You know how the best restaurants are usually the little joints hardly anyone seems to know about? That could be the case in college soccer this season. The only time smaller programs seem to get any attention is when they come up big at tournament time. However, don't be surprised if you see some of the lower-profile programs moving up high in the rankings.
Expect Loyola College in Maryland to lead the charge. Despite going undefeated in their first 19 games of 2008 -- suffering their first loss in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference final -- the Greyhounds were underrated last season and enter this year flying under the national radar as well. Sure, they're receiving some rankings (No. 18 in the NSCAA poll and No. 15 by College Soccer News), but the jury seems to be out as to whether Loyola has staying power.
All early-season signs point to yes.
The Greyhounds are one of just two teams with three players on the M.A.C. Hermann Trophy watch list. Forwards Jamie Darvill and Phil Bannister and defender Tennant McVea have earned the preseason recognition. McVea was tabbed as the MAAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, and will again be expected to play a major role in the Greyhounds' backfield. Darvill led the MAAC in goals (14) last season and added 11 assists en route to being named the conference's offensive player of the year. The bar has been raised for Darvill in 2009, as he was chosen as the conference preseason player of the year. Darvill is just half of the team's one-two offensive punch, with Bannister joining him up front to compose the nation's top returning goal-scoring pair. Bannister scored 13 goals and notched eight assists in 2008 as a sophomore.
Speaking of the MAAC, Loyola is the preseason pick to win it all. The key for the Greyhounds will be to continue winning with a target on their back -- something the team undoubtedly became accustomed to last season, when it racked up a 19-game undefeated streak to open the year.
Beyond that, strength-of-schedule issues also could pose a problem, not just because of the RPI impact, but because of its role in postseason preparation. That's where Loyola's biggest challenges have come: The Greyhounds were eliminated in the second round the past two seasons, including a 2-1overtime loss to UNC Greensboro in their first game in the NCAA tournament in 2008.
Loyola isn't the only small program with big potential.
Dayton had a strong season last year, going 15-4-3 and earning its first NCAA tournament berth after winning the Atlantic-10 Conference tournament. Things are looking even better for the A-10 favorite heading into 2009.
The team brings back eight starters, including leading scorer Alex Torda (10 goals) and team MVP Ben Murray at midfield. Goalkeeper Tyler Picard started 17 games as a redshirt freshman, going 13-2-2 (including a 10-game winning streak to start his college career) and should be an even stronger presence in net. In addition, Dayton brings in 10 newcomers (not to mention six other returning letterwinners) to vie for the empty spots.
However, Dayton was reminded Wednesday just how hard it is to reach and stay on the national radar. The Flyers fell 2-0 to Butler in their first preseason game.
Drake is also generating a lot of buzz coming in to 2009. The Bulldogs were ranked as high as No. 19 in the NSCAA poll last season, and the team's No. 21 ranking by College Soccer News to open this season gave the program its first-ever spot in the preseason polls.
The team hopes to build on its momentum from last season, when it finished a school-best 15-3-1 and received the program's first NCAA tournament berth. Drake might be overshadowed by a promising Creighton squad when it comes to the Missouri Valley Conference, but the Bulldogs have the talent to take them deep as well. Drake returns 10 starters, highlighted by a pair of Hermann Trophy watch list candidates in forward Garrett Webb and midfielder Kevin Shrout, the first two Bulldogs to earn the honor.
Virginia tabbed No. 2 in the ACC
The polls are extolling the three ACC teams from last season's College Cup -- Wake Forest, Maryland and North Carolina -- as top-10 preseason teams, but it seems the coaches of the ACC have high expectations for an unranked team. The University of Virginia was picked to finish second in the ACC coaches' poll, edged out by early favorite UNC by a single point (73-72, with the Tar Heels receiving five first-place votes to the Cavaliers' four).
The vote of confidence is for good reason. Virginia returns 36 of the team's 39 goals in 2008, as well as last season's ACC Freshman of the Year and Hermann watch list candidate Tony Tchani.
UCLA looks poised for a successful season
UCLA has shown itself capable of being great. And the team's lackluster results in recent seasons (a 10-5-6 record in 2008) certainly haven't been due to a lack of talent. Coach Jorge Salcedo is an ace recruiter. However, sometimes it felt like you weren't sure what you were going to get out of Westwood. Will it be the team that made the charge to the national championship game in 2006 or the team that was bounced by Cal Poly in the first round of the tournament in 2008?
Retention has been an issue the past few seasons -- a pitfall of bringing in high-level talent is the possibility that they decide to leave early -- but the Bruins return eight starters from last season. Add that to UCLA's always-top-notch recruits and the Bruins should be a force on the West Coast and the national stage.
As highlighted by two Hermann Trophy watch list candidates (seniors Kyle Nakazawa and Michael Stephens), UCLA might have just the combination of ability and leadership the team needs.
The truth is that even when UCLA doesn't seem to be living up to "expectations," the team's still doing pretty well. The Bruins are the reigning Pac-10 champions and are just two points behind conference favorite Cal in this year's conference poll. But for top-tier programs, good is hardly ever good enough.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.