Aug. 25, 2009

By Kevin Scheitrum


As college soccer churns out more and more MLS- and Europe-bound players every year, the Division I landscape changes like the leaves, with teams rising and falling from the elite every year. So, before the action begins, let guide you through 10 teams to watch in the 2009 season, with the season starting in late August and finishing in the College Cup final in Cary, N.C. on Dec. 13.



The Zips dazzled on both sides of the field on '08, finishing 11th in scoring offense and first in goals-against in the nation. If they can repeat the feat this year - after a season that took them to new heights for the program, with a 17-1-4 final record and Round of 16 berth - the Zips may find themselves with their first-ever College Cup berth. Coach Caleb Porter emphasizes what he calls "Dominant Soccer," with an unwavering intensity on both ends, and the personnel returning to the pitch this year have proven themselves very capable of the demands. Although leading scorers Steve Zakuani and Matt Tutich are gone, seven starters are back, including third-leading scorer Teal Bunbury and NSCAA Third-Team All-American Anthony Ampaipitakwong. Toss in a recruiting class that Rise Magazine ranked as the No. 1 class in the country and you've got a program ready to assert itself as top-tier team - for a long, long time. The lone big question mark is who will slide into goal after Evan Bush, arguably the best goalie in Akron history, graduated in the spring.



Creighton's become a fixture in the national tournament, making its 17th straight appearance in 2008. But, despite its success over the past two decades, the Blue Jays are still strangers to the championship trophy. This year, with men in blue returning nine starters, could be the year that all ends. Coming off a season that saw the Jays post a school-record 13 shutouts and a second-best nationally 0.48 GAA, the Creighton defense will see the return of MVC Defensive Player of the Year and NSCAA All-American Chris Schuler, along with fifth year senior Seth Sinovic on the back line. Both of them will try to keep the ball from getting to sophomore goalie and reigning MVC Freshman of the Year Brian Holt - who, when a shot does manage to sneak through, makes sure it stops in his hands (seventh in the NCAA in GAA). Offensively, despite the departure of Andrei Gotsmanov to the MLS, Ethan Finlay (6g, 16 points) and Jeff Thayer (5g, 16 points) lead an offense that looks to power Creighton to its first-ever national title. 



By many indications, Dartmouth looks to be the head of a very talented class in Ivy League this year. The Green's bringing back 10 starters from its conference-champion, Round-of-16-bound 2008 club, including last year's conference Player of the Year and 2009 Preseason All-American Craig Henderson. Returning after a massive year in the midfield, Henderson picked up 17 points last year, on six goals and five assists. And with Lucky Mosana (11 goals, 2 assists in '08) back at forward, this looks like a Green team that could be headed for its fourth conference title in the past six years.



The battle for the Big Ten crown looks like it'll be taking place in the Great Lakes region this year, with both of these teams cracking the top-10 in the College Soccer News preseason rankings. Both teams return a bulk of their talent from last season, both play a thorough, end-to-end style and both are hungry. After watching Michigan State romp to a Big Ten title in '08, the Hoosiers and Wildcats are out to make sure that doesn't happen again this year.


Coming off a 14-7-3 season that ended in the national quarterfinals, Indiana's bringing back seven starters, including midfielders Andy Adlard and Eric Alexander, both All-Big Ten teamers last year. Also back on the pitch are conference Freshman of the Year forward Will Bruin and Ofori Sarkodie on defense. For Northwestern, off the winningest season in program history, six of last year's starters make their way back this year. The pack's led by sophomore forward Matt Eliason, who, after scoring a team-high 12 goals in the fall, led the team in scoring in the springtime with a blistering run of games. He'll be joined in his efforts to keep Northwestern among the nation's elite by second-team All American defender Mark Blades, along with second-team All-Big Ten selections Drew Ratner on defense and Mischa Rosenthal in goal.



It'll be interesting to see how the defending champs come out this year, after a season that saw them trip and stumble and look frequently lost in the opening weeks, only to catch a stride that vaulted them to the highest peak in college soccer. The Terps lost a number of last year's stars to graduation or the pro ranks - Omar Gonzalez, Jeremy Hall and Rodney Wallace chose the latter - but coach Sasho Cirovski has gotten used to early working around early departures. And he's also gotten used to attracting some of the best college soccer players around the globe, an ability that shone even more in 2009, with an incoming 10-man class packed with international experience. It's now a question of whether the vets can teach the young guys what it means to play the kind of soccer that rolled the Terps to a title last year. Forward Casey Townsend and midfielder Matt Kassel will be counted on to lead the offense.


Said AD Deb Yow about Cirovski: "You say his name and I start smiling. For a number of years we've lost the greatest number of players to the MLS as undergrads, but he just reloads."


North Carolina

If North Carolina's eruption from 13th seed to national runner-up in last year's Tournament didn't secure it a spot as a Team To Watch in 2009, the amount of talent returning to Chapel Hill this year does. In an ACC stretched as wide as it's ever been with quality competition - last year's national championship game was ever All-ACC final - UNC doesn't look to be losing much steam at all from a team that lost five straight matches going into the Tourney then won four straight to take on Wake in the title game. Brooks Haggerty returns in net to lead a defense that was shaky at times last year, but allowed just three goals in five NCAA Tourney games. Back to lead an offense that scored just under two goals a game last year is sophomore Billy Schuler (13 points). Look for transfers Stephen McCarthy and Michael Farfan to chip in from the start.


St. John's

A year removed from the program's fourth-ever College Cup berth, the expectations are already stacking up in Queens, with the Red Storm taking the top spot in the College Soccer News preseason rankings. Though the Storm ended their year against Maryland for the sixth time in seven years, they still finished the season with a nation's-best 16 shutouts and third-best .50 goals-against average. And most of the team's core is back, with a defense anchored by second-team All-American Joel Gustafsson, the reigning Big EAST Defensive Player of the Year and a midline headlined by Nelson Becerra, 2008's conference Midfielder of the Year, and fellow middie Tafadzwa Chiduka. The Storm did score only 39 goals last year (a 39-13 total margin), but with 37 goals' worth of returners this year, expect a team that'll be just as good on defense and multitudes more dynamic on the other end.


Santa Clara

Just two years ago, Santa Clara singed the West Coast Conference, taking home a 16-2-4 record, an undefeated conference slate and a No. 7 seed in the Tournament. Last year, the Broncos took a step back. Or, rather, a leap back. Finishing the year at 4-9-7 (2-5-5 WCC), the season marked the first missed Tournament in six years for the Broncos and signaled a departure from what had come to be expected in Santa Clara. But eight starters are back this year, and for a program with the pedigree of Santa Clara, expect a rebound. A big one. San Francisco's the favorite right now in the WCC, after pulling in the maximum six first-place votes in the preseason poll, but for the Broncos, a team looking for revenge and redemption, playing the part of underdog should be a powerful thing.


South Florida

A national quarterfinalist last year, South Florida had the honor of becoming the final team to lose to Wake Forest in 2008. But until that 5-0 defeat on Dec. 8, the Big EAST champs assembled a pretty impressive season. Allowing 0.80 goals per game in 2008, the Bulls posted shutouts in 12 of 23 games and took wins over St. John's, Notre Dame, Louisville along with a 0-0 tie with Indiana to finish the year with a 15-5-3 record. The biggest question in 2009 for South Florida is whether the Bulls can find replacements for a senior class that left a huge chunk missing - on defense as well as offense - with its departure. Look for a big year from senior forward Zak Boggs, the team's second-leading scorer last year, on his farewell tour, but this year may depend on the man in net. If Jeff Attinella (.806 save percentage, 0.68 GAA) can hold strong while the new-look defense congeals, expect USF to spend three-plus months driving opposing coaches to madness.


Wake Forest

Before the Demon Deacons lost to North Carolina in last year's national semifinals, they'd put together a season that sidled pretty close to perfection. Compiling a 23-1-1 record before the loss to the Tar Heels, Wake ended the year with a 3.38 goals-per-game clip, allowing just .70 goals per contest. But that was last year, with an almost entirely different cast. Eight of Wake's 11 starters last year won't be back on the pitch this time around, whether because of graduation, pro contracts or, in the case of rising sophomore All-American Danny Wenzel, season-ending knee surgery. A few of last year's stars are back, with netminder Akira Fitzgerald and his 13 shutouts in '08 back in goal and 11-goal scorer Zack Schilawski getting a chance to start instead of coming off the bench, among others. Toss in ACC Player of the Year Ike Opara on the back line and you've got, theoretically, a solid base. But the question for Wake this season is how quickly the new generation can come together, especially with early-season games against Notre Dame and Indiana fast approaching.