college soccer history, the Women of Troy are still looking to replicate the program’s stunning national title win in 2007. For the better part of their history, the Trojans were presided over by Jim Millinder with mixed results. On one hand, the Women of Troy were consistently in the upper half of the Pac-10 and brought home the 1998 league title. But USC also found it hard to escape mid-table in many seasons.

The kiss of death for Millinder was USC’s failings in the NCAA Tournament. Millinder guided the program to eight NCAA Tournaments but was never able to lead USC past the second round. That postseason futility, taking into account the talent that was flowing through the red half of Los Angeles, including a certain Amy Rodriguez, was enough to see the program part ways with Millinder following the 2006 season.

Into the breach stepped successful Cal State Fullerton Head Coach Ali Khosroshahin. In addition to being a fanatical devotee to fitness within his team, Khosroshahin was known as an infamous hardass who wouldn’t tolerate prima donnas within his team. That turned out to be a good thing for the Trojans who responded to the change in culture with a stifling defense, set piece mastery, and just enough of the dark arts to instill a tenacity within the team that had been missing before. USC finished a surprising runner-up in the Pac-10 before an NCAA Tournament run that saw them suffocate teams defensively en route to a run to the College Cup.

They ran up against city rivals UCLA in a second Battle of Los Angeles. Few gave the Trojans much of a chance. After all, USC hadn’t beaten their nemesis in nine seasons (they wouldn’t beat them again until 2010). It didn’t look good after USC went behind, but the Women of Troy would be witness to Amy Rodriguez’s finest hour in college soccer, as the USWNT striker led her side back to a 2-1 win that was a stunner in most circles. Almost as stunning was how easily USC handled Florida State in the final. Khosroshahin was only the second coach in DI soccer history to win a national title in his first year at the helm of a program (Randy Waldrum of Notre Dame the other in 2004). With a young squad, including Rodriguez and current FC Twente captain Ashley Nick returning in 2008, some were talking repeat.

But their talismanic striker had Olympic duty to worry about and the Trojans now had to deal with having a giant target on their back. All things considered, third in the league and an exit in the Sweet Sixteen was a bit disappointing, moreso since their exit came at the hands of UCLA. 2009 marked an even more frustrating season as the Women of Troy slid back to fourth in the league and were bounced at the first hurdle of the postseason on penalties against Oklahoma State.

With much of the 2007 title winning team having departed, 2010 was something of the start of a new beginning for the Trojans with a star studded recruiting class hitting L.A. The Trojans were in for a major shock right off the bat though as they were upended at home by San Diego. USC rebounded to go nine unbeaten and strung together six wins in a row, although the only one over a Top 50 RPI team was a 4-1 shellacking of Oklahoma. The Trojans would pick up their second loss of the season to a familiar foe, the very same Toreros who had beaten them earlier, though this loss came on the road. After a narrow defeat to Stanford in the Los Angeles Coliseum, USC came back a few days later to win the match of the season against Cal, 5-4, in extra time.

A bad trip to Oregon that netted just one point all but killed off USC’s title hopes, but the Trojans rebounded with their first win over UCLA since the College Cup win over the Bruins in 2007 (at the Coliseum in front of an NCAA regular season record 8,527 fans) and a sweep of the Washington schools. USC was then stunned by Arizona State in a 3-0 loss in Tempe before sweeping aside Arizona to finish third in the league. USC would get a tough draw in the NCAA Tournament, being sent to South Bend to Notre Dame’s regional. After an assured performance in beating Illinois, the visitors were put to the sword in ruthless fashion by the Irish, who clobbered USC, 4-0. It was an unglamorous end to the collegiate careers of most of the last vestiges of the Trojans’ 2007 title team.

Bristling with young talent, USC will be looking for a return to the top of the mountain with most last season’s squad back in 2011. The Trojans scored plenty of goals last season and did it without any one player stepping up into a role as the go-to scorer. USC loses star-crossed striker Megan Ohai who was a revelation as a freshman in USC’s title winning season but never quite reached the same heights again in her Trojan career, ending with two goals and two assists last year as she shifted between midfield and attack.

Though Ohai departs, the Women of Troy still return a good deal of promising attacking personnel. U.S. U20 international Elizabeth Eddy entered USC in 2010 as one of the country’s top freshman prospects and certainly showed flashes of true skill in her first season in L.A. While Alex Morgan’s cameo may have grabbed many of the headlines in Cal’s thriller with USC, Eddy also nabbed a hat trick and was an overwhelming presence in the match. With a season under her belt, Eddy should be even better this year and could presumably hit double digits for the Trojans.

Junior Samantha Johnson and senior Ashley Freyer could both also be in the mix for a starting role after playing the role of super subs for much of 2010. Johnson was down a little bit from her strong freshman season where she had four goals and four assists but still managed to at least equal her rookie goal tally with four last season though she only made eight starts. Freyer’s a versatile senior who has seen time in both attack and defense in her Trojan career and has been one of the team’s most dependable reserves for the past three seasons. The Windsor, California native has more goals (nine) than starts (seven) in her USC career and could blossom into a fine scoring option if she wins a starting job up front for the Women of Troy this season.

The Trojans will also be hoping for a healthy season from sophomore Morgan Morrow, a workhorse trying to come back from another ACL injury suffered in the middle of last season. The team’s top recruit of 2011, Jessica Musmanno, will also fancy her chances of making an immediate impact after coming to the West Coast from New Jersey club PDA. Musmanno is the crown jewel of this recruiting class and was a member of the PDA team that won the National Title for the U17 age group in 2010 and should contend immediately for major minutes. A wild card this season could be Pierce College transfer Erica Vangsness, who scored forty-one goals in two seasons at JUCO level and could be a real diamond in the rough for the Trojans.

The midfield is, naturally under Khosroshahin, full of hard workers who aren’t afraid to do the hard work in the middle while also showing a capability for putting the ball in the back of the net. The team will miss clutch performer Alyssa Davila though who leaves after a bit of a less productive offensive season, with her two goals in 2010 her lowest total of her career. Davila’s veteran leadership won’t be replaced easily though, even as USC returns many of their midfielders.

The top returning option should be the last link to 2007’s title winning team, fifth-year senior Ashli Sandoval. Sandoval tallied eleven assists in that national title season but has become more of a goal scorer since then for the Trojans. She scored six in both 2008 and 2010, more impressive last season as she was still trying to come back from a knee injury that wrecked her 2009 season. Boasting a cannon for a shot, Sandoval is deadly from set pieces as she showed in winning the match against Cal last year with a rocket of a free kick. She’ll be integral to USC’s hopes this season and will hope to go out with a flourish.

Haley Boysen and Carly Butcher figure to provide offense in equal turn for the Women of Troy from midfield. Boysen’s first collegiate goal was a big one, specifically the Trojans’ golden goal against Auburn last year. Boysen finished with three goals and two assists in a fine rookie season and could be starting more than the eight games she did as a freshman last year. Butcher will be looking to rebound from a bit of a down season last year with just a goal and an assist all year. The Alaskan has the potential to make a big impact though when on form, having scored five goals as a rookie, following it up with five assists a year after. Brittany Kerridge is the steel in the Trojans’ midfield and won’t make headlines but will do her job as one of the more consistent players on USC’s roster. The former U.S. U18 international is also good for the odd goal or assist each season for the Women of Troy and should provide great veteran leadership to this solid unit.

Defensively, USC needs to take a step forward if they want to contend for a title, something that could be tough without their backline leader, Karter Haug. A remarkably consistent defender, Haug never really got her due until another typically brilliant senior season for the Trojans. Haug also showed her offensive chops last year as well, tabling more assists as a senior (six) than in her previous three year combined. Those six assists led the team, and Haug’s all-around game will be tough to replace. There are question marks among the returnees. Sophomore Mia Bruno was a sure thing as a freshman but was injured in the spring with knee problems and will miss the 2011 season.

Junior Chelsea Buehning went down with a serious injury early last year and needs to be healthy for the Trojans to be at their best this year. The first-choice USC left-back may not be at 100% initially though, placing a further strain on this unit. Claire Schloemer is likely the backline member with the least questions around her entering this year, while Freyer and Sanoval can also fill in in a pinch. After playing very little as a freshman, Schloemer has blossomed into a constant on the USC backline, having started forty-one games over the past two seasons. With much of the starting defense seemingly in flux, Schloemer’s steady presence could be a big part in ensuring the defense doesn’t wobble this year.

Given some of the potential frailties in defense this year, it should be of little surprise that the club may be moving some of their more attacking players into defense this year. Junior Courtney Garcia made a big splash as a freshman with three match winning goals and kept up the scoring pace last season with three goals and three assists. Garcia brings twenty-six matches of starting experience to the table and will be hoping to make a smooth transition to defense. Sophomore, and likely fellow convert, Autumn Altamirano was one of the team’s top reserves last year, chipping in with five goals, including the winner against UCLA, finishing second on the team in goals. Whether the two transitions work out is up in the air, especially in such an offensive league, but the Trojans are desperate for depth and hope the gambles pay off. The Women of Troy may also need an immediate contribution from UC Riverside transfer Kristina Noriega, a fine defender in a smaller conference, but an unproven commodity at this level.

Goalkeeper was a big worry entering last season after the loss of Krisin Olsen to graduation, but true freshman Shelby Church came in and held the position down despite not coming onto campus with a huge degree of hype behind her. Church won the confidence of the coaches early and played every single minute in goal for the Trojans last year and was recalled to the U.S. U20 team in the offseason. Given her performance last season, it would be a surprise if Church doesn’t hold off untested returnee, Anne Turner and newcomers Carley Pennington and Lindsey Brown for the position.

Though the memories of 2007 are starting to ebb slightly as that talented team moves on, the tenacious spirit of that team lives on through the current generation. Fit, well-drilled, and mean if they have to be, USC are not an opponent to be trifled with. The offense has its fair share of weapons, and in Eddy, has a player who could grow into a game-changing force if she can avoid a sophomore slump. Sandoval is also a real difference maker when healthy, and keeping her fit and on form could be key for the Women of Troy in 2011. If Khosroshahin can sort out a backline that has a few question marks through injury and depth coming into this year, USC has a good chance of finishing in the upper tier of the Pac-12 and perhaps winning a match or two in November. If the renovations in defense don’t take though, the Women of Troy might find progress a bit more difficult this season.

In all honesty, if you haven’t been keeping up with what has transpired in the desert with ARIZONA STATE over the past few (or several) years, you haven’t missed much. The Sun Devils have been consistently average over much of the past decade, jarringly so, to the point that they’ve won between eight and ten matches for seven seasons running. Unsurprisingly, that’s had ASU stuck in mid-table in the Pac-10 with very little attention coming their way. The Sun Devils didn’t really start to attract any sort of attention whatsoever until the turn of the millennium when they made their first NCAA Tournament in 2000 in Terri Patraw’s final season in charge. ASU poached Clemson coach Ray Leone away from the ACC to take over and were rewarded with a runner-up finish in the league and two trips to the second round of the NCAA Tournament in his first three seasons in charge.

But after that 2003 runner-up finish in the league, ASU has been stuck in a mediocre mire, good enough to avoid being dragged down into the bottom portion of the league but not good enough to ever really challenge the top teams. Leone jetted off to Boston to take over the Harvard program after 2006, leaving the Sun Devils to make a shock appointment to the vacant position. Ex-Cal Head Coach Kevin Boyd had only resigned from the Bears just a few weeks prior after some degree of success in Berkeley. With the Sun Devils having not reached the NCAA Tournament since 2003 when Boyd took over, it was safe to say that the new coach was expected to rectify that after his exploits in taking the Bears to multiple NCAA Tournaments in his tenure at Cal.

Early results weren’t necessarily promising with the Sun Devils still about where they usually were come the end of the season, although they were most definitely one of the last teams out come Selection Monday in 2007. ASU was, however, not so fortunate in 2008 when they finished at .500 and some ways off the bubble. Pressure was beginning to mount on Boyd to buck the trend of Sun Devil mediocrity entering 2009, and the ASU Head Coach obliged in a way, starting with a strong non-conference season including wins over Tennessee, San Diego State, and Pepperdine, along with a draw against Virginia.

While the Sun Devils looked to be in a favorable position to make their first NCAA Tournament in a long while, they promptly hit the skids in league play, going an unflattering 0-6-1 in their first seven Pac-10 matches. The Pac-10’s great RPI profile was ensuring that the Sun Devils weren’t slipping that much though, and wins in the final weekend over the Oregon schools made ASU’s selection to the Big Dance a no-brainer, even if some howled in anger at a 2-6-1 team in-conference making the postseason. Admittedly, Arizona State didn’t do much to silence the critics, falling on penalties in the first round against Wisconsin.

The Sun Devils entered 2010 hoping for some continued growth and to finally be able to break free of being regarded as just a little above average in the college soccer landscape. The year started out with a shaky 4-3 win over minnows Northern Arizona before the Sun Devils settled into a groove. There were wins over Baylor, Charlotte, Tennessee, and Nebraska, the last a 5-0 mauling, in addition to a 1-1 draw at South Carolina. A 1-0 win over Ohio State at a neutral site seemed to confirm that perhaps this ASU team had what it takes to rise above the pack and deliver a standout season. But the win over the Buckeyes was followed by a jaw dropping 5-0 loss to UCF in Tucson, raising those doubts all over again.

The hammering kicked off a stretch of just one win in five for the Sun Devils with losses to bubble sides Long Beach State and Washington along with a draw at Pepperdine bringing Boyd’s team back to Earth. ASU was floundering in league play, with four more winless matches after a victory over rivals Arizona in Tempe. The loss to Oregon was especially damaging, and there were worries once again that ASU might be near the bubble on Selection Monday. A 3-0 win over USC put those worries to rest, but a regular season ending 3-0 defeat to UCLA left the Sun Devils an unflattering seventh in the league. ASU would find themselves in the field of sixty-four again but would go down tamely to UC Irvine in the very first round, 2-1. In short, it was essentially more of the same from a program seemingly spinning its wheels at the moment.

Much of Arizona State’s woes last season in league play centered on a lack of firepower up front, a puzzling development seeing as how the Sun Devils had score three or more goals in four of their first six matches in 2010. It’s a problem that may get worse before it gets better as ASU loses its two top scorers from last year, Karin Volpe and Alexandra Elston. Volpe started out in electric form last season with seven goals in non-conference play before cooling down considerably with just two goals in Pac-10 play. Volpe never developed into a superstar in Tempe but she was a fairly steady scorer in her four seasons with the Sun Devils, and more importantly, she was far and away ASU’s top scoring option last season.

Elston was one of the squad’s best players of recent years and turned in a breakout season in 2009 with seven goals and six assists. Her stats took a bit of a backwards step last season, but Elston was still good enough to finish second on the team in goals with five and led the team in Pac-10 goals with three. The midfield also loses starter Jill Shoquist, who was less of an offensive threat but who fought her way into the starting lineup in the middle of the season, starting every match in the league.

With the depletion of offense from last season, Arizona State may be banking more than ever on the development of sophomore forward Devin Marshall. Marshall, a former U.S. U15 inernational was a strong pickup in last season’s recruiting class by the ASU staff but just turned in a modest return of three goals and four assists as a rookie last season. With a little more experience in the rigors of this level of college soccer, Marshall could well make a big leap forward for ASU this season. More will be expected this season of Marshall who should be front and center in the Sun Devil attack with the loss of Volpe and Elston.

Marshall is the only returnee to have scored in league play last year, a worrying fact for Boyd. Junior Sierra Cook recovered from serious injury in 2009 to start strong with three goals in non-conference play last year but faded and was held to only one point in Pac-10 action. Cook still ended up fourth on the team in points though and could be in for more goals another year removed from her injury. Reserves Miah Mollay and Alyssa Freeman will also be looking to earn major minutes up front. Freeman can also double as a defender and had the team’s winning goal against Ohio State last year. The Sun Devils will also hope for the return of junior Courtney Tinnin, who had four goals and six assists in 2009 but has missed almost all of tow of the last three seasons through injury.

Boyd and ASU will likely be leaning heavily on the contributions of freshman Alexandra Doller right away. A local product from Tempe and the Arizona Sting club, Doller has the potential to be the complete forward the Sun Devils have been craving for. A star in ECNL action for the Sting, Doller should find herself in the starting lineup sooner than later if all goes according to plan.

The midfield is in a little better shape with little workhorse Taylor McCarter back again after starting every match for the Sun Devils the past two seasons and impressing many in the process. McCarter’s not a huge offensive force for ASU but usually manages the odd goal or assist every season. Sophomore Holland Crook is also back and had three assists as a freshman, including two against Tennessee, and will need to keep progressing if ASU is to have a successful season. McCarter and Crook are the only midfielders back with a great deal of starting experience at this level, meaning ASU’s going to have to hope some of the reserves or newcomers can step into starting roles.

Nicole Acosta saw action in fourteen matches off the bench last season and could be one of the favorites for increased time. Acosta was a two-time JUCO All-American at Paradise Valley CC, finishing with seventeen goals and twenty assists in two years, showing she may have something to give to ASU’s offense if she’s on form. Sophomore Blair Alderson and junior Aissa Sanchez will also be among the returning reserves aiming to win starting minutes this year. The midfield also adds Trinidadian youth international Jessica DeLeon who should be an immediate factor in the middle of the park with her ability to both distribute and score in equal turn. DeLeon’s also starred with the SC del Sol club in recent ECNL action as well and should be right in the hunt for major minutes as a freshman.

With the major questions in attack, Arizona State will be thanking their lucky stars they pretty much return an intact defense from last season. The veteran of the group is senior Kari Shane, who showed a penchant for getting up to help the attack also last year, tying for the team lead in assists with four. A pair of those assists came in ASU’s win over USC in Pac-10 play, and the senior comes into this year with thirty-six matches of starting experience to her name and should again be the leader of this rearguard. Also back is 5’10” titan Kaitlyn Pavlovich who started every match as a freshman for the Sun Devils after coming highly regarded out of high school. Pavlovich is an important part of the future for the Sun Devils in addition to already being a valuable member of the present and had the assist on Devin Marshall’s goal in last season’s NCAA Tournament defeat to UC Irvine.

Boyd will also be hoping for a full year of health from junior Sierra Joseph after the Sun Devil starter was hobbled by a foot injury for much of 2010. Joseph started every match for the Sun Devils as a freshman and is a major asset to this squad when fully healthy. Jasmine Roth also found herself thrust into the starting lineup right off the bat last year as well, starting eighteen games as a rookie and proving to be a threat in front of goal as well, with tallies against Baylor and Tennessee. Adding depth are junior Kiara Williams, who has mostly appeared off the bench in her two seasons in Tempe but has also shown a goalscoring touch at times with three goals in 2009 and could also be deployed up front, and senior Kate Sangster, who started fifteen times in 2008 but has been sparsely used since.

ASU has a strong goalkeeping situation as well. After taking over at mid-season in 2009 in goal, Alyssa Gillmore somewhat unexpectedly held off the challenge of freshman Vittoria Arnold to retain the starting spot for all of 2010. Arnold, from the powerhouse Dallas Texans club and a U.S. U18 international, was limited to two substitute appearances and may be relegated to backup duty again, though you’d have to figure that a goalkeeper of her calibre would be able to wrest the starting job away sooner rather than later. Regardless of which of the two is in between the pipes for 2011, having a pair of quality keepers on the books can only be seen as a good thing for a club with so many questions elsewhere through the team.

Arizona State fans must surely be getting sick of the never ceasing pattern of middling results in the league, but that doesn’t seem likely to change this season. If anything, the Sun Devils look poised for a potential step back considering how feeble the offense looks without Volpe and Elston in their ranks. There is little proven goal scoring talent on the roster, with Marshall looking the likeliest option, but even so, she needs to take a big step forward to become a true impact player in the Pac-12. If the newcomers don’t provide a jolt to the offense or the returnees don’t show great improvement, it’s tough to see ASU keeping up with the top teams in the league. The defense isn’t bad, but it’s also not dominant enough to totally compensate for a toothless offense. A higher finish than last year’s seventh in the league looks unlikely, and Arizona State’s streak of consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances also looks in serious jeopardy this year.

Shortly after WASHINGTON‘s 2-1 defeat in Pullman in the annual Apple Cup rivalry match with Washington State, you might have been forgiven for thinking that the Huskies might have blown it after a damaging defeat, their third in four matches and one that put them squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble. It’s safe to say that that three weeks later, nobody was doubting these Huskies any more. With one of the great Cinderella runs of recent seasons, Washington came within a goal of reaching a shock College Cup.

Then again, maybe it’s time for people to stop being so surprised when Lesle Gallimore’s side overcomes overwhelming odds. Gallimore has become a part of the furniture in Seattle, serving since 1994 and having gone through just about every type of season imaginable while in charge of the Huskies. UW were up in the top half of the Pac-10 for Gallimore’s first few seasons in charge and even made the Sweet Sixteen in 1994, her first season at the helm. After some middle of the road seasons, Washington would achieve glory in 2000, lifting the program’s only major trophy to date with the Pac-10 title. The side featuring future USWNT star Hope Solo would see their NCAA Tournament derailed at the Sweet Sixteen stage by Pacific Northwestern rivals Portland, a common theme throughout the years for the Huskies. In all, entering last season, Washington had been knocked out by the Pilots in the Big Dance five times.

The next big moment in Washington soccer history would come in 2004 in the senior season of another great future pro, Tina Ellertson (nee Frimpong). The Huskies would finish in third in the Pac-10 but do a whole lot of damage in November, running all the way to the Elite Eight where they would finally fall to an upstart Princeton team. What happened next was incomprehensible. The Huskies were a young side in 2005, and some expected struggles, but nobody expected 0-17-3, quite probably the biggest drop-off in wins from year-to-year in college soccer history. The Huskies hadn’t exactly played a bunch of nobodies, with nine ranked teams on that schedule, but it was still mystifying, and was probably more than a lot of coaches could have survived.

But Gallimore’s Elite Eight the season before had bought her a lot of time, and slowly but surely, the Huskies would banish those memories. The freshmen of that fateful 2005 season would be rewarded duly in 2008 as the Huskies won fifteen matches (including one in the NCAA Tournament) and finished third in the league. It was a little more modest in 2009, with fifth in the league and another second round appearance in the Big Dance.

Most expected more of the same steady sailing from Seattle in 2010, meaning a mid-table finish and perhaps a win in the NCAA Tournament. Early results did little to dissuade anyone of that prognostication. Washington topped Penn State at a neutral site and drew with Wisconsin but also were pummeled by Boston University and lost to Rutgers two days after the Penn State win. But a little clue as to just how good the Huskies could be came in their annual showdown at Merlo Field against Portland in front of 4,285 raucous fans. UW and the Pilots played out a rough and tumble affair with Portland that saw the Huskies gain an early lead, only to lose it late in regulation and then concede a penalty with just over a minute to play in the second half of extra time.

It was a loss that stung the Huskies and would probably gnaw at them through the Pac-10 season. Gallimore’s team would start out league play 3-3, with all three of those losses by a single goal before a huge win against UCLA on the road to edge them closer to the NCAA Tournament field. A loss to USC likely mattered little in that regard, all UW had to do to feel relatively confident going into Selection Monday was beat rival Washington State. But defeat against the Cougars in Pullman left Washington sweating until they saw their name pop up on Monday in the bracket.

They made the most of their new life in the postseason. Oklahoma was thumped by four goals in the first round before a rematch with Portland loomed in the second round. With the stakes high, three thousand in Portland would bear witness to one of the classic NCAA Tournament matches. An even first half saw Washington take the lead but Portland equalize ten seconds later. After the half, Portland would barrack the Washington goal but be denied by one of the great all-time NCAA Tournament goalkeeping performances by Washington keeper Jorde Lafontaine-Kussman.

At the end of extra-time, Lafontaine-Kussman and the Huskies were still standing, no thanks in large part to the UW keeper’s thirteen saves. What followed was an unreal shootout, full of tension and perfectly taken penalties. It got to the point where every shooter on the list had gone and the score was still tied at 9-9, meaning they’d start over from the very beginning of the list. Kate Deines made her second penalty for Washington. Jessica Tsao of Portland did not. Lafontaine-Kussman had made one of the biggest saves in Washington Soccer history, sending her side to the Sweet Sixteen.

There, they’d get more heroics, topping UC Irvine in extra time to advance to the program’s second Elite Eight against Boston College. This time, it’d be Washington’s turn to suffer sudden death heartbreak, falling 1-0 to the Eagles in extra time. The season may have been over, but the memories the 2010 Huskies created will live for a long, long time in the memories of many.

What on Earth can Gallimore and Washington do for an encore in 2011? Whatever that may be, it’ll probably run through the heartbeat of the Huskies, senior midfielder Kate Deines. Deines, a fast riser who featured on the U.S. U23 team this summer, has rocketed up WPS draft boards after a tremendous 2010 season with nine goals, most on the team, including a team leading three in league play and three match-winners, tied for most on the squad. The engine room of Washington for the past three seasons, Deines also saw time on the backline late in 2010 due to injuries. She’s one of the best tempo setting midfielders in all the land and will be vital to Washington’s success this season.

Deines, Washington’s captain, will be even more important this season as the team loses a pair of starting midfielders in Jane Mitchell and Kellye Joswick. Joswick was quite the success story for Washington last season after coming back from a 2009 ACL tear to strike with four goals and three assists from midfield after featuring in defense for two seasons for the Huskies.

Besides Deines, the Huskies still do have the talents of U.S. U20 international Lindsay Elston to call upon. A big center midfielder with a great combo of size and speed, Elston was fantastic as a freshman for the Huskies, chipping in with three goals and a team leading five assists. She’s one that should get better with age and perhaps a berth on the 2012 U.S. U20 World Cup team and forms a great midfield duo with Deines. The team may have to do without the services of Kelsea Brajkovich though after the junior had knee surgery in the spring, with the procedure possibly limiting or eliminating her from action this season. Brajkovich has been one of the team’s top reserves the past two seasons and will be sorely missed if she can’t play.

To fill the vacant spots, the Huskies might turn to Brianna Sweeney and Kellie Welch. Sweeney may be new to the midfield, having played mostly in defense last year, but she’s certainly not new to the starting lineup after starting eleven of Washington’s first twelve in 2010. Sweeney will likely fill in as the team’s defensive midfielder while also of course remaining an option on the backline if need be. Welch is a feel good story who has torn her ACL three times over the past few seasons and will be eager to get back onto the pitch after missing the 2009 and 2010 seasons. Welch certainly doesn’t lack hunger or heart and could fill almost any midfield role for the Huskies this year.

Goals on the whole could be a sticking point for the Huskies who had a lot of players chip in with timely goals but none other than Deines strike with any regularity. Senior Sarah Martinez made the biggest impact of the forwards with five goals and three assists and also could feature in midfield for the Huskies this year. Martinez scored the match winner against Oklahoma in the NCAA Tournament, and all three of her assists were for match winning goals. The senior is an aggressive and fearless forward who can be a handful for opponents and will likely be leading the line this year.

UW will also be hoping for more from fellow senior Alex Webber who only score three times in 2010 but made them count, with all of her goals being match winners. The senior was a starter in eleven matches last year and gives Gallimore a speedy option up top to utilize. Reserves Allie Beahan, Kelli Stewart, and Hillary Zevenbergen could all also stake claims for a starting spot. Stewart, a senior, can serve up balls from the flank as well as she finishes and will provide vital leadership and experience as well for Washington this year. Beahan made herself a cult heroine in Seattle last year with the goal in extra time against UC Irvine that propelled UW to their second Elite Eight in program history. If Beahan continues to improve, she could be a fixture up front for the Huskies for years to come.

Zevenbergen’s a towering sophomore who continues to make strides for UW and should once again be a nice change of pace up front given her size and strength. The Huskies might also fast track freshman Jaclyn Softil, one of UW’s top recruits this class, into the starting lineup if the returnees struggle. Softil turned some heads with Crossfire Premier in ECNL action this past season and could make an impact similar to how Beahan shined last year as a rookie. Additionally, the team adds in Chelsea Archer, a player Gallimore has compared to past Husky star Veronica Perez, and who cut her teeth with the U.S. U20 squad this past summer. There might not be any fifteen goal scorers in this forward lineup, but there are a lot of talented, hard working players who have the potential to keep the Huskies firing.

In goal, Gallimore can take heart in being able to have three strong keepers available to her. In reality, you’d probably have to get the Jaws of Life to pry LaFontaine-Kussman away from the starting spot as a senior at this point. Hope Solo may be the most beloved Washington keeper in school history, but after last season’s heroics and the inspirational story behind LaFontaine-Kussman’s life after beating cancer, she can’t be far behind. Washington’s senior stopper started to blossom in her first season as a starter after sitting out 2009 due to transferring in-conference from Cal. Throughout the year, LaFontaine-Kussman showed some of the talent that had her as one of the highest rated goalkeeping recruits coming into college in 2007. The Lakewood resident has already made her case for being a selection in the later rounds of a packed goalkeeping draft class in 2012 thanks to excellent positioning and shot stopping ability and could rise even higher with another great season.

Junior Kari Davidson had been the starter in 2009 and began 2010 as the team’s #1 but lost her job due to injury and took a redshirt season as a result. Her odds of winning the job back this season look iffy, but Davidson is still a very experienced and talented keeper with a great competitive streak who provides the team with one of the best backup options in the country.

Amazingly, the team adds another highly rated keeper in U.S. U18 international Megan Kufeld. Kufeld comes in well regarded but will likely be doing a lot of learning from the bench this season before likely being the team’s #1 keeper next season. This is undoubtedly one of, if not, the best goalkeeping situations in America and is the undisputed strength of the club.

Defensively, the team loses center-back and leader Kendyl Pele, a bit of a cult heroine at the club and a tenacious one-on-one defender who was unfortunately hampered by injury late in the year. Also gone is full-back Hannah Greig, leaving a bit of a void for the Huskies. The new veteran leader of the group could be senior Faustine Dufka, a one time reserve winger who has shown great improvement in recent months and could be an option at full-back for the Huskies. Sophomores Lindsey Bos and Molly Boyd both saw significant minutes as freshmen and will be deep in the mix for starting spots this year as well. Boyd really began to come into her own late last season and was a starter at center-back for all of the team’s key games down the stretch and into the postseason. Bos, a U.S. U20 international, played at full-back in her freshman season with the Huskies but could be shifted into the center of defense as Gallimore seeks to utilize her pace at center-back.

The team could also use Annie Sittauer in defense this season after the sophomore scored three goals up front last year in the attack. Sittauer played on defense before she got to UW, so she should be capable of making the move to defense if called upon. A wild card into the mix is sophomore transfer Stine Schoening who comes to Seattle from UNC Greensboro after starting for the Spartans for much of 2010. If she settles quickly she could be a key factor at full-back in what looks like a very young backline that might keep LaFontaine-Kussman busy in the Washington goal. If the team struggles on the backline early in the year, don’t rule out seeing either Deines or Elston in the rearguard where both have played at youth international level.

On paper, the Huskies would appear to have three excellent players in Deines, LaFontaine-Kussman, and Elston, along with a lot of other talented players who know their roles and play them to a T. The Huskies may have to lean heavily on that trinity to win them matches this season, because the defense looks perilously young, while the offense may be short of a true #1 goalscorer. Gallimore is the consummate players’ coach who often gets players to play above their talent level and could yet inspire this group to more than a mid-table finish. They should be right in the thick of the chase for an at-large bid to the Big Dance again and showed last year that they are not a team to be taken lightly in a one-off situation.

2010 was more peaceful than successful for CAL, and while that might not be regarded as noteworthy at 99% of college programs, it certainly counted for something in Berkeley. 2009 might have marked one of the most turbulent seasons in recent memory for a major program, with the Bears fluctuating through periods of startling inconsistency and dealing with Head Coach Neil McGuire walking out on the team in the middle of the season for personal reasons. That McGuire’s reign survived to see another season was something of a minor miracle, likely coming down in no small part to the Bears rallying to make the second round of the NCAA Tournament in 2009.

It was the latest twist of fortune for a program that has seen its fair share of coaches over the past few decades. The Golden Bears were frequent visitors to the latter stages of the NCAA Tournament in the eighties, with two Elite Eight appearances coupled with three trips to the College Cup under reigns by Bill Merrell, Peter Reynaud, and Jean-Paul Verhees. It’s been a significantly more difficult go of things for Cal though since the nineties as the world of college soccer has evolved. Andy Bonchonsky’s six year tenure was one marked mostly by mediocrity, with only one lonely NCAA Tournament appearance to his name. Kevin Boyd reignited the Cal program and brought home the team’s only major trophy to date in his second season in charge, winning the 1998 Pac-10 trophy. Boyd would take the Bears to eight NCAA Tournaments in his decade in charge and reach a peak with a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2005.

All of which made his decision to resign from his post after the 2006 season all the more shocking (it would get worse when Boyd promptly took charge of Pac-10 rivals Arizona State two weeks later). Reaction to his replacement, McGuire, had to be a little lukewarm in Berkeley. McGuire hadn’t exactly set the world on fire in two previous stops at Mississippi State and Texas Tech. Then again, he had delivered two winning seasons in Starkville and brought some sense of pride back to Lubbock in two seasons with the Red Raiders, essentially doing the best he could in two places which are notoriously hard to recruit to.

McGuire’s first few seasons were just fine, although some warning signs began to crop up in 2008 when the Bears just squeezed into the Big Dance after some tense moments on the bubble. Then came 2009, when the Bears got out to a fine start that included a win against Texas A&M, indicating that things were looking up for Cal. But successive shock defeats to Cal Poly and Sacramento State essentially turned Berkeley into a circus with McGuire walking out on the team after the latter defeat and prompting a firestorm of criticism in the media, with some players sounding notably less than thrilled with their embattled coach. Cal were somehow able to keep it together despite the distractions and made it back to the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three seasons under McGuire.

As 2010 began, all eyes were on Berkeley to see if the harmonious environment being talked up before the season would stand the test of time if hard times hit for the Golden Bears. Of course there was also the little matter of it being the senior season for the U.S.’ new Golden Girl, Alex Morgan, who was being tipped for big things by the women’s soccer media. Cal would come out roaring, going undefeated in their first eight, a stretch that included wins over Loyola Marymount, Rice, and Long Beach State in addition to draws with UC Irvine and Santa Clara. The Golden Bears’ offense was setting a blistering pace as well, hitting Rice for four, Hawaii for eight, and Long Beach State for six.

Cynics would point out that the Bears hadn’t gone on the road more than a month into the season, but McGuire’s side was still impressive, even as they lost 3-1 to Portland to snap their unbeaten run. That loss and a previous draw with Pacific were catalysts for a bit of a mini-slump though as Cal went winless in five straight, including a 5-4 defeat in extra time against USC in the match of the season. Morgan had come off the bench to score a hat trick in that match, which also highlighted the woes brought about by the budding U.S. star’s division of labor between her club and country.

The Bears’ erratic form began to catch up with them as the season drew to a close, and a defeat to Arizona put Cal in real bubble trouble heading into the last few weeks of the season. Odds were that McGuire’s team needed a strong finish to the campaign in the final weekend of the regular season to lock up a spot in the Big Dance. A 2-0 win over Oregon likely wrapped a bid up, but the Bears definitively put a stamp on their case to be included with victory over Oregon State.

Cal would be sent to Florida and a first round matchup with Duke. Despite taking a 1-0 lead into halftime, the Golden Bears would conceded two goals in thirty-two seconds in the second half and fall to defeat against the Blue Devils. Though they had come up short in the postseason, McGuire’s Bears had seemingly put the tempestuous 2009 season behind them and had extended their consecutive NCAA Tournament qualification streak to seven seasons in the process.

Closer examination of the past few years does raise some questions about the direction of the Golden Bears’ program though. While Cal’s record of NCAA Tournament qualification is impressive on its face, the reality is that McGuire had a WPS #1 overall draft pick playing forward for his team and couldn’t get out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament or put in a serious challenge for a Pac-10 title. Additionally, Cal brought in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes last season, but it failed to put the Golden Bears over the top in 2010.

Now begins life without Morgan, who surely deserved a better fate than to have never played past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament in her collegiate career. There was no denying Morgan’s contributions to the Cal program last season. Despite missing eight matches for international duty, Morgan still rifled home fourteen goals and added a pair of assists to vault up Cal’s career offensive leaderboard.

Obviously, losing Morgan leaves the Golden Bears with some serious questions in their attack. The team’s biggest returning threat looks to be junior Lauren Battung, who enjoyed quite the breakout season last year, with seven goals and four assists despite only starting half of Cal’s matches. Battung also tied Morgan for the team lead in conference goals with four. The junior has made massive strides in her two seasons at Cal thus far and could be an explosive force out wide for the Golden Bears this season. Cal’s other options up front are a little less well defined. Nobody besides Morgan and Battung had more than three goals all last season, and somebody will have to take a big step forward to make the offense less one-dimensional.

One contender could be Rachel Mercik, who came in with her fair share of hype as she entered Berkeley, already a member of the U.S. U20 pool. Mercik’s freshman season was mostly a bust though, with the prep star missing eight matches, including seven league contests. She only scored twice last year, and McGuire will surely be hoping for a better return from one of the most highly touted players the club has signed in recent years. Junior Samantha Walker started fourteen matches last season but has been a relative offensive non-entity thus far in her Cal career with zero goals and may be shifted further back out wide for Cal this season. The team also has high hopes for pacey sophomore Mekenna DeBack, who saw eleven matches of action last year and recorded tallies against Hawaii and Long Beach State. Senior Katie Benz is also in the mix if she stays healthy which has been a problem for the quick center forward in the past.

If the established options falter, there could be time for some rookies to shine. Cupertino, California’s Sandra Ley is one such rookie and could be in the frame for minutes right away after starring for the MVLA club in recent seasons. The club will also be hoping that Grace Leer is ready to go after the freshman redshirted last season after seeing five games of action early in the campaign. There’s a lot of raw talent to try and help pick up the offense after the loss of Morgan, but developing that talent by the time the rigors of Pac-12 play hit could be a challenge.

With a few questions up front, Cal may be depending on its midfield to help pick up some of the slack from the departed Morgan. This unit takes big hits too though as it loses a pair of professionals in current Atlanta Beat rookie Megan Jesolva and Icelandic international Katrin Omarsdottir. A versatile player capable of playing on the wing or as a marauding full-back, Jesolva was consistently one of the most underrated players in the country and forced her way into the U.S. U23 team with some fine seasons in Berkeley. Jesolva tabled six assists in her senior season including three to Morgan in the final fifteen minutes of the incredible match against USC. Omarsdottir, who would have been senior, tailed off slightly in her goals tally, dropping from five in 2009 to two last year but was still a solid performer for the Golden Bears. The Bears also lose another starting midfielder in Emily Shibata, who took full grasp of a starting role in her final season at Cal.

It means that the team doesn’t return a midfielder with more than eleven starts last season. At least the team can still count on the talents of sophomore Kaitlyn Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick, a U.S. U18 international, was one of the highest regarded recruits in the country and showed signs of turning into a real talent for the Golden Bears in her freshman season. Despite being in and out of the starting lineup all year, Fitzpatrick still was only one of three returnees to tally multiple goals in league play, downing both Oregon and Oregon State with match winning goals as a rookie.

There are no shortage of contenders trying to step into full-time roles with her for the Bears. Kate Bennett came in with a lot of hype as a freshman and as a member of the U.S. U20 pool but struggled to lock down a place in the starting lineup, functioning as a key reserve for most of last season. McGuire will surely be hoping for more from his potential playmaker this year after just a goal and an assist as a rookie. New Zealand international Betsy Hassett is another who will be fighting to be first choice in Cal’s midfield this Fall. Hassett’s non-stop motor was fully on display at this year’s Women’s World Cup in Germany, and the international experience will surely do the junior no harm as she tries to lock down a starting spot.

Also in the mix will be senior Katie Suits, who’s had twenty-five starts in her three seasons in Berkeley so far, and sophomore Genessee Daughetee, a speedy wide player who could also slot in at full-back in her second season with the club. Freshman Kory Lamet, a Californian with nice aerial ability and pace, could also factor in, although McGuire may choose to use the tall newcomer up top to try and inject some life into Cal’s offense.

Defensively, Cal could stand to improve, although five of the thirteen goals they did concede in league play came in that thriller against USC. The defense basically returns intact if you discount the loss of sometimes full-back Jesolva. Senior Danielle Brunache has rapidly turned into a real force for the Bears in defense and figures to be the leader of this promising group in 2011. The veteran is a fierce tackler with great aerial prowess and was the only Golden Bear to start every match for McGuire’s squad last year, being rewarded for her strong junior year with a call-up to the U.S. U23 squad in the offseason.

Cal also has the benefit of returning one of the league’s top freshman defenders last year in powerful and pacey Emi Lawson who also added three goals and two assists to the cause in her first collegiate season. In addition to playing center-back, Lawson can also be thrown up front in a pinch for the Golden Bears. The rest of the returning contenders for starting spots are an eclectic mix of players who mostly saw a good deal of starting time in 2009 but were marginalized last year. Junior center-back Rachel Clark started fourteen matches as a freshman but was limited to just four games last season.

Similarly, senior Kaitlin Paletta was held down by injuries last season, only seeing action in six matches after starting thirteen a season before, while versatile Miranda White, another senior, saw action in just ten matches, mostly as a reserve. White could be used in defense this season or up front thanks to her offensive ability. Another returner vying for minutes is sophomore Amanda Glass, who shook off a 2009 injury to make ten appearances and three starts in defense last year. Added to the mix is newcomer Kaylyn Dickmann, a highly thought of ball playing defender from powerhouse club So Cal Blues. Dickmann was a member of the So Cal Blues team that won last year’s USYS National Title in the U17 age group and could be an immediate upgrade to Cal’s defense this year.

Most intriuging of any of Cal’s additions this year though could be Icelandic international Thelma Bjork Einarsdottir. Having already enjoyed success with Omarsdottir over the past few seasons, the Golden Bears add another great European youngster who has featured for her country’s full national team in recent years. Einarsdottir’s a left-back who loves to bomb forward and help out in attack and could be a real sleeper to watch in Pac-12 play this year. The Cal backline wasn’t exactly the most stable place last season with a lot of chopping and changing going on between matches. A little more cohesiveness could go a long way in fixing the Bears’ problems defensively.

In goal, there was also a revolving door with junior Lauren Hein and sophomore Emily Kruger both seeing significant time. Kruger came into preseason heavily favored for the job after a glittering career withe De Anza Force at club level but had a whale of a time fighting off Hein for the starting job. Kruger would eventually be the team’s preferred option in league play, but Hein’s already shown she won’t cede the starting job without a fight. Kruger looks like the team’s starting keeper coming into the new season but could still face a battle from Hein and redshirt freshman Kathleen Messinger, who redshirted last season through injury. Consistency for whoever’s in between the pipes this year will be key to Cal’s hopes with the backline still finding its feet in all likelihood.

2011 looks like a big acid test for the Cal program and McGuire as both adjust to life without the talents of the brilliant Morgan. The loss of a wonderful distributor and leader like Jesolva shouldn’t be overlooked though when examining the Bears’ hopes for 2011. The Golden Bears are in definite need of some strong leadership and for some of their young talent to step up and make a claim for a starting spot. Cal started a whopping twenty-four players last season which may speak in some part to the depth of the team, but all the chopping and changing could also possibly unsettle the team.

There’s plenty of potential waiting to be cashed in in Berkeley right now, it’s just a question of whether McGuire is the right man for the job. His inability to drive Cal past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament despite having the superhuman talents of Morgan on hand is a bit of a red flag, and he’ll be desperate to show that his side aren’t about to take a giant step backwards. But despite all that will, McGuire will probably be fighting to propel Cal into mid-table amongst the other carnivores of the Pac-12. Even so, anything less than another NCAA Tournament bid will have to be seen as a real failure.

2011 will represent a much needed fresh start for COLORADO as they saddle up in the Pac-12 after their Big XII stint ended with a thud rather than a flourish. The Buffs couldn’t prove that 2009 was a fluke and endured their second successive season in the wilderness, well away from Big XII title contention or a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Current Head Coach Bill Hempen took charge of the program in 2001 and was able to spur the Buffs on in short order, leading CU to its first major trophy two years later when Colorado lifted the Big XII title.

While silverware has eluded the program since, the Buffs were still one of the Big XII’s contending sides for much of the decade. Colorado strung together six straight appearances in the NCAA Tournament, making the second round from 2004-2007 and achieving a program best finish in 2006 when they made it to the Sweet Sixteen. It was the end of that NCAA Tournament streak that marked a turning point in the fortunes of the Colorado program though. In 2008, the Buffs looked to have one of their better sides, finishing just three points off a league title and getting to the Big XII Tournament final before falling to Missouri.

The Buffs had all the look of a team that could get out of the first weekend of play in the Big Dance and were duly rewarded with a national seed and home advantage for the first two rounds of the tournament. But Colorado would end the weekend as the answer to a trivia question, becoming the most recent nationally seeded team to lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. In large part, the program has never recovered from that infamous afternoon in Boulder.

2009 was a long slog through a difficult schedule, and the Buffs third place finish in the league was more of an indicator of how bad the league was that year than any real quality from CU. The team were one and done in the postseason and the team’s NCAA Tournament streak was snapped at six seasons. It also marked the first time the team finished under .500 since Hempen’s first season in charge in 2001. Trying to prove that 2009 had been an outlier, the Buffs began 2010 with a pair of easy wins against modest opposition.

It was then that Colorado’s struggles began in earnest with four losses in five. The loss to state rivals Denver on the road may have been hard to swallow, but it was still somewhat understandable. Less so were blowout losses to UNLV, Gonzaga, and Purdue, none of whom would finish in the final RPI Top 90. But just when most were ready to count the Buffs out, Colorado sprung two massive shocks on the college soccer world. First was an upset of perennial College Cup contenders UCLA in Boulder which was shocking enough, but Colorado then went on to win their Big XII opener on the road, stunning Texas A&M in College Station, 2-1. Just when it looked like the Buffs were about to save their season though, CU faltered, winning only one of their next eight.

Colorado had gone from dark horse Big XII contender to being in serious danger of missing out on the postseason entirely. There was no doubt that the Buffs had to win their final two league games against rivals Kansas and Nebraska at home. That they did, edging out both opponents by a count of 2-1 to squeak past Baylor and earn the eighth seed in the Big XII Tournament. Colorado would get another chance to upset Texas A&M and looked like they had a real chance as they dragged a lethargic Aggies side through extra time scoreless and eventually to penalties. The Buffs would run headlong into penalty specialist Kelly Dyer though and were bounced after a valiant effort. Valiant it might have been, but one could not make a persuasive argument against the sudden decline of the Colorado program over the course of the past two seasons. It was the second straight season under .500 for Hempen and the Buffs, a worrying trend for a once competitive side suddenly forced to fight for scraps in the Big XII.

Alarmingly for Colorado supporters, the sudden loss in form of the program coincides with the move from the generally navigable waters of the Big XII into the shark tank that is the newly dubbed Pac-12. While the Buffs are indeed getting that much desired fresh start, they will be under big pressure to acclimate to their new surroundings post-haste in order to avoid being a punching bag for the league’s big guns. Hempen will have to hope that his side’s struggles last year could be attributed to relative inexperience among his starting lineup. What that means this year is that Colorado returns a fairly intact core of starters that should at least give the Buffs a fighting chance in their new home.

Without question, the biggest concern is where the goals are going to come from for the Buffs. Colorado has had a tough time finding a suitable replacement for club legend and all-time leading scorer at the program, Nikki Marshall. The offensive struggles were felt in earnest last season as the Buffs struggled to score in one of the country’s most open leagues. No CU player finished with more than three goals on the year, likely giving Hempen major concerns going into 2011. The team’s leading scorer last season was all-action midfielder Kate Russell with three goals and five assists. All of Russell’s tallies came in league play, and the team’s talisman may have to do a little of everything again in 2011. Russell is by far the best player on this Colorado squad and will likely have to take this Buffs team on her back if they’re to get back to the postseason this year.

The only other players with multiple goals in league play were towering junior Amy Barczuk and Nikki Marshall’s sister, Shaye, who both had a pair of goals in Big XII action. With Barczuk possibly being shifted back into defense, some of that scoring burden may fall back onto Marshall, who has been one of Colorado’s top reserves for the past two seasons. Marshall scored against Iowa State and Oklahoma State last season and could move into a starting role considering how up in the air the midfield is beyond Russell. There could also be a starting role for junior Quinn Krier, though not in an offensive manner. Hempen has indicated that he may use Krier as a defensive midfielder, and the Littleton native isn’t totally foreign to starting experience at CU, having started twelve matches through two years thus far. With so many question marks from the returnees, it might be up to some newcomers to provide the offensive spark the Buffalos so desperately need.

Darcy Jerman looks the best of the new bunch, a U.S. U17 international from Colorado Springs. Hempen is banking on Jerman to use some of her excellent field vision to be able to shake up the attack as a freshman, and a Jerman/Russell combo in midfield could be a boon for the Buffs if the freshman is as good as advertised. Clubmate Carly Bolyard also has the capability to make an impression with impeccable workrate and the ability to play in either midfield or attack for Colorado this season as a rookie. Alaskan prospect Rebecca Boggs also comes to Boulder and has plenty of upside with the potential to feature as a midfielder or defender this season with the Buffs.

Despite some of the promising and established talent in midfield for this team, they still need some production from the forwards to truly have a chance in the cutthroat Pac-12. That could be a problem with very little in the way of proven firepower in Boulder at the moment. Sophomore Anne Stuller was expected to make a big impact last year but lost a big chunk of her season to mono. Stuller did make it back to down Kansas with a golden goal though, helping the club to make it to the postseason in the process. Now healthy, Stuller could be the team’s best up for a forward scoring option this year.

Erin Bricker also had a bit of a down year last season as a sophomore with just one goal, though it was an important one, the match winner against Nebraska. That was a bit disappointing considering she had been great as a rookie, with a team leading four assists to her name. If she can get back to her best, Bricker can be a nice asset for the Buffs. Depth is a big question mark with sophomore Alex Dohm likely out thanks to an ACL injury from the spring. With many of the team’s attacking players auditioning for spots on the backline, it might be up to some of the team’s midfielders or youngsters to make the desired impact up front.

With a top flight attack not looking in the cards for the Buffs, they might have to rely on defense to win the matches in the relentless Pac-12. In this respect, they might be a little better off. Hempen does lose a pair of starters on the backline in Kym Lowry and Kelly Ross, but the cupboard isn’t bare in Boulder. One possibility to fill the center-back slot vacated by the loss of Ross is Barczuk, a multi-talented junior who could play almost anywhere on the pitch for the Buffs. A starter since she stepped onto campus in Boulder, Barczuk has the capability to both be a rock at the back or an outlet for goals going forward. It’ll be interesting to see how she’s used by Hempen considering the backline looks in a whole lot better shape than the attack, while the Buffs could really use her talents further forward.

Senior Amy Steiner also looks like a contender for a starting spot after nineteen starts last year after transferring from Arizona after the 2009 season. Hempen has also been quick to sing the praises of sophomore Hayley Hughes, a full-back with blinding speed who could also be used up front thanks to her ability to get in behind defenses. Hughes started every match for CU last season and scored three goals as a rookie and has the capability to exceed that total this year. A player going the other way, from attack to defense, could be senior Caroline Danneberg, who the team is considering moving to center-back, thanks to her size and versatility. Danneberg may have had injury problems in her career, but she is plenty capable of playing on the backline having previously starred as a full-back. The senior could also easily remain up front as the team hunts for goals.

Sophomore Lizzy Herzl could also be used in central defense, though the Littleton native was thrown up front at times last year and scored two shocking goals for Colorado, downing UCLA and Texas A&M in back-to-back games with her strikes. If the team’s struggling to score again, Herzl could just as easily be used up front. Senior Maggi Steury and junior Lauren Shaner could also be contenders for starting spots, the latter another who’s played further up the pitch for the Buffs in her collegiate career. This unit has a lot of interchangeable pieces and looks like a potential strength for the Buffs this year.

Colorado is also blessed to have the services of one of the best young goalkeepers in the country at their disposal in sophomore Annie Brunner. Brunner came in and often stood on her head as a freshman last year to keep her team in matches and was vital in the wins over Texas A&M and UCLA last season. Odds are that the sophomore will be called upon early and often this season as well as her side goes to battle with some of the most talented offenses in the country in their new conference. Colorado’s backup looks to be Kayla Millar, a junior who played at CU-Colorado Springs as a freshman before transferring to Boulder last year. Millar is a great shot stopper and played in a pair of matches for CU last season, so she’s not a total neophyte in goal.

Not even the most ardent Colorado supporter can be expecting a run towards the Pac-12 title this season as the club departs the Big XII. The Buffs have a very noticeable Achilles’ heel in an offense that was toothless last season in one of the worst major conferences defensively which obviously presents major problems in a conference with much better defenses. It’s questionable whether the team has improved their attack appreciably, and that could spell trouble this year for CU despite a defense that might be OK, especially with Brunner in goal. The altitude of Boulder should give them a shot against almost anyone in league matches though as Pac-12 teams try to get to grips with the oxygen deprivation in their first trip to Colorado for league play. That can only account for so much though, and Colorado looks like a team that will struggle to reach mid-table in their Pac-12 debut and probably are outsiders for a shot at breaking their NCAA Tournament drought this year.

The heat is rising in Eugene on OREGON Head Coach Tara Erickson after four straight underwhelming seasons at the head of the Ducks. All of Phil Knight’s mounds of money hasn’t been able to buy Oregon any success as the hapless Ducks have traditionally been consistently among the Pac-10’s cellar dwellers. Erickson looked to be changing that a few seasons into her reign after a second place finish in the Pac-10, but that still was tinged with disappointment as the Ducks were one of the very last teams out of the Big Dance despite the runner-up finish in one of the toughest leagues in the country.

Then again, the winning season was a nice breath of fresh air for a program that had long suffered through nightmarish season after nightmarish season under Bill Steffen, including a 3-13-3 year in 2004 that finally got Steffen the chop. Erickson came in from Portland State after a reasonable run of success, and after a predictable season of transitionary struggle in 2005, had the Ducks back on the right track with the aforementioned 2006 second place finish in the Pac-10. But instead of being a jumping off point for further success, the Ducks have slid backwards in subsequent seasons. A pair of seventh place finishes in 2007 and 2008 were one thing, but the dismal 9-10-1 season of 2009 that pushed Oregon back to ninth in the league was another thing entirely and was the program’s first losing season since Steffen’s final year.

The pressure to improve was rife in the air in Eugene as 2010 got under way. After a season opening win against Boise State, things got much patchier. A draw with SMU wouldn’t be awful come the end of the year but raised a few eyebrows early while another draw with Pacific the following week also hurt. Worse was to come though as Oregon would lose 1-0 to both UNLV and Kansas in Las Vegas, acceptable in some seasons but given the struggles of both programs in 2010, it was another bad sign for Erickson’s Ducks. Wins over San Diego State and Butler got Oregon back on the right track briefly before predictable losses at Santa Clara and Portland right before league play.

Pac-10 play was a roller coaster ride. Two losses to open up came right before a great result in getting a draw at home against USC. After a tough loss to Washington, Oregon promptly went on the best stretch of the season, winning three in a row, including a 2-0 win over Arizona State. Having scored nine and conceded only one in that stretch gave some hopeful Ducks fans belief that they could possibly compete with Cal and Stanford in the final weekend of the season. A desperate Bears team was too much though, beating Oregon 2-0 in Berkeley before all-conquering Stanford prevailed in Palo Alto, 3-0. It added up to another disappointing seventh place finish and the program’s lowest RPI finish in this five year cycle. The recent success by hated rivals Oregon State likely made the sting of mediocrity all that much worse for the Ducks after their second straight season with double digit losses.

The rapid progress being made in Corvalis and the prolonged struggles in Eugene likely have Erickson facing something close to a make or break season in 2011 with the Ducks. Which makes it a very bad time to lose to graduation the program’s all-time leading scorer in Jen Stoltenberg, who was a draft pick of the WPS’ Philadelphia Independence in the winter. Stoltenberg went out with a bang with a twelve goal, five assist senior season to stake her claim at the top of Oregon’s career scoring chart. Her four goals and one assist in league play also put her fifth in league scoring in a conference full of offensive predators.

Losing Stoltenberg by herself would be bad enough, but the Ducks also lose their second and third leading scorers as well. Midfielders Kirstie Kuhns and Mercedes Walters combined for seven goals and six assists, although Kuhns did almost all of her damage in non-conference play. The only Duck returning with more than a single goal in league play last season is midfielder Mo Fitzgerald, a transfer from Boise State who snagged a brace against Arizona last year. Fitzgerald wasn’t a full-time starter though, only starting nine matches overall last year. The midfielder’s two goals against Arizona were in fact her only goals last year, so she’s far from a proven scoring option.

The only other midfielder returning that played major minutes last season was towering junior Nicole Bakke, who started eight matches and assisted on two goals against Butler early in the season. The lack of proven production means that more than likely though, Oregon will be banking on one of its many freshmen to make an immediate impact. Kelsey Foo has U.S. youth international experience and is arguably the crown jewel of this class and could be fast tracked into the starting lineup by Erickson. Foo impressed with the MVLA club and could be just what this depth starved unit has needed. Shanelle Simien also joins up from California powerhouse Real So Cal after an impressive club career and could make an impact either in the middle of the park or up top as a rookie with the Ducks.

Up front, there are plenty of options with experience, but production from the group has been scattershot to say the least. Big junior Julie Armstrong is a Canadian international with six caps who appeared first for the Canadian WNT at age seventeen but has struggled to develop into a big time college threat. Armstrong had a decent freshman season with Oregon with three goals and six assists but tailed off badly last year, starting only six matches and recording only one measly assist for the season. Erickson really needs Armstrong to start tapping into that potential if the Ducks are to fly this year.

The team’s other unproven forwards will have to step up in concert to help replace the lost production of Stoltenberg in attack this year. Junior Kelsey Hones has started nineteen matches over the past two seasons but has only scored one goal in each of those two campaigns. There may be a little more hope for sophomore Brynne Konkel, who scored twice, with both tallies going down as game winners, the latter of which was against Pac-12 foe Washington State. Also in the mix is junior Maddy Mercier, one of the team’s top options off the bench last year, and bizarrely enough, senior Cody Miles, a former Pac-10 All-Freshman goalkeeper who lost her starting job twice in the past two seasons and has puzzlingly been moved into the field for her final year in Eugene.

If Armstrong can’t find her form or none of the returnees can take a step forward, the Ducks might have to hope that freshman Bri Pugh can get the job done. Pugh certainly comes into Eugene with a great club CV having impressed for Real Colorado in ECNL play this past year. But the Pac-12’s a huge step up, and the newcomer may still need to acclimate to the much higher level of play.

Defensively last season, Oregon were in the bottom half of the league and may need to see rapid improvement this season with all the concerns of the offense. Erickson will be hoping that another year of experience has helped the defense gel, because all starters save for Bree Rowe return in the back. Junior Scout Libke could be the starring player for this unit if she isn’t used in midfield by Erickson. Libke made an impressive debut as a freshman with three goals and four assists before following that up with a pair of goals and assists last season. Libke’s a versatile workhorse, having started every match over her first two seasons in Eugene, and her experience could be invaluable for a team with a lot of youth on it.

Junior Lauren Thompson also brings a fair amount of experience to the table after starting nineteen matches last season. Thompson had previously been in and out of the lineup, having played in just eleven matches as a redshirt freshman in 2009 before last year’s step up. Erickson will also be hoping that second year player Achijah Berry can avoid a sophomore slump after starting in thirteen matches as a rookie last year for the Ducks. A return to health for senior Taylor Jones would also help the backline out this season. Jones was a fixture in the starting lineup for the first half of the season and had an assist against Santa Clara but missed the final nine games of the season through injury. Gresham product Kiyomi Cook joins up this year and should add to the team’s depth at least if she doesn’t challenge for a starting spot right off the bat.

The big battle will likely be brewing in goal with two contenders fighting for the starting gig after Miles’ move to the field. Washington State transfer Lindsay Parlee essentially put a stranglehold on the job in Pac-10 play last season after beginning the year behind Miles on the depth chart. Parlee had been a budding goalkeeping star at Washington State after a fantastic 2008 season for the Cougars but transferred after the season, relegating her to a year on the sidelines due to transfer rules. Parlee was able to eventually win the starting job last year, but faces a challenge from U.S. U20 international Abby Steele, 5’11” of raw freshman talent who could take the job early and never look back.

The veteran hands of Parlee aren’t likely to be willing to give the job up so easily though, and Erickson might find herself with a real dilemma on her hands through the 2011 season. Even if Steele, also a member of the 2010 ECNL U16 Champion Mustang SC club, doesn’t win the job this year, she’s probably the team’s goalkeeper of the future.

What’s not in question is the necessity for wins in Eugene much sooner rather than later. The stakes in the newly minted Pac-12 are decidedly higher now with the addition of Utah and Colorado into the fray as everyone scrambles to avoid sinking to the bottom of the league. Erickson’s done a fine job of assembling a strong recruiting class for this season, but the jury’s still out on whether she’s the coach to mold that talent into something special at Oregon. She might be out of chances to prove herself if the Ducks slip too far beyond mid-table in the Pac-12 this season, a very possible occurrence given the wide litany of questions facing a thoroughly rebuilt offense in such an unforgiving league.

The problem with turning the corner is that sometimes there’s a brick wall waiting for you, a sentiment WASHINGTON STATE can probably empathize with after last season’s mini-disaster. Before current Head Coach Matt Potter took the reigns before the 2003 season, Washington State really wasn’t known for much in Pac-10 soccer circles other than seeing two of their three head coaches in their history move on to Arizona and a rather infamous defeat to Montana in the 2000 NCAA Tournament in the snow in Pullman. It took a while for Potter to get rolling on the Palouse, a notoriously hard place to recruit to, but by 2007, the team was a formidable foe in the Pac-10, and the Cougars could consider themselves hard done by when they missed out on the 2007 NCAA Tournament as one of the last teams out of the bracket.

There’d be no mistake a season later when Washington State did get the benefit of the doubt and made the Big Dance for the first time since 2002 with a team that had almost identical numbers as to the 2007 one. The next step was to rise above the bubble fray and creep into the top tier of the Pac-10, which the Cougars duly accomplished in 2009. 5-2-2 in league and thirteen wins in the regular season was enough to see Wazzu easily into the field although they were sent across the country to play in Maryland’s regional and were upended by the Terps, 1-0, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. It was still a sign of massive progress though for the program, and the question going into 2010 was if the Cougars could keep it going without the talents of WPS first round draft pick Kiersten Dallstream and fellow draftee Carly Dobratz who had served the program so well over the past few seasons.

Sadly for Washington State fans, the answer to that question was a resounding ‘no’, at least in the short term. For Potter’s squad, it was a case of catching the wrong schedule at the wrong time, as his Cougars were dealt a long line of NCAA Tournament calibre teams and were shown to be wanting against them. Besides a couple of gimme wins, WSU struggled mightily, losing six of their first eight, all to clubs who’d finish in the Top 80 in the RPI come the end of 2010. A three match winning streak against Hawaii, Pepperdine, and Gonzaga gave the Cougars a little momentum going into league play, but Wazzu was promptly chopped to pieces in the Pac-10 shark tank.

After splitting a homestand against the Arizona schools, the Cougars lost their next six in the league to confirm the school’s worst finish in conference play for years. WSU were able to gain a small measure of pleasure from beating Apple Cup rivals Washington in the season finale to make the Huskies sweat come Selection Monday but then had the displeasure of watching their great rivals advance to the Elite Eight over the course of the next month.

The thirteen losses Potter’s team suffered through were the most for the club since 1995, and there’s no way the Brit will want to see a repeat of that in 2011. A year further removed from the losses of Dallstream and Dobratz, Potter will be hoping that the team is much improved in front of goal. The hope was that players like returnee Brandi Vega and newcomers Kerry Moller, Morgan Castain, and Katie Turney could help pick up the slack.

It didn’t quite work out that way. Vega missed a quarter of the team’s matches and wasn’t on song when she did play, while Moller was rooted to the bench and Castain and Turney were both painfully ineffective. Turney in particular was a massive disappointment, considering she came into Pullman with Canadian U20 experience under her belt but managed only a single goal in 2010, being relegated to a reserve role for much of league play. She’ll get another chance at proving she’s as good as the hype this year, but Castain transferred out to Fresno State and Moller left the club over the offseason.

Ironically, it was Castain’s twin sister, Micaela, who ended up shining brightest on offense despite coming in less heralded than her sister. Castain’s eight goals and three match winners showed that the Cougars might have something in time with the sophomore, and she was the only Cougar to score multiple goals in Pac-10 play. The rookie become something of a cult heroine on the Palouse when she scored both goals in the team’s Apple Cup win over Washington last season and will be looking to break into double digits in goals this year.

Vega will also be hoping to shake off last season’s sophomore slump and get back towards her freshman form where she scored four game winning goals as a rookie. The club will also be searching for more out of Tiara Pittman, a senior who had started six of the team’s first seven matches and had scored the match winner against Utah before seeing her season ended by injury. Castain and the others will have to fight off hotshot forward recruit Bethanie Skelton who has been one of the ECNL’s brightest stars over the past few years with the Nevada based Neusport club. Potter will hope one of the new players can slot in to replace the departing Emma Stolz, who scored three goals in fifteen starts last year, on the front line.

Washington State also looks to have a promising midfield, despite the loss of Mallory Fox. Eileen Maes had a fine freshman campaign with five goals and three assists and looks to be a bright spot offensively for Wazzu this season and beyond. Maes caught many eyes with her hat trick against Gonzaga last season and will be hoping to avoid a sophomore slump after last year’s impressive effort. Other returning starters to the midfield include junior Shannon McFadden, who led the team with four assists last season in fourteen starts, and sophomore Katie Turney, a Canadian who nabbed the winning goal against Arizona as a rookie last year. Providing depth will be senior Jacquelyn Roth, who had seven assists in 2009 but was limited to just seven appearances last year, and sophomore Kayla Johnson, who was one of the team’s top options off the bench after redshirting in 2009.

WSU also figures to get a big injection of talent from a pair of very strong freshman recruits coming into Pullman this year. Canadian Nicole Setterlund is another of the Vancouver Whitecaps’ long line of prospects and a long-standing member of the Canadian youth international program. Considered one of Canada’s top young prospects, Setterlund was one of those chosen to train with the full Canadian WNT in Rome ahead of this year’s Women’s World Cup. She should make an instant impact in WSU’s lineup and could be one of the league’s top rookies this year. Also joining up is Arizona native Jocelyn Jeffers, a U.S. U17 international who has been tearing it up at recent ECNL events for her SC del Sol club. Given the returnees that go along with the young blood, the midfield could be a position of real strength for the Cougars over the next few years.

The international flair extends past the Wazzu attack too, with Australian defender Rachael Doyle a fixture in the lineup in her freshman season on the Palouse. Doyle was the team’s best defender last season and will have to be strong once again for the Cougars on what looks to be a defense without much depth. U.S. U20 international Ali Fenter does return, along with junior Mariah Cameron, who’s started thirty-nine matches in two seasons, but the team must find a replacement for departed senior starter Ashley Johnson. The likely top contender to take her place is Santa Clara transfer Zoe Jeffers, who started five matches for the Broncos last season and will be hoping to lock down a starting spot with her new club this season.

The starting spot in goal will also likely be manned by a foreigner, with Canadian Gurveen Clair an early favorite to pry away the starting role from junior Ariana Byrd after redshirting last season. Byrd split time in goal with the departed Meghan Berlingo last season, with Byrd seeing most of the minutes in Pac-10 play. Clair’s got a long resume at youth and international level though and could be a rising star in goal for the Cougars.

Consistency will be the order of the day with most of last year’s starters returning, with Potter hoping that a more settled defense in general leads to better results on the pitch against some explosive offenses in one of the top leagues in the country. Despite last year’s porous defense and misfiring offense, there’s simply too much talent both in the locker room and with the coaching staff to suffer through another thirteen loss season in Pullman. There might not be enough experienced talent here to expect a quantum leap forward in the Pac-12 standings, but a move into mid-table isn’t out of the question if Potter can get some of his more talented youngsters to perform. And in the end, that might be good enough to see the Cougars into the at-large bid discussion come November.

If ARIZONA Head Coach Lisa Oyen didn’t know the depth of the rebuilding job ahead of her before last season, she surely knows after a season of struggle in 2010. The Wildcats took the interim tag off of Oyen after the former assistant had stepped up into the role in the middle of the 2009 season when former coach Dan Tobias had stepped down. Tobias had brought success to Tucson once upon a time but had lost the locker room and his reign was coming under increasing scrutiny from the local media, not helped by waves upon waves of defections from the program. After a 4-15-1 season in 2009, the feeling was that regardless of how Oyen did in her first season in charge, the program couldn’t sink much further.

The Wildcats would try their fans’ patience through the year though. Arizona shipped eight goals on the opening weekend to San Diego and Pepperdine, perhaps showing just hard the Wildcats were going to have it in 2010. A further draw at home with minnows Northern Arizona only stoked the pessimism. Towards the end of the non-conference season though, the Wildcats began to come around. Yes, there were still losses to Ohio State and Loyola Marymount, but they were balanced out by a win over Tennessee and a draw against Central Florida. They lacked consistency (and anything resembling a defense) but were still dangerous when everything was clicking.

The Pac-10 is not a land for inconsistent teams though, and Arizona struggled from the start, getting thumped against Washington before losing tight ones against Washington State and Arizona State. Against another notoriously inconsistent side in Cal at home though, Arizona came good and recorded their first Pac-10 win. It would be their only win of league season. A murderous run in saw the Wildcats lose their last five matches, four of those by three goals or more. It was a hard lesson for Oyen and her squad in her first season as the Arizona supremo. There’s little room for error in the Pac-12 (nee 10), and Arizona was punished ruthlessly for their errors.

It might be a bit of a mixed bag for Oyen and the Wildcats in 2011. The good news is that Arizona returns a great deal of their players from last year’s squad. The crippling attrition at the end of Tobias’ reign ensured that Oyen would be inheriting a very young squad for 2010 but also made it so that Arizona would have a reasonably settled squad for 2011. Not to say that Arizona doesn’t lose a few major contributors. Attackers Alex Davis and Becky Barry both suffered through injuries through their college careers but managed to be mainstays in the starting lineup for Oyen in 2010 and will both have to be replaced. A more unexpected loss is midfielder Jensen Skinner who transferred out to San Diego State after just one season.

Compared to their league rivals, Arizona was vastly deficient on both sides of the ball last season, giving them a Herculean task in getting competitive in the Pac-12. Oyen would seemingly have an easier time curing her side’s offensive woes at first glance. That’s primarily because the Wildcats figure to have offensive talisman Renae Cuellar fit and firing once more. A Mexican U20 international who scored a few goals in the 2010 U20 World Cup and was an alternate for the full Mexican WNT for this year’s WWC in Germany, Cuellar was on a blistering pace at the beginning of 2010 with six goals and three assists through six matches but was then lost for the season through injury. Healthy, Cuellar has the potential to be a double digit goal producer for the Wildcats.

Beyond Cuellar, it’s a whole lot of potential but precious little production. Jazmin Ponce was likely the team’s best player after Cuellar went down but still has a little adapting to do at this level after just three goals in her freshman season. Ponce was very well regarded though coming into Tuscon, meaning a breakthrough year is very possible. More was likely expected as well from Colombian U20 international Ana Montoya who saw a lot of minutes but only produced two goals and an assist. Montoya was on the U20 World Cup team that dazzled so many last season and was also in the running for a spot on the team for the WWC finals in Germany this year. That counts for little at this level though, and Oyen will be hoping for more production from the Colombian this season. The only other forward returnee that saw a lot of time was Canadian junior Kristin Strother, who has proven to be far from prolific in front of goals in two seasons and has mostly been used as a super sub in two seasons at Arizona.

The team could be counting on some new blood in the forward mix as well. Northwestern transfer Sarah NeSmith has been on campus for a while after her move out west and will be eager to prove herself this season after mostly featuring as a reserve in Evanston. Additionally, this unit adds promising attacker Brie DeFelice who could find herself seeing major minutes sooner rather than later with her great 1v1 skills and creativity. One for the future is Penn transfer Candice Osei-Agyemang, a Ghana youth international who has seen her college career curtailed by injury and will have to sit out the season due to transfer rules.

The midfield could be a real mess though with nothing approaching solid depth and a whole lot of question marks after a handful of graduations and defections. Junior Ariel Boulicault might be the only sure thing in midfield after starting thirteen matches last season. The St. Louis native had three assists last season as well and will be counted upon to stabilize a group that could be in serious flux throughout the year. Junior Jessica Culver will hopefully be healthy as well after redshirting last season through injury. She started eight matches in 2009 despite battling injuries, and that experience would be welcomed with open arms by this season’s group. With the issues in depth, it’d hardly be surprising to see Montoya, Strother, or DeFelice in the midfield at some time this season either.

The offense may have to blossom quickly, because the Wildcat defense was overwhelmed at times by the explosive attacks of the Pac-10. Arizona was quite young on the backline last season and could improve with time. Getting a full healthy season out of junior Alex Smith would help as well. Smith put her name in lights by beating rivals Arizona State with an overhead kick in extra time as a freshman but struggled through an illness that saw her make just eight starts last year. With Smith out of the lineup, Arizona had to turn to a pair of true freshmen, Gabrielle Lindeman and converted midfielder Shannon Heinzler, to work the backline.

As expected, the unit went through its growing pains with so little experience. Those three return, as does junior Kirstyn Magyar, who started twenty matches last season for the Wildcats in defense. Oyen has to hope that the added experience tightens the defense, because at first glance, the incoming defenders could struggle at this level.

The goalkeeping situation might be the team’s most stable when all is said and done. Senior Ashley Jett made eighteen starts last season after functioning as a backup for most of two seasons. Jett should be the undisputed #1 for Arizona this season, while sophomore Lorena Aragon figures to be her understudy. Aragon started the first two matches last season and will be eager to prove she’s the team’s keeper of the future with any minutes that come her way this season.

The Wildcats still have a long way to go to even be a mid-table Pac-12 team, although the additions of Colorado, and in particular, Utah, boosts Arizona’s odds of avoiding another last place finish in the league. Oyen already has a good looking class coming in for 2012, but that doesn’t really help much this year, when Arizona will be hoping for a renaissance from Cuellar up front and an unlikely quantum leap forward from the defense. There aren’t many gimmes on the schedule this season either, meaning improvement may not necessarily be felt in the W-L-T record at the end of the year.

UTAH hasn’t really picked a good moment to fall upon very hard times. The Utes were one of the best mid-majors in America for the first half of the decade gone by, reaching the NCAA Tournament in five straight seasons from 2002-2006 while winning four Mountain West titles and a pair of Mountain West Tournament titles in their tenure in the league. The program brought home a trophy every season from 2003-2006, including doing the double in 2003. A 2006 regular season title capped off a virtuoso 16-5-1 season that saw the Utes finish the year ranked at #18 in the final RPI.

But Rich Manning’s program has taken a tumble since then. Utah is in a dry spell without a trophy or NCAA Tournament bid since that 2006 season, although they were on the outer fringes of the bubble in both 2007 and 2008. The Utes’ competitiveness has eroded in the past two seasons though. 2009 marked the team’s first non-winning season since 1997 as the Utes went 10-10-2.

2010 marked the team’s first losing season since that same year. Utah paid a heavy price for an ambitious non-conference schedule that opened with six teams that would finish in the RPI Top 135. Manning’s team lost all six, scoring only one goal while conceding eleven. In that stretch, Utah went five straight without scoring a goal. A brief interlude at Weber State offered up Utah’s first win, but even that came difficultly, with the Utes making hard work of their in-state rivals and only winning 3-2. Three more losses to RPI Top 80 teams ensued including a 6-1 drubbing at the hands of National Finalists Stanford. Utah managed to beat another state rival in Utah State but also lost to Arizona and Oregon State, although both matches were close.

Utah seemed to be putting things together at the start of league play with two wins and a draw to go along with a 3-0 beating at New Mexico. The Utes would lose two of their final three though to finish the regular season in fourth place which forced them into a first round game in the conference tournament. There, Utah would be hammered, 4-1 by the same UNLV team that the Utes had beat less than two weeks earlier, 3-0. It marked the first time Utah had fallen at the first hurdle of the Mountain West Tournament in their history.

The Utes probably won’t be touching that conference tournament record any time soon, as Utah has moved to the conference tournament-less Pac-12. That might be the only good news for Utah who moves from a competitive but ultimately doable mid-major conference to a shark tank full of dangerous predators. That Utah nearly dipped out of the RPI Top 200 last year, and the general steep decline of the program at large had some wondering if a new league would mean a new start at the top for the team. But Coach Manning has survived and will get a chance to revive the laboring Utah program in their new league. He has his work cut out for him, as his side looks to have major deficiencies on both sides of the ball going into 2011.

The most immediate concern with Utah this year has to be putting the ball into the back of the net. The Utes huffed and puffed but only scored a paltry seventeen goals last year and were utterly toothless against the big sides they played, scoring only two goals in the ten matches they played against teams that finished in the RPI Top 100. This matters of course, because Utah doesn’t figure to be playing many, if any, league foes that fall outside that line. Exacerbating the problem is the loss of forward Lauren Hair who was the team’s leading scorer by a mile last year with six goals and five assists, while another starting forward, Chelsea Forbes, also departs.

Beyond them was not a whole bunch of offense with Erin Dalley the only other player who scored multiple goals in league play, and she was only able to come off the bench in three Mountain West matches. Dalley has shown scoring ability in the past, with nine goals in 2009 but has struggled to stay healthy. The only other returning forward to really make an impact was sophomore Lexi Krantz, who started fifteen matches but only scored once last year. Sophomore Monica Okapal and senior Anne Shallenberger are returning reserves who will battle the freshmen for playing time. With Dalley a walking injury bug and precious little in firepower elsewhere, the Utes could be in real trouble facing the calibre of defense they are going to come up against in the Pac-12 this year.

Odds are, the Utes are going to need a big contribution from the midfield if the offense is to take a big step forward this season. Sophomore Leslie Muirhead was the team’s most prevalent player in midfield last year, but she can hardly be counted on for goals from her defensive midfielder position despite twenty starts as a rookie. Another sophomore who made an impact in midfield last season is California native Jen Ericson, who started ten matches and could slot in up front as well. Ericson didn’t record a point last year though, meaning she’s not a guarantee for offensive impact this year.

The Utes were injury ravaged in the midfield last year and will hope for better fortune in that department this season. Katie Martinez started seventeen matches in 2008 but missed all of 2009 and much of last season through injury but will be hoping for a comeback this year. Similarly, sophomore Allie Wisner redshirted last year after making ten starts and recording a pair of assists in 2009. Stephanie Lemeza was able to get onto the pitch for three matches early last year but was than sidelined by injury, forcing a redshirt. The Utes could be markedly better in the midfield if all of their components are healthy again.

Utah were too generous in defense last year, but at least that part of the equation seems to have been worked on in the offseason. While starting full-back Morgan Skeen departs along with another starter, Zoe Van Gorder, senior Lauren Porter does return and could be one of the league’s better defenders, even considering the leap in class the Utes make this year. Porter started every match at center-back last year and is usually good for a goal or two each season as well. [Porter tore her ACL against BYU early in the season and is out for the year.] Porter is joined in central defense by fellow senior Lauren Dudley, another towering back who has a penchant of causing havoc in the box with her long free kick deliveries. Porter and Dudley are also good in the air and bring tons of starting experience to the backline.

The prevailing questions is obviously what’s going to surround them in defense. Sophomore Jenny Hutton’s a good bet to take one of the full-back slots, shaking off an injury to start fifteen matches as a freshman last season. There could also be time in the back for sophomore Percie Allen, who made seven starts last season, and Harley Spier, who also made seven starts and can also play in midfield. The team also adds in some very talented defensive recruits this year. Avery Ford is a versatile freshman who can also play in midfield and could give the Utes a threat going forward from the backline. Monique Morrison is one of the team’s center-backs of the future and should provide good depth at the very least if she recovers from an ACL tear by the fall.

The Utes are going to need strong play out of senior Hannah Turpen as well in all likelihood given the opposing offenses the team is likely to face in the Pac-12. Turpen has been the team’s starting keeper for the past two seasons, missing a few games last season through injury. The primary backup would appear to be sophomore Cheyanne Mulcock, who started in lieu of the injured Turpen in two matches last season and was reported to have had a great preseason. But Utah also adds a pair of fine goalkeeping prospects to the mix. Manning pulled a big time coup in snatching Molly Poletto, a U.S. U17 pool player, out from UNC Greensboro’s grasp after the coaching change for the SoCon power. Poletto’s a bit short for a top-flight keeper at 5’5″ but is already a good communicator and is not shy with the ball at her feet. She’s likely Utah’s keeper of the future but may do a lot of sitting and learning this year. The team also adds in Cassidy Cutrer from the Utah Avalanche club, a big talent who put in some fine performances in ECNL action earlier this season.

This group clearly has some potential, but it could be a trial by fire this year. Despite some quality talent coming in, this Utes squad just doesn’t look equipped to deal with the rigors of their new, wildly competitive home. The defense was leaky last year and takes a big step up in class, while the offense figures to have a very hard time scoring on Pac-12 defenses. They’ll probably start as overwhelming favorites to prop up the league table, and not finishing bottom would have to count as a success for Utah’s first season in the Pac-12.

Projected Order of Finish

* = Projected NCAA Tournament Automatic Bid Winner

*1. Stanford
2. Oregon State
3. UCLA
4. Washington
5. Cal
6. USC
7. Washington State
8. Colorado
9. Arizona State
10. Oregon
11. Utah
12. Arizona

Non-Conference Strength of Schedule Ranking (From Most to Least Difficult)

1. USC
2. Stanford
3. UCLA
T4. Arizona
T4. Washington State
T6. Cal
T6. Washington
8. Arizona State
9. Colorado
10. Oregon State
11. Oregon
12. Utah

5 thoughts on “2011 NCAA Soccer Preview – Pac-12 (Yes, Really!) – Subtraction By Addition?

  1. Cascadilly

    Chris: You do such a great job with your game recaps. Why not integrate them with your Pac-12 season preview? We’re halfway through the season and many questions posed or assumptions made have already been answered or disproved.

    Reply
  2. Soccer

    R u F***** kidding me!!!!!?????????????????????

    On Word 2010, this thing is 46 pages long. Believe me, I love this website, but this article is COMPLETE OVERKILL. I was really looking forward to reading this then I clicked the link and saw the sidebar get sooo damn tiny, then i scrolled down and it wouldn’t stop. Because of that, I think shoooooot, i dont have THAT much time to read alllllllllllllllllllllllllllllll this!

    Maybe stop reporting so much on these weaker conference, and chose maybe 8 conferences to focus on, and write about 1 conference each week and maybe EACH day post 1 or 2 teams preview daily so people will actually READ your long articles.

    Reply
    1. Joshua

      I read it. Most of it anyway.

      I think I’ll save it on Word too.

      However if this went to a print publication editor, I’m sure they would say cut it down to a few pages to save on paper expenses. Like having the 4 hour director’s cut of a movie cut down to 90 minutes so they can get another showing in the movie theaters. I guess I’m one of the few people that like 4 hour director’s cuts and super long internet articles on Pac 12 Women’s Soccer…

      Reply
  3. Louis

    Nice job on Stanford!

    Oliver is a great keeper.

    Noyola is highly overrated, though. Lacks the pace to compete with quality competition. 2 goals, 1 assist, in 16 playoff games.

    FYI – McCann’s are not related.

    Reply

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