The top four teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference finished the 2006 regular season ranked in the top 10 nationally -- top seven if you want to get specific. Three of those teams (Duke, Wake Forest and Virginia) made it to the Elite Eight, with the Demon Deacons and the Cavaliers advancing to the College Cup.
Things again look bright for ACC soccer heading into 2007, although two of the conference's top teams will have some holes to fill. Virginia and Maryland lost two top players apiece by the time the first 10 names were called in January's MLS draft.
That said, here's a look at the new faces entering the ACC this fall:
Duke: The Blue Devils shared the conference title with in-state and conference rival Wake Forest, but took an advantage when they defeated the Demon Deacons 1-0 in overtime of the ACC tournament.
Duke experienced a tough overtime loss of its own a few weeks later, getting knocked out of the postseason by national runner-up UCLA 3-2 in the Elite Eight. Expectations will be higher than usual this fall as the team returns 10 of 11 starters from the 2006 campaign -- the lone loss being forward Chris Loftus, who was picked up by the New England Revolution in the MLS supplemental draft.
Still, the focus this offseason appears to have been on strengthening the backfield. Coach John Rennie has brought in two defenders of national team caliber, Doug Ferner and Christian Ibeagha. Many experts consider Ferner to be the top incoming defender in the nation and one of the top recruits overall. Ibeagha is a two-time All-American who is training with the U-17 national team in Bradenton, Fla. The addition of forward Nick Sih (one of six players to receive both youth and high school All-American honors from the NSCAA in 2006) and attacking midfielder Cole Grossman will add depth to the Blue Devils' offense.
Wake Forest: Co-champions in the ACC, the Demon Deacons advanced to the College Cup before falling to eventual champion UCSB. Seven of last year's starters were underclassmen, giving those in Winston-Salem, N.C., reason to be excited about the 2007 season even before the newest crop of Deacs was announced. Wake Forest snagged Corbin Bone, one of the most sought-after recruits in the nation. The midfielder (out of Plano, Texas) was the 2006 NCSAA Youth Soccer Player of the Year and is exactly what a team that graduated three MLS draft picks at the position needs.
Because of Wake's relative youth, filling the holes left by Well Thompson (New England), Ryan Solle (New England) and Steve Curfman (Salt Lake) was the only real concern in the offseason. In addition to Bone, coach Jay Vidovich brings in midfielders Russ Coleman (Norman, Okla.) and Jeff Leach (New Canaan, Conn.). Both have ODP regional-level experience, and Leach is a two-time NSCAA All-American. Ike Opara rounds out the letter of intent signees as the only non-midfielder in the lineup. Opara, a defender out of relatively nearby Durham, battled injuries as a high school player, but Vidovich sees potential in his abilities.
Virginia: The Cavaliers had three players taken in January's MLS draft, including redshirt freshman Bakary Soumare by the Chicago Fire with the No. 2 pick overall. Four picks later, Colorado took midfielder Nico Colaluca. Forward Adam Cristman went in the fourth round to complete the trifecta.
However, long before his former players' names were called in Indianapolis, Virginia coach George Gelnovatch had begun working to find their replacements.
"With Bakary Soumare, we kind of thought that this might happen, that he might leave early," Gelnovatch said. "So we recruited in advance and picked up a couple of very good backs in Givens and Cyrus."
Colin Givens and T.J. Cyrus have U-18 national team experience. Cyrus was the NSCAA Virginia Player of the Year, and Givens received All-American honors from the coaching organization. Filling the void left by the second pick in the draft is a challenge, but Gelnovatch said he expects both players -- as well as the school's three other recruits -- to have a noticeable impact their first year with the Cavs.
Goalkeeper Danny Louisignau and midfielder Jimmy Simpson have experience at the ODP regional team level.
However, the team's lone player without some sort of national team experience might be the biggest signing.
"Jason Kim has the potential to be, in my opinion, the top recruit in the entire country," Gelnovatch said. "One guy who's tough to replace is the No. 6 overall pick, Nico Colaluca. We feel like Kim is a guy that's kind of going to help fill that attacking void."
Maryland: The Terrapins find themselves in a situation almost identical to Virginia's. Maryland lost junior midfielder Maurice Edu and sophomore goalkeeper Chris Seitz to the professional ranks -- with Edu being the top overall choice and Seitz going fourth.
"We have a little bit of a bigger challenge this year because we've had some guys decide to leave early," coach Sasho Cirovski said of the recruiting process back in December, a week after Seitz and Edu declared themselves eligible for the draft.
Cirovski signed a six-player class comprising two keepers, two midfielders, a forward and a defender -- to help fill those holes and improve the Terps overall. Although it will be tough to replace the players Cirovski described as the best defensive midfielder and best goalkeeper in the nation, Maryland has a few talented recruits who will vie for the right to replace the pair of top-five draft picks.
Thorne Holder will be the favorite for the starting job between the pipes. Holder is the starting keeper for Trinidad and Tobago's U-23 Olympic pool and has international experience with the Soca Warriors youth national team. The team also signed local product Will Swaim as a goalkeeper. Throw last year's backup Josh Mikulewicz into the mix, and it's going to be interesting to see how things shake out in the net.
Yannick Salmon is a good pickup, and Cirovski believes he is capable of playing a center back role in addition to playing midfield. Salmon, captain of the East Regional ODP team and a member of the U-17 Jamaican national team, will add depth to the lineup. The same can be said for forward Billy Cortes, who played for a Mission Viejo Pateadores club known for producing high-level collegiate players -- including Edu.
Editor's note: Up next week, Maria Burns completes her look at the ACC's incoming faces as she examines how the rest of the teams will rely on their recruits to help them as they try to move into the conference's upper echelon.
Maria Burns covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at email@example.com.