Taking a stab at the polls
Consider this: When SoccerTimes.com released its 2005 preseason poll, Indiana was the unanimous top pick. At season's end, the No. 1 Hoosiers had plummeted to No. 12. So newly crowned national champ Maryland is everyone's favorite in 2006.
Akron, No. 23 in late August 2005, wiggled its way up to No. 3. Clemson, the team that finished the season in the No. 4 spot, didn't even get honorable mention in the preseason.
In fact, SoccerTimes.com had no teams from its preseason 2005 poll in the same spot at season's end. I think I can do just as well -- maybe even better.
While my preseason rankings are likely no more accurate than the more traditional ones out there, mine are not weighted down with facts and stats from 2005 that aren't going to mean anything in 2006. Unlike more renowned polls from SoccerTimes.com, College Soccer News or the NSCAA/adidas -- give me some time, this is my first one -- mine takes into account intangibles that maybe no one else considered, with a number or two tossed in to make it sound official.
1. Maryland. First rule of creating a poll: The team that won the national championship the year before gets to start the season ranked No. 1. It wouldn't matter if the Terrapins lost every single player and coach Sasho Cirovski, Maryland still would get the top spot. Before sending me an e-mail informing me that Cirovski and 15 players (including five starters from the national championship game) return, please take a moment to reread the last sentence, and note I said "if."
2. UC Santa Barbara. This is my sleeper pick. College Soccer News has this team ranked 21st while the NSCAA/adidas poll has it 22nd. I think the Gauchos can do better. UCSB could have the best goalkeeping in the nation with senior Kyle Reynish and incoming freshman and U.S. U-17 national team starter Bryant Rueckner. See, sometimes I let actual facts influence my decisions.
Reynish posted nine shutouts with a .87 goals-against average last season while playing every minute of all 19 of the Gauchos' games. Rueckner has given up an average of 1.30 goals against in his 29 U-17 appearances.
Why do I bring this up? Because most people will tell you they don't blame the goalkeeper when a team loses. But honestly, how many times have you heard someone on the sidelines groan when an opponent scores and say, "Oh man, I can't believe the sweeper let that go in"? Exactly my point.
3. New Mexico. The Lobos made it all the way to the NCAA final last year, and that's got to count for something. Most people -- at least those who were voting in the polls just before the tournament -- thought they were the better team, as well. Heading into the tournament, New Mexico had 12 first-place votes in SoccerTimes.com's poll. Maryland had just one, further giving credence to my point that polls are all made up anyway.
Sure, the Lobos have to replace seven starters, but like almost every other program in America, New Mexico welcomes "one of the most talented groups of recruits in school history," so hey, that shouldn't be a problem.
4. UCLA. I'm sure the Bruins are convinced I hate them after my last column, but not so. I would have ranked them even higher, but the loss of Kamani Hill this season isn't going to help. Still, coach Jorge Salcedo has done a good job recruiting the last few years, and I'm convinced this should eventually pay off. Yes, the Bruins have lost some great players early the last few years, but the guys they have and the guys that are coming in are pretty good in their own right. This squad should be able to pull it together and go further than it has the last few seasons.
However, if UCLA gets bounced early in the tournament again, the Bruins can expect to find themselves much lower on this illustrious poll next season.
5. North Carolina. The Tar Heels return all but one starter from last season's 17-4-3 team, and my guess is that not many people can tell me who that lone player is, so how important could he have been? (That player was midfielder Dax McCarty, and to his mother and FC Dallas who picked him in the MLS SuperDraft, I'm sure he's very important.)
6. South Florida. The Bulls return all but one starter from last season's 13-6-2 team, and ... if that sentence doesn't sound familiar -- go back and read No. 5. I didn't put all this time into my poll so you could just skip parts. USF emerged as a strong contender in 2005. Can the Bulls hold on and continue that success? Or it was just an eight-second ride? That remains to be seen.
7. Akron. The Zips lost two All-Americans and their coach from last season, but they bring back seven starters from a team that went 18-1-4. One of those returning players -- keeper Evan Bush -- gives me reason to rank the Zips seventh. You know how many goals Bush gave up last season in 14 of his 23 starts? Zero. If he can put up the same kind of numbers, Akron will either have a great record or an insane amount of draws.
8. Connecticut. I've seen UConn as high as second and as low as fourth, but I've dropped them slightly lower, mostly because the Huskies' first preseason game ended in an unimpressive 0-0 draw against Hartwick. If you can't beat a school that most people don't know the state it's in, you fall in the poll. Simple as that.
9. Hartwick. OK, even though no one knows where it's located, this Oneonta, N.Y.-based school actually has quite a history of success in collegiate soccer. The Hawks are sixth on the all-time list in both College Cup appearances (7) and NCAA Tournament victories (36) and 10th in NCAA Tournament appearances (23).
10. Notre Dame. This team is in most people's top 20 with a strong core returning from last year's 12-8-3 team, but the Irish can't get a break. They're good, but the other good Notre Dame "football" team is getting all the attention. Even in the soccer press, in-state rival Indiana gets all the hype. No one seems to remember Notre Dame knocked the Hoosiers out of last year's NCAA Tournament with a 2-0 win.
At this point, you might be asking yourself how certain teams failed to make this list. Here's how:
Southern Methodist. Nothing personal against the Mustangs, but one of the trendy top five-caliber picks had to take a dive. Sorry about that guys, but best of luck this season.
Clemson. After the Tigers did so well last year without any preseason hype, I don't want to be responsible for jinxing them this season. However, if I were going to rank them, they'd be in the 6½ spot. That's because Dan Richards -- the most clutch player in the game last year -- is back. Without him and his seven game-winning goals, the 15-6-3 Tigers would have been 8-6-10. The team does have some rebuilding to do after graduation and the loss of Nathan Sturgis to the professional ranks, but who doesn't? Look for Clemson to be strong.
Indiana. I've got an upcoming story about the Hoosiers, so I'm stockpiling material.
Furman University. OK, maybe no one is actually wondering why Furman wasn't on the list, but I came across the name while doing some research and figured I would give the team a shout out. It's probably the only poll mention they'll get all year.
Because I am the only member of this "poll" committee, teams interested in upping their rankings can do so easily. Those interested should contact me at the e-mail address below for a list of prices.
Maria Burns covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet and is a writer and columnist for The News-Sentinel (Fort Wayne, IN). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org