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Aug 27, 2009

Hermann watch list a wide-open race

A lot is made of the Missouri Athletic Club Hermann Trophy watch list, and rightfully so. Sure, part of the reason it's hyped so much is the fact the list comes out in mid-August, before the season gets underway, when it's a little slow news-wise and everything's just a prediction. But the award is given to the top player in college soccer, and to be considered among that crop -- even if it's only for a moment -- is an honor few players receive.

This year, the field is wide open, but there are some front-runners and dark horses.

Great expectations

Harvard forward Andre Akpan returns for his senior season after twice making the list of Hermann semifinalists. With one season left, he's already the Crimson's all-time leader in scoring (97 points) and assists (27). Akpan has demonstrated an ability to be among the best college players in the nation. His overtime goal in Harvard's first-round NCAA game against UMass in 2008 proved he's capable of coming up big in pressure situations.

To win the Hermann, he has to take it a step further. The loss of Michael Fucito leaves Harvard with a hole to fill, but it also leaves Akpan with an opportunity to make a huge statement. Akpan won't be able to single-handedly fill the void left by Fucito (who's now with the Seattle Sounders), but if the senior captain can prove he's capable of continuing to hold his own -- especially early and in nonconference play -- he'll make a big impression with Hermann voters.

Playing in the Ivy League, Akpan will have less room for error and will have to put up more impressive numbers than major conference players. But Ivy Leaguers have done it, albeit not recently. The last Ivy player to win the award was Columbia's Amr Aly in 1984 -- three years before Akpan was born.

The only other returning player from last year's list of semifinalists is the University of Illinois-Chicago's Jovan Bubonja. Bubonja has been vital to the Flames' ascension to national elite. Bubonja has been among the nation's top goalkeepers the past three seasons, posting at least 10 shutouts a season. His play in goal has been key to UIC's success in both the regular season and the postseason.

The real challenge for Bubonja when it comes to the Hermann likely will come down to perception and what sometimes seems like comparing apples (flashy offensive stats) to oranges (goalkeeping impenetrability). A goalkeeper hasn't won the national player of the year award since 1992, when Brad Friedel won the Hermann (the M.A.C. Player of the Year and the Hermann Trophy merged in 2002, and the last keeper to get the M.A.C. trophy was Tony Meola in 1989). And typically, defensive players rarely have gotten the trophy nod.

However, if Bubonja can put together the best season of his career -- a lofty goal considering he posted a 0.37 goals-against average in 2006 and has a career postseason GAA of 0.35 -- that should earn him at least a trip to St. Louis to be among the final three.

The more, the merrier

Creighton's Byron Dacy earns the distinction of being the first player ever named to the list four times. Dacy, a fifth-year senior, redshirted after tearing his ACL in early 2007. Dacy's joined on the list by a pair of teammates in Chris Schuler and Seth Sinovic, a clear sign of the level of play expected from the Bluejays this season.

Loyola College joins Creighton as the only other team to feature three players on this year's watch list, with the United Kingdom trio of Phil Bannister (England), Jamie Darvill (England) and Tennant McVea (Northern Ireland).

Drake, Monmouth, Tulsa, UCLA and Wake Forest each had a pair of players named to the list.

While conventional wisdom might suggest having more than one player as a candidate would negatively affect each candidate's chances -- given the likelihood of votes being split between teammates -- last year's award proved if you're good enough, that won't happen. Two of the three finalists (Marcus Tracy and Sam Cronin) hailed from Wake Forest in 2008, and Tracy took home the trophy.

Left Coast left out

Only three West Coast players have been named player of the year in the history of the M.A.C. and Hermann Trophy awards, and no West Coast player has won since the awards merged.

San Jose State's Manuel Hernandez received the Hermann honor in 1968. It would be almost a quarter of a century before another West Coast player received the award. UCLA has the distinction of having two -- Friedel was the Hermann winner in 1992, and Sasha Victorine was named the M.A.C. Player of the Year in 1999.

In fact, unless you broadly expand your definition of "West Coast" to include New Mexico (alma mater of 2005 finalist Jeff Rowland), a Left Coast college player hasn't even been among the final three in M.A.C. Hermann history.

Seven players from West Coast schools are on this year's watch list -- Stanford's Bobby Warshaw, Cal Poly's Patrick Sigler, Loyola Marymount's Rafael Baca, San Francisco's Conor Chinn, Cal's Andrew Wiedeman and UCLA's Michael Stephens and Kyle Nakazawa.

Maybe this is the year California gets some much-needed love.

Not on the list?

A lot is made of the Hermann watch list, but when the season starts, it's about stats, not speculation.

Although being named to the list early nets players some preseason press, it's their play on the field that will get a player noticed.

In 2006, Joseph Lapira wasn't even on the radar when the season began. Twenty-two goals later, he had the nation's attention -- and the Hermann Trophy.

Who will take home the honor in 2009? With the season finally kicking off, we'll find out soon enough.

Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at mariamburns@gmail.com.

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