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Ryan Cooper | | August 18, 2016

Three gigantic opening-week games to watch

  Amir Bashti (11) and the Cardinal have a big test against Notre Dame early in its title defense attempt.

The first game of the 2016 men’s soccer season on Aug. 26 is getting closer and closer. This year’s schedule features some very intriguing early-season battles between non-conference opponents that are looking to get an early jump on their quests for a national championship. Here are three very intriguing games that could give everyone a first impression of who might be competing in the 2016 College Cup in Houston.

No. 10 Georgetown at No. 2 Akron | Aug. 26

What a start to the season this should be, as the first night of the 2016 season features one of the best matchups you will come across all season. Akron enters the year with big plans to hoist the trophy they held in 2010 after a penalty-kick loss in the semifinals of the 2015 College Cup. Meanwhile, Georgetown is also hungry after suffering a similar fate last season, a loss in penalty kicks against Boston College in the Sweet 16.

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These two teams played each other early in the 2015 season as well, with the Zips marching into Washington, D.C. and emerging with a 1-0 victory. The lone goal scorer in that one was Adam Najem, who would go on to be named a first-team All-American. Stopping Najem and getting junior Arun Basuljevic quickly acclimated as the new top guy on offense following the departures of Brandon Allen and Alex Muyl will be major keys for the Hoyas if they want to pull off the upset on the road.

No. 1 Stanford vs. No. 9 Notre Dame | Sept. 2

The defending-champion Cardinal gets a major test after a relatively soft first three games on the schedule. Stanford is heading to South Bend, Indiana, for the Adidas/IU Credit Union Classic, which features the Cardinal, Notre Dame, California and host Indiana. Stanford’s game against the No. 15 Hoosiers on Sept. 4 is also a big one, but the tournament opener versus the Fighting Irish gets the slight edge as the biggest game.

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Stanford received 20 of the 24 first-place votes in the NSCAA preseason coaches poll despite superstar and MAC Hermann Trophy winner Jordan Morris leaving with a year of eligibility remaining for the MLS. That leaves Stanford with some question marks on offense but still a large group of talent. That unit is led by junior Foster Langsdorf, who registered seven goals last season despite playing second fiddle to Morris.

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This game against Notre Dame should tell us a lot about where the Cardinal are at, as well as if the Fighting Irish can make the leap back to truly elite territory after winning the national championship in 2013. Anchored by top offensive weapon Jon Gallagher and a defense that allowed fewer than two goals in 17 of their 22 games in 2015, the Fighting Irish should present a great early test for the champs.

No. 7 Creighton at No. 3 Clemson | Sept. 2

That night, two more top 10 teams will go at it when Creighton travels to Clemson, South Carolina. The Tigers had their most successful season in decades, reaching the national championship game for the first time since 1987. This is still a very talented Clemson team, albeit one that lost its top two scorers and starting goalkeeper from last year’s squad that was blown out by Stanford in the championship.

Creighton is very familiar with the concept of losing a giant offensive standout as well, with the nation’s leader in points by a ridiculous margin of 12 Fabian Herbers taking the same route as Morris and leaving a year early for the MLS. Still, the Blue Jays are a strong team year in and year out, and this year should be no exception. But is either team’s new-look roster good enough to be a legitimate championship contender? This game might be a strong clue toward the answer of that question.

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