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Wayne Cavadi | NCAA.com | August 24, 2018

6 burning questions to be answered in the DII men's soccer season

The DII men's soccer season is ready to kick off. As with any new season, there are plenty of questions that need to be answered. 

The United Soccer Coaches preseason poll was released, looking eerily similar to the way it ended in 2017. What can we expect from a top 25 loaded with DII soccer's premier talents?

Can the new look Golden Eagles repeat?

Charleston (WV) broke through in 2017. After losing the championship game in 2014 and 2016, the Golden Eagles won their first-ever title in thrilling penalty kick fashion. Now all eyes will be on them to see if the preseason No. 1 team can end the season where it starts it. 

MORE: Charleston wins first championship | Championship history

It won’t be an easy task. Will Roberts — one of DII men’s soccer’s most prolific scorers in its history, who was second in career goals across all three levels last season — and Patrick Guier — who was a point-scoring machine the past two seasons for Charleston — are both gone. So is the national player of the year, defender Thomas Vancaeyezeele. And while we’re at it, first team All-American goalie Paulo Pita, who had a shutout against a tough Lynn team in that championship game, made the leap to DI and is now at Marshall.

So, how is Charleston supposed to keep up with so many key figures gone? David Achaerandio and Freddy Tracey were tied for third on the 2017 team for goals, and will see an expanded role this season. Ettore Ballestracci returns as well. His 12 points were fifth-most on the team and he will be looked to in a starting role. There is a lot of youth in net, as Ewen Le Gallo and Ian De Oliveira Martins combined for just three appearances last year. 

A repeat hasn’t been accomplished in DII men's soccer since Southern Connecticut State went back to back in 1998-99. Luckily for Dan Stratford and his team, the Golden Eagles will have some time to figure things out. They don’t face a current top 25 team on their schedule, which should allow them to stay competitive while they adjust to a new era of Charleston soccer. 

Who wins the battle for the SSC?

Three teams begin the season ranked in the top 25 from the Sunshine State Conference, making it one of the more exciting conferences to watch. National runner-up Lynn opens at No. 2 while reigning SSC regular-season champion Palm Beach Atlantic is at No. 9 and SSC tournament champion Tampa rounds out the trio tied for No. 23. 

Head coach John Rootes has turned Lynn into a perennial contender, leading the Fighting Knights to the title game three times and winning twice. They take a big hit this year, losing some key pieces, but Jack Watson returns from injury. The 2016 SSC player of the year is arguably the most dangerous weapon in the conference, if not all of DII, so his return should be exciting.

The Sailfish had a historic run themselves in 2017. They won their first SSC regular season crown, going without a loss in conference play, finishing 9-0-1. They too will have somewhat a new look with their top three scorers lost from last season, but there are plenty of upperclassmen to carry the load.

Then there is Tampa, who won the SSC tournament for the first time in a decade in 2017. They, too, have a lot of holes to fill, but the return of second team All-SCC keeper Jake Richards is a welcomed sight. Juancho Fernandez is the lone returning player with more than two points recorded last season. 

When you mix a very tough Rollins team and a competitive Flordia Tech squad into the mix, this becomes one of the better conference fights to monitor throughout the season. 

Can anyone emerge from the very familiar top 10?

The top 10 teams in the United Soccer Coaches poll are essentially the exact same as the end of 2017. The only team to drop out was No. 6 California Baptist, and that’s because they jumped to Division I.

MORE: The 10 most memorable games from the 2017-18 DII season

Taking the Lancers' place and cracking the top 10 is West Alabama. The Tigers' soccer program is just getting started, kicking off in 2012. Since then they have become a Gulf South Conference powerhouse, as head coach Matthew Thorne has led West Alabama to the last four consecutive GSC tournament titles. Last season, the Tigers finished 16-3-1 and made program history by advancing to the third round of the tournament for the first time ever.

Ali Brador — the first All-American in program history — Harrison Roberts, Gaspard Voituriez-Donnelly, and Rakim Ali all return in a team packed with veteran leadership and talent. If West Alabama is going to finally bring a crown to the GSC, this may be the year to do it.

Which team is the best newcomer to the poll?

The bottom three teams to the poll, all tied at No. 25, are also fresh faces, with none appearing in the final rankings of the 2017 season.

Indianapolis is one of those teams, earning its first United Soccer Coaches poll preseason ranking in school history. After winning the Great Lakes Valley Conference tournament over Southern Indiana in dramatic fashion on a last second goal, the Greyhounds were quickly bumped from the NCAA postseason. With their top three scorers — Javier Steinwascher, James Jenkins, and Benjamin Sierra — and senior keeper Miles Palmer returning, expect UIndy to be in the mix all season long. 

Davis and Elkins is one of the teams tied with UIndy. The Senators are making their first preseason poll appearance since the Great Midwest Athletic Conference era began in 2012. They have only one top 25 team on their schedule this season, and that is GMAC foe, No. 7 Ohio Valley. The Senators have a new head coach and a new look squad as their three leading scorers won’t be returning in 2018. It will be interesting to see how they fare against an expanding GMAC that now welcomes Tiffin to the mix.

Rounding out the trio is East Stroudsburg. The Warriors won their first Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference title in a decade last season, marking their 20th overall in program history. Six starters return, including 2017 leading scorer Eddy Enowbi. They’ll have to battle West Chester, who went undefeated in PSAC play in 2017, and a very unheralded Gannon team to stay amongst the top 25 in 2018.

How many goals will John Haist score?

Haist is the Colorado Mines first team All-American goal scoring machine that finished second in DII with 22 goals scored last season. While the goals are impressive in their own right, what stands out most is nine of them in particular. Haist led all three divisions with nine game-winning goals in 2017, leading the Orediggers to a 17-4-1 record and the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference championship.

MORE: 5 great goal scorers from the 2017 season

He enters the season as the favorite for RMAC Player of the Year honors and a real contender for the national player of the year. Haist and District of Columbia's Gabriel Torres should make for a fun race to see who leads the nation in goals. 

Is there a sleeper lurking outside the top 25?

Speaking of which, District of Columbia had a dream season in 2017. Torres exploded for 22 goals and 52 points — both second in DII — with 20 assists. He returns with a roster full of experience from last year’s historic run, where the Firebirds not only reached their first NCAA postseason but won their first tournament game in a dominant 3-0 shutout. They waste no time putting themselves to the test, facing four tournament teams from last year, including No. 1-ranked Charleston and an opening day bout with Goldey-Beacom.