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Sep 21, 2007

Harvard gets a chance to prove its for real

In life, it is important to keep your promises, and the same applies to this column. As such, I gotta keep my word and give some much-deserved love to three under-the-radar teams that remain perfect a third of the way though the regular season.

Harvard busted the top 10 this week after jumping out to a 6-0 mark. Fellow Ivy Leaguer Brown is 5-0, and Michigan is off to its best start since 2004 after winning its first half-dozen contests.

Of the three, Harvard is the most intriguing. Why? First off, the Crimson boast the Smarty Pants Conference's top player in sophomore forward Andre Akpan, who was named the league's player of the week on Monday after he notched game-winning goals against Vermont and Boston University last week.

Senior goalkeeper Adam Hahn also has been a key figure for Harvard. A glance at the stats reveals that Hahn has kept just two clean sheets, but it doesn't show just how clutch he has been for the Crimson, who have won five of their six games by a one-goal margin. Hahn has produced key saves, particularly late in games, to help keep his team's 100 percent record intact.

Still, it's not how, but how many, and John Kerr's squad deserves its No. 9 slot in the latest NSCAA/adidas rankings. The pollsters clearly are keeping a close eye on the Crimson this season after a banner 2006 campaign. Last year, Kerr and Co. finished 13th nationally and took the league title. But climbing higher next week will be difficult, given their upcoming opposition: Loyola Marymount and defending national champion UC Santa Barbara at the LMU Invitational tourney in Los Angeles, starting Friday.

Like Harvard, Brown is in Southern California this weekend for some tournament action. The Bears, best known for producing U.S. national team defender Cory Gibbs, will take on host San Diego and UC Irvine after picking up a fifth straight win midweek with a tight 1-0 result over St. Francis. That contest, like every other the team has played this year, took place in the friendly confines of Stevenson Field on the Providence, R.I., school's lush campus. We'll see how Brown responds to playing away from home for the first time this year versus 3-2 San Diego. However, the real test for coach Mike Noonan's men will come in the second game. UC Irvine's gloriously named Anteaters also have won their first five games in 2007 and are ranked 25th nationally.

No matter what happens this weekend and the next two after it, we can guarantee that both Ivy League outfits won't still be perfect by sundown Oct. 13. The rivals will face off in Cambridge, Mass., that afternoon.

Fierce Wolverines

Junior forward Jake Stacy continues to be the main man for high-flying Michigan. The Grand Rapids native had a goal and three assists as his team routed Kentucky and FIU by a combined 9-1 margin last weekend. That was enough to help Stacy pick up his second consecutive Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week honor and boost the Wolverines four places to No. 14 in the latest poll.

Expect Michigan to soar even higher next week. They take on a .500 Detroit team on Friday and then open Big Ten play on Sunday against a tired Wisconsin, which closes its grueling six-game road swing with the visit to Ann Arbor.

Things get tougher for the Wolverines after that, however. After heading west to play Oakland on Sept. 26, Michigan meets three bona-fide NCAA powers. First up is 10th-ranked Indiana on Sept. 29, followed by road tilts at No. 4 Notre Dame on Oct. 3 and perennial Big East contender St. John's a week later. As if that potentially confidence-sapping run of matches isn't daunting enough, Michigan fans will expect a big win in the team's next outing: the big rivalry match at Michigan State.

Creighton back in the polls

Hats off to the undefeated Creighton University Blue Jays. The week's biggest mover leaped nine spots to No. 7. It's the highest the Jays have been ranked in three years (they spent two weeks in the seventh spot back in October 2004). Creighton, the only remaining unbeaten team in the Missouri Valley Conference, has been led by junior defender Seth Sinovic and junior forward Tim Walters, who are the reigning MVC players of the week at their respective positions.

What to Watch for:

Notre Dame at Rutgers (Friday, 8 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel)

The Fighting Irish travel to Jersey to take on the Scarlet Knights in their second Big East tilt of the season. Last week, Notre Dame won its first conference curtain-raiser since 2004 by beating Marquette in Milwaukee. But even though Bobby Clark's team is off to a great start this season, it always has had trouble winning in Piscataway.

The Irish are 2-7-1 all-time at Rutgers, and the Knights defeated Notre Dame in overtime during last season's conference tournament quarterfinals, played in Jersey.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.