Last year, the West Coast seemed to slip off the soccer map. Not a single team from California finished in the top 10 -- or made it out of the third round of the NCAA tournament.
Talk about a turnaround. UCLA, California and UCSB are all ranked in the top 7 and Stanford is in the top 20.
"I think this year looks more like past years where the West Coast has 10, maybe 13 teams that could play in the postseason," Cal coach Kevin Grimes said. "I think that, in large part, it's due to that teams have improved, but maybe also wanting to prove that last year was a little bit of fluke year for the West Coast, where it just seemed to be a little bit of a down year for a lot of schools."
Those schools have certainly picked it up. Although the postseason is still a month away, the way things are going, it wouldn't be a surprise to see another all-Golden State final.
More frightening to opponents? None of the top three teams in the region are playing at 100 percent.
The Bruins have a 6-1-1 record and are ranked fourth in the nation. Impressive even when you don't factor in that the team has been without two of its top players for nearly a month.
Goalkeeper Brian Perk and midfielder Michael Stephens, both members of the U-20 World Cup team, haven't played a contest for the Bruins since the Cal State Fullerton game on Sept. 11.
Filling in for players of that caliber is a challenge. Perk was a starter for the U-20 team in the tournament, and Stevens is the reigning Pac-10 player of the year. However, two Bruins stepped into those roles nicely. In five starts, freshman midfielder Ryan Hollingshead has three goals and an assist, while sophomore Brian Rowe has had the opportunity to gain valuable experience in the net. Rowe has a 4-0-1 record with a .75 goals against average and 23 saves. "Losing those two has obviously had an effect on the dynamics of our team, but it's been pretty good so far," UCLA coach Jorge Salcedo said. "We're in a pretty good spot to have an even better second half."
Seniors like Kyle Nakazawa (seven goals, three assists) and David Estrada (six assists) will help lead the team into that second half. That kind of veteran leadership should give the Bruins an edge they haven't had in the past. Their eight seniors are the most the team ha had on its roster since 2003.
"Players going to MLS or Europe [before graduating] had an impact on our program and took a toll," Salcedo said. "This year, you see a difference in how we move on the field, the ways we manage games from beginning to end. The experience we're having this year with seven seniors that are starters has been a good one."
One place behind the Bruins in the national rankings and a team that will be gunning for them in the Pac-10 is No. 5 Cal.
The Bears (7-2) have been working to find a dynamic of their own after injuries -- nothing season ending, but serious enough to keep guys out a week or two -- have forced Grimes to find ways to fill the holes in his lineup. In nine games, the coach has used 15 starters.
"The upside of having injuries and guys out for a significant amount of time is that you do get your younger players right into the heat of the battle," Grimes said.
The team's bench has proved to be deep, something that gives Cal added confidence. However, the lack of a set lineup has presented challenges.
"We came out of the preseason and into the early regular season with such a different lineup than we have right now that we're really trying to figure out exactly where our next surge is in our development," Grimes said.
Although the lineup might be inconsistent, the play Cal is getting from its top players is not. Andrew Wiedeman leads the team with nine goals and three assists, while Hector Jimenez has added a goal and seven assists.
UC Santa Barbara
Coming off a huge win against Indiana and a conference victory over Cal Poly, UCSB is playing like a serious postseason contender. Ranked seventh in the nation, the Gauchos are 8-2-1.
This year, like last, the biggest issue for Santa Barbara will likely be its youth. The team starts eight underclassmen. However, unlike last year, when coach Tim Vom Steeg regularly started six or seven freshmen a game, the majority of the players in the lineup have at least a year of collegiate experience.
"We're getting better," Vom Steeg said. "We're in a position where we know what our problems are and what we have to do to get better. We have had growing pains. I feel good about where were are, but we have a ways to go to be a team that I think could actually make a run at a national championship."
Like with UCLA and Cal, consistency has been an issue for UCSB. However, for the Gauchos, it's had less to do with lineup changes and more to do with youth.
"It's a function of us being able to bring the same energy every single time we play," Vom Steeg said. "I don't think we take days off, but when things don't go well for us and we have to battle through, we're maybe not mature enough to battle through. That's something that we just have to keep working on."
However, with the Big West target on its back, Santa Barbara has little margin for error. The Gauchos get opponents' best effort every time out. While that kind of intensity can go a long way in helping a team prepare for a tournament run, it can also wear a team out. The goal for Vom Steeg is to make sure his players don't enter this year's postseason on empty.
"The next few weeks are going to be important for all the team in the West," Salcedo said. "All the teams are doing well, but in a few weeks some of them won't be doing as well as they're doing now, just because the results of playing each other."
A few of those games are on the horizon. Pac-10 fans should circle the next two weekends. UCLA hosts Cal (Oct. 16) and Stanford (Oct. 18), then travels north to visit Cal (Oct. 23) and Stanford (Oct. 25).
Stanford will have a chance to avenge its 1-0 road loss at Cal in the teams' final game of the season as the Bears visit the Cardinal on Nov. 14.
The Gauchos have a home-away series with a tough Cal State Northridge and visit season 2008 conference champion UC Irvine on Oct. 31.
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at email@example.com.