Penn State stands alone
What a year Tiffany Weimer is having. The senior forward has led her team into the top spot of the rankings in style, scoring in consecutive games to eclipse Brandy Chastain's record at Santa Clara. The tough schedule that Penn State set up with early contests against teams like UCLA sharpened the squad up early, and no other top NCAA side has managed to avoid a loss or a tie.
Coincidentally, it seems at this point that the women's college game is searching for the opposite of what the men's is - although both are looking to prove the true strength of college soccer. It's just that with a past history that includes almost complete domination by one team in particular (North Carolina) the women's game finds itself almost glad to topple such storied programs - because that shows others are strong enough now to do so. That is a testament to the depth the women have today.
On the men's side, however, there's a bit of dismay that even the top teams can't seem to perform consistently - with no king of the hill, the question of how to truly measure quality at that level defies answer.
There were probably a few cheers, however, in the women's game at the news that the mighty Tar Heels had fallen. Duke stepped up to ruin North Carolina's undefeated season, winning 2-1 in Chapel Hill. It was the Tar Heel's first regular season loss at home since 1999. Blue Devil junior midfielder Rebecca Moros tallied both goals, one of which was a cheeky chip over UNC goalkeeper Aly Winget.
The parity in the women's game has asserted itself, making for an extremely competitive landscape as teams across the country prepare for the upcoming NCAA tournament. The ripple effect of North Carolina's loss will probably be that major teams will face even feistier opponents that are heartened by Duke's victory and looking to spring surprises of their own to launch bids to enter the tourney.
Though Penn has pulled just ahead in the rankings battle, the other spots are tighter than ever. Second-ranked Portland (14-0-1), remains undefeated. A tie to feisty #15 Pepperdine is the only blip on its record.
Portland's Christine Sinclair is also having a Hermann trophy-worthy year, as she has also bested the Chastain record. While Weimer's tenacity is impressive, Sinclair and Lindsey Huie have demonstrated a dynamic partnership throughout the season, and I pick Sinclair, with an assist or two from Huie, to eventually beat out Weimer for the consecutive goals spot in the history books.
The stretch run of the season is revealing which teams have the stamina to take on all comers, especially as conference play ramps up.
UCLA (13-1-0) fended off USC in a five goal, double-overtime crosstown rivalry that showcased both the potential of the Trojan women and the fighting spirit of the Bruins. After UCLA's defense gave up two early goals, it also pulled them back. Defenders Stacey Lindstrom and Jill Oakes scored within a minute of each other in the second half. In overtime, the experience of the Bruins (perhaps learned at the hands of their one overtime loss to Penn) won out, 3-2.
UCLA has now twice rallied from goal deficits now, and that mental edge of believing a team can come back is hugely important in the NCAA's. Though Danesha Adams still shoulders most of the scoring, freshman Kara Lang is coming on strong, with a pair of goals earned against Oregon.
USC, meanwhile, will probably chalk up this entire year as a learning experience for the immensely talented group. Jim Millinder's players showed flashes of brilliance all year, but never consistently.
Another team is looking especially strong down south. The irresistible force (Florida State's dynamic, multi-pronged attack) met the immovable object (Boston College's stifling defense) on Oct. 9, and the Seminoles triumphed, 3-0, forcing as many goals in one game as a stingy BC defense had allowed all season.
Florida State midfielders Viola Odebrecht and India Trotter are excellent at spotting each other on any seams in the defense. Australian Sel Kuralay, the team's top goal-scorer, recently showcased the skills she had honed in the college game when Australia women's team battled the U.S. to a tough scoreless draw. Coming in as a sub for Australia, Kuralay had one of the most dangerous shots on goal for the Matildas.
The Florida State team (12-2-0) has matured after two losses (including a 4-1 smack-down from UNC) and is picking up steam to close the season strong. I look for them to win out their last games and hit the NCAA tournament in full stride.
Virginia might be overlooked as a quality squad, but the team came close to causing its own upset against UNC, and looks to make some noise in the ACC tournament before the NCAAs even kick off.
Two more of the NCAA's usual suspects, Notre Dame and Santa Clara, both notched wins to inch up again in the rankings.
Santa Clara (13-2-1), has picked up a head of steam under forward Jordan Angeli. The Broncos scored five goals in their last outing, finding their offensive groove just in time for their classic match versus Portland.
Katie Thorlakson, meanwhile, has grabbed the steering wheel for Notre Dame (14-2-0) since their loss to Marquette – scoring or assisting in each of the team's game winning goals. The senior also became the 17th player in NCAA history to join the 50/50 club of goals and assists in a college career.
Former darling giantkiller Marquette, (14-2-1) has been unable to reproduce the magic it found against the Irish, however, falling to West Virginia (9-3-3), 2-0, in Big East action.
It's not easy to keep focus after the excitement of knocking off a top rival. Duke couldn't sustain momentum after beating North Carolina, falling 1-0 recently to Clemson.
Teams generally gear up when taking on the historic forces of the women's game. The upset watch is ticking for two teams in particular, I believe. North Carolina, missing Heather O'Reilly to national team duty, barely escaped North Carolina State, winning 1-0. Wake Forest is a bit of a long shot to surprise the Tar Heels, but I see it happening.
UCLA, meanwhile, has two tough sleeper opponents lurking in their conference schedule. Cal (10-2-1) and Stanford (8-4-1) are both dangerous, with Stanford already having claimed the scalp of Santa Clara.
Santa Clara faces Portland in the biggest matchup of the end of the season. It seems only fitting that Sinclair has to face the squad whose former player (Chastain) held the goals scored record she broke. I expect a tough game for the Pilots and another tie.
Andrea Canales covers MLS and women's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet.com. She also writes for topdrawersoccer.com and soccer365.com. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org