They are considered the Brazil, the Real Madrid, the New York Yankees of college soccer. But the Indiana Hoosiers, the classiest and most successful NCAA men's program over the past three decades, had become little more than an afterthought as the 2006 season reached the midway point.
The Hoosiers opened up with a 4-3-2 record -- a mark that would be roundly celebrated by many top schools -- but one that was deeply troubling to observers in Bloomington. For the first time in recent memory, IU was conspicuously absent from the national polls. Whispers were that well into his third season, coach Mike Freitag was still struggling to put his mark on the squad. The team that defended its title and won him a national crown during his debut campaign at the helm was brought in by legendary predecessor Jerry Yeagley, the haters said. The voices grew louder after Freitag's second season ended with an early tourney ouster, and louder still after the "poor" start to 2006.
Of course, with seven national championship plaques in the trophy case, the expectations are always going to be high at Indiana, the criticism always harsh when those expectations aren't met.
Fast forward to this week, and the Hoosiers might be the hottest team in America. They have reeled off five straight wins, and the streak has been enough to vault IU back into the rankings (10th in the NSCAA/adidas poll) and to the top of the Big Ten conference standings.
In hindsight, the sluggish start shouldn't have come as any surprise. Along with the battle-tested vets lost to graduation, two of the country's top attacking players left school early to make the leap to the pros (Lee Nguyen to PSV Eindhoven, Jacob Peterson with Colorado of MLS). Add September's tough non-league schedule to the mix and it's a wonder this young Hoosiers team started as well as it did.
While Indiana teams of the past had more star power, this side has shown great heart, a quality that seemed to be missing at times last year. The back line has been solid, and the scoring has been spread around the roster, with seven players having notched multiple goals to date.
Does this IU team have enough pride and skill to make a surprise Cup run this fall? Remember, this team downed defending champs Maryland in the preseason, so there is no foe it can't hang with. In fact, IU reminds us a lot of SMU or Clemson a year ago, storied clubs that snuck up on everyone in the postseason. Only time will tell if something similar is in the cards for the Hoosiers, but only a fool would count them out.
UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo deserves a ton of credit. After going 0-2-1 to open the season, we wondered aloud if Salcedo had the ability to motivate perhaps the most talented young team in the country. Things started looking really bad when the Bruins lost top scorer Maxwell Griffin and influential midfielder Tony Beltran to serious injuries.
But since both players were hurt during a Pac-10 loss to Cal on Sept. 22, UCLA has gone 4-0-1, winning its last four contests. Anyone who tuned in to see the Bs beat UC Santa Barbara 3-1 on Fox Soccer Channel on Oct. 5 witnessed a delightfully offensive-minded and sophisticated style of play from Salcedo's side, with soph Sal Zizzo and frosh Kyle Nakazawa looking like future national teamers.
Beltran should return in time for the tourney, and with confidence surging in Westwood, this team might be ready to make a run when it matters most.
The big movers this week are Saint Louis and San Francisco. Both are in the midst of four-game win streaks, and both jumped eleven spots in the rankings this week (Saint Lou to 11th, San Fran to 13th).
As we pointed out in a previous edition, everyone at SLU is banking on making this a special season with the institution hosting the College Cup this December. A 1-0 defeat of then-No. 12 Fordham last week was impressive, but the Billikens' recent run of form has been bolstered by an eight-game home stand at Hermann Stadium, which concludes with a pair of matches this weekend. We'll see if the Bilks can maintain the pace after that.
We still can hardly believe that the regular season is coming to an end. By mid-October, many teams will have already played their final home games. Many knocks the college game takes are unjustified, but criticism of the minuscule length of its season isn't one of them.
Granted, NCAA soccer is not designed to produce players for the pros, but the thousands of players toiling for nearly 200 Division I teams deserve better too. Hopefully, with the popularity of top-level college soccer at an all-time high, the incentive to increase the length of the season (or to go to a split-season, fall-spring setup) will be there.
Gotta give some love to the seven college players on Thomas Rongen's roster for this week's four-day U.S. U-20 camp. The team, which played Haiti's U-23 side Wednesday night, is prepping for CONCACAF qualifying early next year, where it hopes to gain passage to the 2007 FIFA World Youth Championship in Canada in June. The lucky seven are:
GKs Brian Perk (UCLA), Joe Willis (Denver); D's Nick Cardenas (San Diego State) and Amaechi Igwe (Santa Clara); M's Stephen McCarthy (Santa Clara) and Anthony Wallace (USF); F Rodrigo Hidalgo (USF).
What to Watch for:
FSC again airs two matches this week: First, on Thursday, you can see South Florida's aforementioned U-20 internationals Wallace and Hidalgo when the Bulls host Stetson (live at 8 p.m. ET). We made a big deal about USF's prospects in the preseason, but the Bulls (6-4-3, 3-2-3 in the Big East) haven't lived up to our hype. Find out if Hidalgo is still a Hermann dark horse.
On Friday, there is a Pac-10 battle on tap, as Stanford hosts Washington (live, also at 8 p.m. ET). The Huskies are looking for revenge (and to halt a four-game skid that seriously tarnished a previously perfect record) after the Cardinal bested them, 2-0, last week in Seattle.
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.