The art of athletic prediction, I believe, is similar to that of ice sculpting. When the heat is on, everything changes. It's impossible to guess which teams and players will wilt under the challenges of competition and which will thrive under the tough conditions of today's women's college soccer field.
For better or worse, the Hermann trophy award, the MVP for women's college soccer, tends to go to forwards. By scoring goals, they make the most obvious contribution to their teams. Given that tendency, and the fact that she was a finalist last year, Heather O'Reilly is a clear early favorite to win it. Yet, with a younger-than-usual North Carolina team looking to her for guidance this season, O'Reilly will definitely deserve the nod if her performance helps the Tar Heels do well this season.
Sel Keralay of Florida State is another forward who can contend for the honor. Though it seems improbable that a sophomore could hope to receive the Hermann, USC forward Amy Rodriguez is already the best and most crucial player for her squad.
There's a whole crowd of quality midfielders -- including Danesha Adams (UCLA), India Trotter (FSU), Megan Rapinoe and Angie Woznuk (Portland) and Jen Buzkowski (Notre Dame) -- who are basically vying for "first among equals" status.
If a goalkeeper pulls an upset here to win, she'd have to stand on her head in multiple games. Val Henderson of UCLA looks the most likely candidate for the feat.
Defenders, somewhat unfortunately, don't usually receive the glamour status that sways votes in their favor, so Stephanie Lopez (Portland) and Laura Georges (Boston College) are probably out of luck.
Though the crystal soccer ball trophy usually goes to players from schools who vie for the NCAA title, a standout performer for a university just outside the top tier of the soccer elite may gain notice for putting her team on her shoulders and willing them to wins. Nebraska midfielder Brittany Timko might manage that.
Moving on to list my picks of impact freshman this year, one name clearly stands out, especially as she enters a program that can and will immediately put her skill on display. Lauren Cheney of UCLA is already comfortable with coach Jill Ellis, having worked with her in the national team program, where Ellis coaches the U-21 women's national team.
The Tar Heels have the most superlative incoming class, though. Ali Hawkins, Tobin Heath and Casey Nogueira are the headliners of an excellent crop of prospects. C.J. Ludemann, Jane Alukonis and Sarah Murphy are a class trio at Duke. Stanford should be an excellent venue for the talent of forward Kelley O'Hara.
Whether individual skills can translate to form a cohesive squad that stands triumphant at the end of the season is the dilemma every coaching staff tries to solve. Team chemistry is a mysterious alchemy, and it can determine a school's destiny in the end.
Enough preamble. Here's how I ranked the Top 10.
1. University of North Carolina -- I don't think UNC will go undefeated. I don't believe this team is the juggernaut it once was. Those days are simply gone, since too many other teams have gotten better. I'm impressed by the talent on the roster, though, and think the squad is due for a return to the title. Incoming freshmen Heath and Noguiera have amazed me with their play in youth national camps before. Their ball skills are phenomenal, giving UNC two important additional contributors right from the start. Both have "played up" in the national team program, so they're used to working with older teammates to integrate their expertise into a squad. The young lineup may take a while to gel, but with O'Reilly leading the way, I foresee them hitting peak form towards the end of the season.
2. UCLA -- I nearly picked this squad as No. 1 two years in a row. The ACL injury to Kara Lang, which will keep her out the entire year, made me hesitate. Lang's talent is a loss for even the stacked Bruins, though Adams will no doubt pick up a lot of the slack, as will young phenom Cheney. What makes UCLA remarkably solid is its balance, with quality at every field position and a game-changing shot stopper in Henderson. The proficiency of coach Ellis' players just grows every year.
3. Portland -- Christine Sinclair is impossible to replace, but the Pilots still have the firepower on hand to establish a new dynasty. Woznuk, Rapinoe and Lopez are all skilled players. Woznuk may be the most creative performer in the college game today. She does things on the run with the ball that other players haven't even conceived of, let alone pulled off in a game. The defending national champions should roll through the regular season, but I envision their getting tripped up in postseason.
4. Florida State -- The upstart darlings of last season will prove their success was no fluke. Mark Krikorian returns a number of his starters and has some new players with aptitude to work into the mix. The tremendously athletic Alexondrea (Oni) Trusty has signed on, for instance. Though defenders typically value competence over flair, Trusty is lethal getting into the attack. With another talent, India Trotter, who is an impressive two-way player, Florida State reminds me of the great Dutch teams of the past that emphasized "total football." They're simply an exciting squad to watch.
5. Penn State -- This team was the only one besides Portland to go undefeated last season, but it has lost the clutch scoring of Tiffany Weimer. Still, there's a winning tradition and a quality program at Penn State, which should help set an example for new players such as Katie Schoepfer, who has the offensive spark to make the absence of Weimer less damaging for the Nittany Lions. Ali Krieger's leadership on the field will be crucial this season.
6. Santa Clara -- This program has been stellar for so long that its recent results seem middling by comparison. Jerry Smith and his players will look to change that this season. Jordan Angeli is the team's versatile ace, capable of lining up in any field position and making game-changing plays. Used mostly as a forward last season, she might be spelled there by the incoming dynamic duo of Kiki Bosio and Lexi Orand.
7. Notre Dame -- There may not be a defense in the country tougher than Notre Dame's back line. Carrie Dew and Brittany Bock don't just shut down opposing forwards -- they punish them with hard tackles and accurate passes out of the back to trigger Notre Dame's offense. Haley Ford is a gifted addition to this defense, with the ball skills to join the attack seamlessly. Amanda Cinalli will be a key player up front; the clever forward hits the ground running after her experience this year in the Nordic Cup.
8. Virginia -- This program has been the bridesmaid to North Carolina for far too long. But unlike teams that play in weaker conferences, Virginia is battle-tested come NCAA Tournament time. Nikki Krzysik and Becky Sauerbrunn lead a stingy defense, while Jessica Rostedt, with her speed and skill, is a terror on the attack.
9. Texas A&M -- Dangerous forward Ashlee Pistorius headlines a potent mix of arriving talent and established veterans. There's also the added element of team familiarity, with several players, such as Cydne Currie and Natalie Currie, having worked together for years. That awareness creates impressive teamwork and some exceptional plays.
10. Boston College -- Defender Georges, midfielder Jenny Maurer and goalkeeper Arianna Criscione may test the limits of how far a goal-hating team can go. In tactics and execution, BC works tirelessly to deny the ball any chance to fly into the net. The team posted shutout after shutout last season. Outstanding young forward Gina DiMartino may help keep the balance sheet in their favor deep into the postseason.
Just outside this Top 10 list lurks a host of excellent West Coast teams, especially Cal, Stanford and Pepperdine. USC and Fullerton are other contenders in the area. While the ACC has the proven pedigree, the Pac-10 has the potential, with a host of gifted prospects on their teams, to match or surpass the performance of the ACC squads in the NCAA Tournament. However, the California teams have tended to fold a bit in crunch time. With that said, no ACC team has made the NCAA final the past two years. They're due.
So I'm picking the Tar Heels, with their new infusion of young blood, to return to glory.
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