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Ryan Cooper | | August 19, 2016

Three thrilling early-season games to follow

  Penn State has an Elite Eight rematch to open the season as it begins its quest for a repeat.

Women’s soccer season is upon us, and there is a bountiful display of opening-week matchups featuring championship contenders. Win or lose, the players and coaches will likely learn a lot about themselves through these games. While likely having little impact on the outcome of the end of the season, confidence boosts and a sense of belonging cannot be overlooked, and a bump in the rankings never hurts either.

Here are three mega-games to follow along with early on in the year.

No. 6 West Virginia at No. 2 Penn State | Aug. 19

It’s hard to ask for a much bigger game to begin the season with, as Penn State begins its road toward a repeat championship with a rematch from last year’s tournament against a talented West Virginia squad. The two actually met twice last year, with the Mountaineers winning 1-0 at home last year in the regular season to give Penn State one of its three losses for the season. The only goal in that game came in the eighth minute and it was a struggle from there, with the Nittany Lions only getting two shots on goal for the entire contest.

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However, Penn State got its revenge in the NCAA tournament, scoring twice in the first half en route to a 2-0 win in the Elite Eight. Emily Ogle and Frannie Crouse registered the goals in that game to send the Nittany Lions to the College Cup. Just like West Virginia did to them, the Nittany Lions gave the Mountaineers one of their three losses on the season. To showcase how much Penn State grew during the year, the Nittany Lions had eight shots on goal in that one as opposed to two in the regular-season meeting.

West Virginia no longer has top scorer Kailey Utley around but returns junior Michaela Abam, whose 28 points last year were just a tick below Utley’s 30. Penn State, meanwhile, returns its top two scorers in Megan Schafer and Crouse, which could give them a big advantage in finding offense early in the season before everyone has a chance to gel. Both teams also have to replace some excellent goalies, with Penn State’s Rose Chandler and West Virginia’s Michelle Newhouse each set to get their first collegiate starts in this game.

2015 DI Women's Soccer: Championship Highlights

No. 1 Florida State at No. 8 Texas A&M | Aug. 19

The first night of the season continues with a big game on the road for the preseason No. 1 Florida State. The Seminoles might have the toughest schedule in the country, with five of the other nine teams in the top 10 of the preseason coaches poll on there. So if the Seminoles are still at the top when the postseason rolls around, it means they really had to earn it.

Florida State was a force last year, bullying its way through the NCAA tournament to the tune of a plus-15 goal differential in four games before being stunned by Duke in the semifinals. FSU returns leading scorer Megan Connolly, who won the ACC Midfielder of the Year award and was a MAC Hermann Trophy semifinalist as a true freshman last year. Goalkeeper Cassie Miller and her 15 shutouts in 25 games will also be back in the net.

SEASON PREVIEW: Penn State, Florida State in play for College Cup return

This is not an Aggies team to overlook though, especially at home. They return Haley Pounds, one of the best scorers in the country, though their defense will need to improve this year to be a serious title contender. Still, with a balanced attack, Texas A&M could make this one an interesting game. Florida State took care of business against the Aggies last year in Tallahassee, Florida, shaking off a 1-0 halftime deficit to score three goals in less than 10 minutes and grab a 3-1 win. Then, in the NCAA tournament, the Seminoles embarassed their opponent, beating the Aggies 5-0 to punch their ticket to the College Cup. Florida State led in shots 21-3 and had two goals from Elin Jensen. We will see if Texas A&M can use its thirst for revenge to its advantage at home or if Florida State is simply that much better.

No. 7 Florida at No. 5 Stanford | Aug. 26

The Cardinal’s leading goal scorer last season might have only found the back of the net five times, but that happened with five different players. Having one player who can score a dozen goals herself is always great, but sometimes a series of equal-minded attackers can be even deadlier.

The Florida side, however, falls firmly in the “one player” category, as Savannah Jordan is primed to close out her college career with another stupendous season. The Fayetteville, Georgia, native has simply been on a different level as the rest of the college competition since she set foot on campus. She was an All-American for each of her first three seasons, is a two-time SEC Offensive Player of the Year and was second in the nation in points and goals last year. However, that trip to the College Cup continues to elude her, so it will be interesting to see if she is able to step her game up even more for her final year.

RELATED: Returning stats leaders to watch in 2016 | Five goalies who will be tough to beat

Both of these teams are popular picks to make the College Cup this season, so this game could give us some real insight into which should be considered the true contender. Plus, it’s a style-clashing offense vs. defense game, which always makes for fun viewing to see which side can outlast the other. These teams last met in 2014, with Stanford topping the Gators 1-0 in overtime.

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