A year ago, atop every single poll was one name: Indiana. Twelve months later, the field for NCAA men's soccer is as open as it has ever been. Between four and six programs could make a legit claim for the top spot. Not that they would. Ranking the rest is just as hard, but hey, it's gotta be done. Here it is: ESPNsoccernet's Preseason Top 15
1. SMU (14-6-3)
A young Mustang squad was written off early last season after an 0-4 start (including exhibition losses to Akron and Connecticut) but rebounded to advance to the College Cup semis, where they fell to eventual champ Maryland. This year, don't be surprised to see the Dallas school win it all. Legendary coach Schellas Hyndman (23rd year, .772 winning percentage) returns eight starters. Sophomore F Paulo da Silva is poised for a breakout year after notching five tourney goals in 2005. Senior M Jay Needham is on the Hermann watch list, and transfers Scott Geppert (Brown) and Ben Shuleva (St. John's) should contribute right away. Another strong non-conference schedule combined with valuable experience a year ago (SMU were the ultimate road warriors, knocking off UCLA, UNC-Greensboro and North Carolina on the way to the Final Four) will pay off in a big way this fall.
2. North Carolina (17-4-3)
The Tar Heels lost just one starter (soph M Dax McCarthy) from the squad that narrowly missed out on a Cup trip last year. In the NCAA quarters, the Heels lost to SMU in OT, so you can bet the seven seniors in coach Elmar Bolowich's XI will do anything to get there this year. UNC has talent all over the field: Seniors Justin Hughes (GK) and Michael Harrington (D) provide tons of experience in the back, mids Corey Ashe (four game winning goals in '05) and St. John's transfer Garry Lewis (McCarthy's replacement) will work the engine room. Lethal soph striker Ben Hunter will be even tougher on opposing defenses after a stellar frosh debut. 2006 marks the Chapel Hill crew's best chance to get back to the top of the college game since lifting the Cup in 2001.
3. Virginia (12-5-3)
Another team that lines up almost fully intact from a year ago, the Cavaliers are loaded. Giant German Yannick Reyering (6' 6", 205) scored 14 goals as freshman while his running mate, senior Adam Cristman, bagged seven. U.S. U-20 international Jonathan Villanueva, the nation's top recruit, joins junior stalwarts Jeremy Barlow and Nico Colaluca in the midfield. And the back line, led by senior GK Ryan Burke, is solid. Injuries were part of the reason Virginia was a third-round tourney casualty in '05. But with this much evenly-balanced talent, UVa should be settle for nothing less than a Cup berth, no excuses. If they underachieve, coach George Gelnovatch -- who hasn't won a title since replacing Bruce Arena as coach in 1996 -- could be looking for a new gig.
4. Maryland (19-4-2)
The signs are there already for the champions: It's gonna be mighty tricky to repeat in 2006. Hermann winner Jason Garey is gone, freshman All-American Robbie Rogers joined Dutch club Heerenveen just 11 days before the Terrapins begin their title defense, and Sasho Cirovski's squad has been held scoreless in its two preseason contests. Along with finding forwards who can replace Garey and Rogers (Penn State transfer Rich Costanzo should help), Cirovski must also rebuild a defense that lost four starters. Six returning mids, will have to carry this team, especially sophomore star-in-the-making Maurice Edu. But don't forget that second year GK Chris Seitz is already being called a future national teamer, and a bevy of top-class newcomers should find their feet quickly. That the Terps still have a reasonable shot at a fifth-straight Cup cameo in a rebuilding year, says it all about the monster program Cirovski has cultivated in College Park.
5. South Florida (13-6-2)
Some people might think we're crazy for raking USF this high, but South Florida is our sleeper pick this season. With a little luck, they could even end up in the Final Four. Why? Mainly because of junior M Rodrigo Hidalgo. With excellent field vision, Hidalgo could be the top playmaker in college soccer, and he's as good a bet as any to win the Hermann. He also has size (6'1") and a nose for the net (13 goals to go with 21 helpers in 37 career games). But Hidalgo isn't the only reason to like the Bulls. The team went 5-0 in the Big East's red division in 2005, its first year in the conference. And USF narrowly lost to Connecticut in the title game. Returning forwards Simon Schoendorf and Jordan Seabrook combined for 21 goals in 2005. A tough early-season docket coupled with last season's experience could take the Bulls on a New Mexico-like run this year.
6. Connecticut (16-3-2)
The two-time defending Big East champs are always one of the top teams in the nation, even if this time around we don't think they're the top team in their conference. But don't be surprised if Ray Reid's men prove us wrong. The usual Caribbean connection is there, with Jamaicans O'Brian White (Big East ROY), Akeem Priestley (a transfer from Jacksonville who has been capped by the Reggae Boyz), and frosh D Richard Kentish joining All-American Trinidadian Julius James on the back line. White and junior F Chukwudi Chijindu both hit the double-digits in scoring last year. Some key players have departed, but Reid sure knows how to win: His .785 percentage is tops among active NCAA coaches.
7. Penn State (13-7-2)
It was happy times in Happy Valley last season, when the Nittany Lions went 10-0 in Big Ten play and won the conference championship. PSU also beat the defending champs Indiana twice, once in Bloomington, and advanced to the third round of the NCAA tourney before succumbing to Creighton. So who did the Big Ten's coaches pick to win the conference this year, despite Penn State returning nine starters? Indiana. Sounds like coach Barry Gorman (19th season) has found all the bulletin-board material he'll need to motivate his guys. Leading the returnees are forwards Simon Omekanda (sr.) and Jason Yeisley (soph.) who teamed up for 15 goals in '05. Junior GK Conrad Taylor and Senior D Markku Viitanen anchor the back. Transfer Chris Germani (North Carolina) and Brazilian Daniel Martini will help fill midfield holes left by the departed Brian Devlin and David Walters.
8. Clemson (15-6-3)
The Tigers went on a Cinderella run to the College Cup in Cary, N.C. last season, but will be hard pressed to book a return engagement. After all, Clemson waited 18 years between Cup trips last time around. However, if the Tigers do manage a similar late-season tear this year, junior F Dane Richards will again play a big part. Of Richards' 12 goals, seven were game-winners in (including three in the tourney). That earned him a call-up to the Jamaican national team in April. But Richards won't have to shoulder the scoring load again in 2006, thanks to newcomer Frederico Moojen. The Brazilian transferred from DII Lincoln Memorial, where he bagged 48 goals in two seasons. He also led the Premier Development League with 18 strikes in 2005. Coach Trevor Adair has had to shore up the D after Justin Moore and Nathan Sturgis turned pro, but All-American GK Phil Marfuggi will help their replacements adapt.
9. Creighton (15-5-3)
The Blue Jays came within a whisker of the final weekend in 2005, falling at Clemson in the quarterfinals with 39 ticks on the clock left in regulation. Will that heartbreak inspire Creighton's nine returning starters? The Jays tough early season schedule should tell us plenty about this team's mentality. Early indications Bob Warming's team is up to the challenge: His side already has won the preseason Westfield Cup, beating host Akron (ranked No. 1 in the nation for much of last year) and getting a measure of revenge against Clemson, who they beat on PKs after a 2-2 draw. Up next? Two other top-20 teams, Indiana and Notre Dame, to open the regular season. Look for senior forward Michael Kraus and Byron Dacy, a Hermann candidate as a soph, to pace the Creighton attack, while junior GK Matt Allen holds down the D.
10. New Mexico (18-2-3)
The most disrespected team in the college game the last two years, the Lobos always have to prove the haters wrong. Coming off a one-loss season a year ago, they were dismissed as also-rans from a weak conference that couldn't consistently win against the big boys in knockout play. Now, after a trip to the final, the doubters are saying that with six of 11 starters gone, this team is done. Sure, it will be difficult to match the success of the last two seasons (35-3-5 overall) without talented vets like Jeff Rowland and Lance Watson, but keep in mind that Albuquerque is now a prime destination for the top recruits in the country.
One reason why? Fifth year coach Jeremy Fishbein. Another: playing in front of 7,000-plus fans at the UNM Soccer Complex. This year, Fishbein brings in the country's fifth-ranked class. Included in that group are three highly-touted prep All-Americans: front-runners P.J. Wilson, Gardner Morrow, and midfielder Michael Reed. In all, 12 rookies will join an experienced contingent led by junior keeper Mike Graczyk and senior All-American defender Andrew Boyens.
11. Akron (18-1-4)
How were the Zips rewarded for their one-loss season, the best in school history? Their coach quit. Two weeks after Akron were eliminated by soon-to-be-champ Maryland on PKs in the NCAA quarterfinals, longtime boss Ken Lolla bolted for the University of Louisville. But don't count the Zips out because of that. Only two starters are gone (Although Ross McKenzie's 18 goals will be tough to replace) and Akron might have found the perfect replacement for Lolla in former Indiana assistant Caleb Porter.
As a prep, Porter turned down several scholarship offers to walk-on at IU just so he could play for legendary Hoosiers coach Jerry Yeagley. He became a three-year captain, a Hermann Trophy runnerup as a senior and went on to play two seasons in Major League Soccer. With that kind of résumé, Porter will earn instant respect from the Zips and should be able to coax the best out of senior All-American F Sinisa Ubiparipovic (17 goals) and the rest of his veteran team.
12. UCLA (12-5-3)
The Bruins underachieved big-time in 2005, getting trounced by SMU 3-0 (in Westwood) in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, a year after losing in the second to St. John's. We're fairly certain that if the five-time champion Bruins make it hat-trick of postseason flops this fall, the third-year of the Jorge Salcedo era will be the last. UCLA has the nation's top recruiting class (for the fourth time in five years), but also has lost an astounding array of talent. Soph D Marvell Wynne was the first pick in the MLS SuperDraft. Gone too is fellow U-20 national-teamer Patrick Ianni. A third nat, D Brandon Owens, is out with a knee injury. And F Kamani Hill is sitting out for personal reasons. So, those newbies better be good. Luckily for Salcedo, they are. Eight of the dozen rooks were high school All-Americans and seven have worn a U.S. jersey at youth level. The prize asset is U-17 star M Kyle Nakazawa. The Bruins seem like a lock to win a fifth-straight Pac-10 title, but that won't help the embattled coach a lick. For UCLA, success is measured only at tourney time. With a dearth of veteran leadership caused by eight pro defections since 2004, don't be surprised to see Salcedo's squad bounced early again.
13. Indiana (13-3-6)
Have the Hoosiers ever gone into a new season with so little expected of them? Like UCLA, Indiana really has been hurt by its top players leaving early. Gone to the pro ranks from last year's disappointing squad are D Jed Zayner, F Jacob Peterson and freshman phenom Lee Nguyen. But hey, even powerhouses have to retool sometime. Gone too is the pressure to win the school's first-ever third-straight national championship. And gone is the target on their backs. Still, Mike Freitag's got a pretty good veteran nucleus and a haul of blue-chip freshman. Freitag snared the Gatorade national POY in M Eric Alexander, U.S. U-17s Daniel Kelly (M), D/M Kevin Alston and D Ofori Sarkodie. The returnees are lead by senior M Josh Tudela. The Hoosiers have a tough early season schedule, but already downed Maryland in exhibition play. The first month of the season, in which IU meets six top-20 teams, will tell us what to expect later on.
14. California (14-4-3)
The Golden Bears are coming of their best-ever season after advancing to the NCAA's elite eight. With five starters and six seniors lost, Cal will struggle a bit. Still, coach Kevin Grimes returns six seniors and the group has experience: The Bears have made soccer's version of the Big Dance every year since 2001. The squad will be boosted by the return of senior M Nick Hatzke, a medical redshirt in '05 who led the side with 22 points the year before. The good news is that the Pac-10 fave UCLA is not a lock this season. If the Bruins slip, the Bears could earn a conference title and a high tournament seeding.
15. St. John's (11-6-5)
One stat says it all about coach Dave Masur's Red Storm: The NYC school is the only program in the nation to reach the NCAA tournament's round of sixteen every year since 1996, when the Johnnies won their only national championship. That's even more impressive when you consider that each year, Masur seems to lose a key performer to graduation, to another school, or to the pros. This year it's M Matt Groenwald to MLS. But fear not, Storm fans, Masur has put together a better team than the one that lost to Maryland in the third round last November. GK Jason Landers backstops a veteran D which includes seniors Patrik Engstrom and Georgios Spanos, and talented newbies like 6'3" Joel Gustafsson and local product David Reed. Attacking midfielders Mike Mingione, Ryan Soroka and Jeff Stepan all will get some run up front. St. John's may have lost a pair of preseason games to Creighton and Akron, but if history is any guide, they'll still be kicking well into the postseason.
Preseason All-America Team:
G Chris Seitz, Maryland
D Julius James, Connecticut
D Andy Iro, UCSB
D Andrew Boyens, New Mexico
D Michael Harrington, North Carolina
M Greg Dalby, Notre Dame
M Rodrigo Hidalgo, South Florida
M Michael Videira, Duke
M John DiRaimondo, Saint Louis
F Randi Patterson, UNC-Greensboro
F Sinisa Ubiparipovic, Akron
Freshman of the Year:
M Eric Alexander, Indiana
Hermann Trophy Winner:
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.