ACC – Clemson
Big XII – Iowa State | Oklahoma | Texas Tech
Big East – Cincinnati | DePaul | Pittsburgh | Providence | Rutgers | Seton Hall | South Florida | St. John’s (NY) | Syracuse | UConn | Villanova
Big Ten – Indiana | Iowa | Michigan State | Minnesota | Nebraska | Purdue
Mid-Majors – Denver | Florida Gulf Coast | Harvard | Illinois State | New Mexico | Rice | Utah State
Pac-12 – Arizona | Arizona State | Colorado | Oregon | Utah | Washington
SEC – Arkansas | Mississippi State | Ole Miss | Vanderbilt
WCC – Gonzaga | Loyola Marymount | San Francisco
The winds of change will be sweeping over Fort Worth in 2012, as TCU’s sleeping giant of a soccer program gets a big makeover. The biggest news is likely the Horned Frogs’ new conference home for the upcoming season and beyond. Once thought to be heading towards the Big East and some decided travel nightmares, TCU instead set their stall out for the Big XII after yet more shuffling among the ranks destabilized the Big East too much for the Horned Frogs’ liking.
The move to the Big XII certainly makes a lot more sense from a financial standpoint, given the likely exorbitant costs that would’ve gone into repeated trips to the East Coast that a Big East move would’ve entailed. The Horned Frogs will also get a chance to retain some regional rivalries and potentially fill the rather large void in the state left by Texas A&M’s departure for the SEC. Before TCU can think about becoming a power player in their new conference home, they have to revive what’s been a mostly underachieving program.
The Horned Frogs have been college soccer nomads drifting from the old Southwest Conference right before it imploded, to the WAC for a mostly unsuccessful run, to Conference USA where they bracketed a nice second place finish in 2003 with three indifferent years, followed by an unproductive Mountain West stint. TCU got a new boss as they moved into the Mountain West with Dan Abdalla jumping ship from fellow Mountain West school UNLV in time for the 2005 season. Recreating the success he had at UNLV was hard for Abdalla though.
The Horned Frogs spent their first three seasons in the Mountain West near the bottom of the league. Hope did bloom in 2008 though as TCU enjoyed a brilliant 14-4-2 campaign and finished third in a tough league, ending up on the fringe of the NCAA Tournament at-large bid discussion. But TCU couldn’t replicate that success in 2009 with a sixth placed finish in an eight team league, with things getting even worse in 2010 with the Horned Frogs finishing dead last in the Mountain West.
After two poor seasons and with a big money move coming up, Abdalla was very much on the hot seat entering 2011. Facing a reasonably hard non-conference schedule, TCU alternated wins and losses for a few weeks but did pick up nice wins over Texas State and Toledo to help boost their profile. A draw with Northern Arizona near the end of September was a warning sign though, and the club began to fizzle noticeably in league play. The defense crumbled for TCU, shipping six goals in their first two league matches, both losses. A win over Air Force would ensure that they wouldn’t finish bottom again, but the club backed into the postseason with three losses, including a humiliating 7-1 reverse to league champs New Mexico in the regular season finale.
TCU was a very lucky team indeed that six of the league’s seven teams made it to the postseason, and the Horned Frogs uninspiring season ended in extra time in the Mountain West Tournament first round after falling to Wyoming on a golden goal. Abdalla resigned not soon after the final whistle, leading to waves of speculation as to how ambitious a program with as much potential as TCU would be in looking for a replacement.
Many felt that the Horned Frogs made a very savvy hire by tabbing Florida State associate head coach Eric Bell to the vacant post. One of the nation’s top assistants and a name that has been bandied about for years about open positions, Bell finally gets his chance as he steps into a program with plenty of potential to become a force collegiately. Bell has certainly wasted little time in assembling a promising backroom staff in Fort Worth. Ryan Higginbotham has scores of experience in the region as the Dallas Texans Director of Coaching while also having served as an assistant for Akron’s powerhouse men’s side for a season. Also on the bench for TCU is former Portland goalkeeper Kelsey Davis, also considered a potential star in the coaching ranks by many. With new blood in the hot seat, a beautiful facility, and no shortage of fan support, the Horned Frogs would appear to be a program worth keeping an eye on.
If Bell is to conquer the Big XII, he’s likely going to be doing it with a vastly remodeled team. Just fourteen players from last year’s Horned Frogs return for the new year, with two of hose being goalkeepers. While the club does draft in at least eleven newcomers, TCU and Bell will be hard pressed to gel all those rookies early on in an unforgiving and physical league. More than anything else, the Horned Frogs have to tighten up on defense. A lot. TCU shipped an unbelievable nineteen goals in the league, or more than three a game. While much of that total was down to the debacle against New Mexico at the close of the regular season, keep in mind that TCU didn’t keep one clean sheet in league play and conceded more than one goal in seven of their last eight!
It’s probably not best to bring up the offense either, or what’s left of it in Fort Worth. The Horned Frogs lose scoring leader Jordan Calhoun to graduation, and second leading scorer Brooke Kviz has left the program as well. Actually, TCU loses a LOT of scoring, with the returnees totaling just two goals last season. You get the sense that TCU could be a recruiting powerhouse in time, but it’s going to take one hell of an effort to paper all the cracks over in Fort Worth this season.
At the very least, TCU will be able to enjoy a small degree of consistency in goal with the return of sophomore Alicen Wright. Relatively unheralded as a recruit coming into Fort Worth, the Californian did well to win the starting job out of preseason camp and held it for almost all of the 2011 season. Wright was a busy camper though, making the most saves for a TCU keeper in a single season in a decade, which doesn’t exactly speak well of the defense playing in front of her. Wright won’t be guaranteed of anything though, as the new regime may be seeking to shake things up.
Bell certainly will have that chance this year with the addition of high profile transfer Vittoria Arnold from Arizona State. Arnold came into the college scene as one of the top prospects in goal from her class but has had a star crossed career thus far and missed almost all of last season with concussion related issues. A fresh start was badly needed, and Arnold still has plenty of time to develop into a star keeper that this TCU side is craving for. Whether it’s Arnold or Wright in goal, a suspect defense in front of them could end up making life very difficult though.
It’s less an issue of the Horned Frogs being down a couple of starters from last season than TCU not looking equipped to replace them with anything or anyone better. Departed senior Katie Taylor looked like one of the league’s most promising defenders after 2008 and a fine rookie season, adding six assists to a fine season for TCU. Things would go gradually downhill after that though, and being a part of last season’s torrid display in defense was hardly a way for a four-year starter to go out. Alex Mechalske is another starter gone after starting all of TCU’s matches as a senior and, like Taylor, finishing out her career as a four-year starter for the club. Mechalske was also the club’s corner kick specialist, giving Bell something else to replace this year. Reserve Lindsay Holmes also departs fate an injury hit career, giving the club more depth worries to sort out.
Sophomore Morgan Lane returns after eighteen starts last season and may be one of the club’s surest things in defense, which is a bit harrowing considering she has one season of significant collegiate experience. Classmate Becca Rowland also established herself in the starting lineup after a transfer from Texas Tech, starting thirteen games last season after not playing a minute with the Red Raiders. Beyond that duo is a lot of question marks. Junior Maddy Courvoisier is capable in defense and midfield and was one of the club’s top reserves last year, making four starts as well for the Horned Frogs.
Sophomore Dixie Kurrus should have been one of the club’s options in defense last year but was knocked out by injury two games into her freshman season, a loss that may have severely hurt the TCU defense. The club will also hope for the successful return of junior Kelly Johnson from injury after the Californian missed all of last season. Johnson started six games and made eleven more appearances off the bench as a rookie in 2010 and could be a big boost if healthy. Considering the struggles of this group last year, Bell is likely to give the newcomers every chance at locking down a spot, though few, if any, seem like blue-chip prospects on paper.
TCU’s midfield looks best equipped to perform of the Horned Frog’s units this year, returning most of their major personnel from last year’s squad. The club does take a blow with the loss of freshman Natalie Werner though, who started seven games last season and was generally considered the club’s top recruit going into last season. Kaitlin Hellmann, another key depth player off the bench also departs early, though the combination of returnees and newcomers should ensure that depth isn’t too bad with this group.
Most eyes will be focused on Mexican international Monica Alvarado, who began her career at Mississippi State but started every game here last year as a junior. Alvarado’s not a big time offensive threat, but her international experience and starting experience at this level should be a big boost with so many newcomers on the side. Also likely to be close to the top of the depth chart going into camp are Ashley Jones, who started fifteen games last season after a season as a reserve in 2010, and senior Elise Kensinger, who scored on her only shot on goal last year and can also play in defense for the Horned Frogs.
Junior Kristen Barg missed much of the middle of the season but did start six of the eight games she played and is another contender for major minutes, while senior Shelby Campbell was used mostly off the bench after not playing in 2009 or 2010. Unsurprisingly given the struggles all over the squad, newcomers will get every chance to make an impact here as well. The top prospect in this unit coming in looks to be Makenzie Koch, another recruit from the powerhouse Dallas Texans club. Given the reasonable depth and experience returning, you’d have to say this looks like the strength of the club, relatively speaking.
So, can anyone on this team score? It’s a pressing question considering all of the scoring the club loses, despite the fact that TCU weren’t exactly prolific in front of goal for much of last season. Calhoun is obviously the big loss for the Horned Frogs, with her seven goals looking hard to replace. The former Mountain West Freshman of the Year looked to be on her way to superstardom after fifteen goals in 2008 as TCU enjoyed a phenomenal season. But while Calhoun continued to score, it was never quite the same, including last season, where the senior missed three games in a row early in the year before catching fire and scoring five in six. Those goals would dry up in league play mostly, with Calhoun scoring just twice, both in TCU losses.
A season after barely playing, Kviz looked like turning into the club’s next formidable striker, with five goals, though two came from the penalty spot. Kviz scored in three of four league games, actually outscoring Calhoun in that department, and her departure with two years of eligibility left stings. Kristen Halverson and Kaylie Garcia, who combined for fourteen starts last year and were good outlets for ancillary offense, also graduate, leaving TCU in an even bigger hole offensively. And yes, it actually gets worse, because the club also loses freshman Tori Hale, who started twelve games as a rookie and had a goal and four assists last year.
What’s left? Not much. Junior Brittany Slyman has eleven starts in two seasons and had three goals as a rookie but slumped last year, not recording a single point on the season. Senior Kim Castleberry has one season left to extricate her name from being burned into the college soccer annals as a cautionary tale. The one-time top recruit in America in some eyes washed out of Texas A&M after one season and delivered a modest tally of five goals in 2010 here before missing all of last year through injury. It’s a question of how much the senior has left in the tank and whether any of her confidence remains intact after three trying seasons.
Newcomers will be receiving lots of minutes out of necessity up front, with the most promising prospect being Sarah Schweiss, a Coloradan whose been a mainstay on the Region IV ODP Team as of late. Whether that’s enough to score against Big XII defenses remains to be seen, and this group still has it all to prove in 2012.
Bell may be a rising star amongst the coaching ranks, but his, and TCU’s supporters’, patience will undoubtedly be tested by what looks like a multiply and fatally flawed team. There’s a distinct lack of star power all over the pitch, and even if you believe that the club will defend better this year, the offense looks like a catastrophe. The players that had struggled to score against Mountain West defenses are gone and have been replaced by players who didn’t score period, along with some rookies who may struggle to hack it at this level. Bell will likely be banking on defense to give the Horned Frogs a puncher’s chance in the league, but some serious improvement will be needed against the likes of West Virginia and Oklahoma State this season.
TCU remains a program with a great amount of potential. Unfortunately for Horned Frogs supporters, it might take a few years for Bell and TCU to start cashing in on that potential, with a last place finish in the league this year looking likely.