CHICAGO – The chase to lift the NCAA Championship trophy begins this weekend across the country, and while teams from coast to coast have dreams of being crowned champion in Alabama come December, the next team to lift the trophy is very likely to come from a small group of heavy favorites.
Louisville, UCLA and Akron enter the year as the clear-cut favorites, with a second tier of teams standing a good chance of knocking one of the big three off and making a run at the College Cup.
A shake-up in the coaching ranks could see a new contender in Creighton. The Bluejays already had the talent to be a top contender, but adding veteran coach Elmar Bolowich could push Creighton into the title conversation.
Bolowich's former team, North Carolina, will be looking for a fourth straight NCAA Final Four, and while the Tar Heels suffered heavy losses to the pros, there is still enough star power in Chapel Hill to produce a fourth College Cup trip. Here is a rundown of FOX Soccer's top 25 teams in the country as the college season kicks off.
NCAA men's soccer top 25
Undefeated until their loss in the 2010 NCAA Final to Akron, the Cardinals bring back a loaded stable of key players, including standout striker Colin Rolfe, midfield ace Dylan Mares and centerback Austin Berry. A repeat Big East title is a good bet and anything less than a championship would be a disappointment for a team that should produce more than a half-dozen pros.
One of the most exciting squads in 2010 returns all 11 starters, and the extra experience for a team dominated by underclassmen could give the Bruins the edge in 2011. Playmaker Kelyn Rowe is at the top of the MLS Draft board while forwards Victor Chavez and Chandler Hoffman will be tough to stop all season. Goalkeeper Brian Rowe is one of the best in the nation.
The Zips shouldn't still be a title contender after losing an incredible five players to the first round of the MLS Draft and a total of seven players to MLS, right? That's exactly what the defending champions are after securing arguably the strongest recruiting classes in the nation. There are some veterans to build around, including 2010 scoring leader Darren Mattocks, NCAA championship game hero Scott Caldwell and standout goalkeeper David Meves. Freshmen to watch include defender Bryan Gallego and midfielder Wil Trapp, while transfers Zach Portillos and Aodhan Quinn should bolster the midfield.
4. North Carolina
The Tar Heels have made the NCAA Final Four three straight years but will have to do so without former head coach Elmar Bolowich and MLS rookies Jalil Anibaba and Michael Farfan, among others. New head coach Carlos Somoano doesn't exactly inherit a bare cupboard, as playmaker Enzo Martinez and striker Billy Schuler lead an attack that should help North Carolina contend for the ACC title and a fourth straight trip to the Final Four. Defensively, transfer Matt Hedges should help bolster a strong defense. Freshman midfielder Jordan McCrary is expected to make an impact right away.
The Terrapins suffered some major losses, specifically MLS rookies Ethan White, Zak MacMath and Matt Kassel, but the 2008 NCAA champions bring in a loaded recruiting class. Freshmen sensations Keith Cardona and Alex Shinsky should step in and become immediate impact players, but it will be veterans like sharp-shooting striker Casey Townsend and defender Taylor Kemp who make them contenders.
The Mustangs were one of the best teams in the nation for much of 2010, but a penalty kick shootout loss to North Carolina cut short their promising season. SMU lost a pair of key standouts in defender Leone Cruz and midfielder Josue Soto but return star midfielder Arthur Ivo and striker Juan Castillo. Winger Robbie Derschang is another top threat and pro prospect.
The Bluejays were already expected to be a top contender before Elmar Bolowich took over, but with a highly-successful new coach in charge, the veteran squad will be a team to watch come NCAA tournament time. Led by standout striker Ethan Finley and top defender Tyler Polak, Creighton also welcome North Carolina transfer Bruno Castro, a skillful playmaker who will help Bolowich implement his high-powered attacking system.
The Huskies were a dangerous team in 2010, but flaming out with early exits in the Big East and NCAA tournaments put a damper on a good season. UConn lost standout goalkeeper Josh Ford, but brings back the dangerous tandem of Tony Cascio and Carlos Alvarez, one of the best attacking duos in the nation. Louisville will be favored in the Big East, but the Huskies are definitely capable of knocking off the defending conference champions.
The Blue Devils lost top striker Ryan Finley to a transfer but still boast defender/midfielder Andrew Wenger, one of the top two players in the nation. Wenger's versatility and the defensive quality of sophomore standout Sebastian Ibeagha will make Duke a contender. Phenom Nick Palodichuk gives Duke a go-to striker and one of the best freshman in the nation.
The Gauchos fell short in their quest to win an NCAA title at home in 2010 but bring back enough talent to be in the Final Four conversation in 2011. UCSB may have the best collection of forwards in the nation, with returning starters Sam Garza and David Opoku being joined by transfer and former U.S. Under-20 striker Dom Sarle. The midfield tandem of Michael David and Luis Silva is also one of the best combinations you'll find in the country.
12. Notre Dame
13. Ohio State
14. Wake Forest
15. West Virginia
17. South Florida
18. Penn State
19. Boston College
23. William & Mary
25. Florida Gulf Coast