In my fourth year of compiling preseason rankings for men's college soccer, you'd think I'd have it down to a science. But that would defeat the very purpose.
Instead of relying on number crunching or coaches' opinions, I go on gut instinct, the occasional observation, a bit of reporting, some research and a dash of voodoo.
The result? In 2008, I had six of the final top 11 teams pegged in the preseason. No other "official poll" had more than four. But I'll be the first to admit that the results might say more about the parity and unpredictability of the game than my incredible insight.
This year's field is again wide open, perhaps even more so than in recent seasons.
Here's how I see it shaking out.
As tradition, the reigning national champion gets top billing until another team comes in and demonstrates an ability to knock them off. A lot of people are wondering if the Terrapins can stay on top after losing six starters from last season's squad.
Still, the team is not completely starting from scratch. After anchoring the Terps in goal as a freshman, Zac MacMath returns to the net a season stronger and more experienced. Casey Townsend, who was second on the team in scoring with 11 goals, is back. In all the team brings back 17 letter winners, and while some of them might not have seen much action to date, they're definitely looking to prove they deserve to get the nod.
And if winning a national championship -- especially your second in four years-- does anything, it's attract star recruits. Maryland looks to have a promising crop.
Will it all be enough? With Sasho Cirovski at the helm, it certainly is possible.
2. Notre Dame
Other rankings have the Irish considerably lower, but I'm not sure why. The team returns eight starters and 38 of 41 goals from 2008. Notre Dame is the overwhelming preseason favorite for the Big East's Blue Division, with 12 first-place votes to projected runner-up Connecticut's three (and keep in mind Bobby Clark can't vote for his own squad).
Leading the way is Bright Dike, who bounced back after missing the 2007 season (due to a credits issue) to lead the Irish in scoring in '08 with 12 goals. Expectations are even higher for the forward this season, as Dike was tabbed as the Preseason Big East Offensive Player of the Year.
Add in a top-10 recruiting class that includes Gatorade National Player of the Year Dillon Powers, and Notre Dame certainly looks good on paper.
The team has to replace two MLS-caliber defenders in Matt Besler (first round, Kansas City) and Jack Traynor (second round, New York), which will be a challenge, but given the pieces the team returns and the additions Clark has made, it's definitely a surmountable one.
Is this the year the Zips make the College Cup? All signs point to a resounding yes. Except for the losses of star forward Steve Zakuani (and that's a sizable hole) and goalkeeper Evan Bush, the core of this Akron squad returns and is bolstered by the nation's top recruiting class. The Zips lose four starters from 2008, but bring in twice that many talented freshmen.
Akron's success is a tribute to coach Caleb Porter and his staff. Not just because of the way he prepares his team to take the field, but because he is able to convince good players to move to Akron, Ohio, and play in the Mid-American Conference. Even more impressive, he continues to churn out national contenders, which undoubtedly helps him with his pitch
Keep in mind the Zips have had a top-five-caliber recruiting class the past three seasons. It's prime time for the fruits of Porter's efforts to pay off.
The list needed a West Coast team high. It came down to a near-toss-up between Cal and UCLA. Cal edged out its southern sibling. And it's not because the Bears return nine starters to the Bruins' eight. While Cal advanced to the Sweet 16 -- shutting out San Francisco and besting UC Santa Barbara before falling to the eventual national champ at Maryland -- the Bruins were shut out (at home) by Cal Poly in the first round.
The Bears will get another chance at the Terps early when the two meet again in College Park on Sept. 7. But beyond that game, Cal's non-conference schedule is one the Bears need to own in order to head into conference play with momentum, and the team should be able to do just that. If not, take UCLA.
5. St. John's
The Red Storm made me look like a genius last season. This year, they're a safe pick. Sometimes, the safe pick is a good one, like Wake Forest last season. And sometimes the safe pick plummets faster than the stock market last fall. Nevertheless, I'm banking on St. John's for the second straight year.
Almost every starter is back, and you can bet not a single one of them has forgotten how close they came to the national championship game, suffering an overtime loss to Maryland in the semifinal. Those kinds of losses drive a team in the offseason.
Last year, the Red Storm managed to slip into the season under the radar. They now have to respond with a target on their backs. The good news in Queens is this group is definitely poised to live up to such expectations. Reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year (and the 2009 preseason pick) Joel Gustafsson returns, along with 2008 Big East Midfielder of the Year Nelson Becerra.
St. John's will waste no time jumping into the fire. The team opens the season playing both Notre Dame and Indiana in Bloomington, Ind., hosting Stony Brook and then traveling to as-of-now-ranked Boston University. If the Red Storm can come through that gauntlet 4-0, everyone else should be worried.
I left the Hoosiers off this list last year because they'd failed to live up the hype. That isn't the case coming into 2009. Indiana continues its dominance among Big Ten programs and was selected as the preseason favorite for the seventh straight year. Is there even a point in voting on it anymore?
IU returns seven starters from last season's Elite Eight squad, including leading scorer Andy Adlard and 2008 Big Ten Freshman of the Year Will Bruin. Coach Mike Freitag signed just four recruits, so unlike most of the other teams on this list, the Hoosiers won't be heavy on new faces, but any of the team's incoming freshmen could make an impact.
It seems inevitable that as long as college soccer is played, Indiana will be a preseason favorite and postseason contender.
7. North Carolina
It's hard to have all of the previous year's Final Four teams back on the list, because common sense and history has shown that at least one of the previous year's finalists will fall flat. It's hard, however, to rule out any of 2008's contenders. At first glance, one might be tempted to dump the Tar Heels, as their run was the least likely, but as surprising as it might have been, it's hard to say it was simply a fluke.
UNC loses five starters -- including leading scorer Brian Shriver (14 goals) -- but they've worked to fill those spots. A pair of midfielder transfers with Division I experience (Michael Farfan, formerly of Cal State Fullerton, and Stephen McCarthy, formerly of Santa Clara) should help ease the transition.
The Tar Heels proved they have what it takes to get to the Final Four. They might have caught a few people off guard last season, but if they repeat this time around, don't expect anyone to be surprised.
I don't question the Bluejays. I question the strength of their conference for preparing them to contend at the highest level. All due respect to the Missouri Valley Conference, but at the end of the day, it's not definitely not the ACC or Big East or even Big Ten/Pac-10/Big West caliber, and teams in those conferences have an undeniable advantage.
However, this is an impressive and experienced Creighton squad. Key contributions will be expected from the team's three fifth-year seniors, all of whom were named to the Hermann watch list. Forward Byron Dacy made history, becoming the first player to make the list four times. MVC Defensive Player of the Year Chris Schuler returns to lead the defense that led the NCAA in shutout percentage. Midfielder Seth Sinovic appealed to the NCAA and was granted an extra year of eligibility, giving the Bluejays reason to celebrate and their opponents cause for concern. If any year were to be Creighton's, the table is certainly set.
9. Wake Forest
Part of me feels the Demon Deacons deserve to be higher. It takes more than an offseason to remove the bad taste Wake ended 2008 with in its mouth: completing an undefeated regular season, only to fall in the conference and, then more crushingly, national tournament semifinals. This team is going to come out of the gate hungry. Expect the defense to be led by Ike Opara, and for Corben Bone to have a standout season in midfield. Both are top-caliber players and could legitimately contend for the Hermann.
The other part of me is more hesitant, citing the losses -- not last postseason, but in the lineup. Wake Forest loses seven starters, and that is a lot of holes. Sure, newcomers can fill those voids, but the process takes time, and in the ACC, there's not a lot of room for mistakes. Marcus Tracy, 2008's Hermann Trophy winner, leaves big shoes to fill, and the recent departure of Cody Arnoux, who decided to forgo his senior season and sign with the Premier League's Everton, is another blow for the offense.
Wake's ranked down here because it's the latter side that I find more convincing.
Huh? I'm sure that's what you're asking yourself, and I can't blame you. The Minutemen aren't on anyone's list -- in fact, they're picked third in their conference -- but that's why this is the wild card. How did I pick UMass? Simple, I found a random number generator online and typed in 1-48 (the number of teams in the NCAA tournament) and the number generated was 27. This was the team with the corresponding 2008 RPI.
I was dubious -- the team has a big hole to fill with the loss of goalkeeper Zack Simmons, the Atlantic-10 isn't a power conference, etc.-- so I ran the number generator a few more times, getting other numbers, but cherry-picking defeated the whole idea of randomness. As a "restart," I set the numbers to between 10-48 (because if a top-10 team came up, it wouldn't actually be a wild card) and again the first number was
yes, 27. So I took that as a completely non-random sign that this could be the Minutemen's year.
It's very possible I'll be completely off. But then again, in 2006, I randomly picked UC Santa Barbara, and the Gauchos won it all. Last year, I went with my kid's birthday, which corresponded with a St. John's team that everyone had overlooked.
Could be complete luck, I know, but sometimes that's as big a part of the college game as anything.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.