The 2017 season is months away but it is never too early to begin thinking about the teams that look to be top contenders. Recruiting classes are still taking shape across the country and its possible that transfers could occur that might change the landscape. But for now the ten teams listed below, which are for the most part the usual suspects, look to either be among the frontrunners or at the very least well positioned to build on the success they enjoyed in 2016.
Stanford - Climbing a hill presents one set of challenges. Remaining on top of it presents a different set of challenges. A three-peat in 2017 is a tall task to accomplish but it is not out of the question. The Cardinal are slated to return a solid core of players including ten starters from the 2016 team that won the National Championship for the second consecutive season.
Foster Langsdorf (15g, 2a) and Corey Baird (4g, 6a) who are three year starters return to power the Stanford attack up-top. They work together as well as any forward combination in the country. Back Tomas Hillard-Arce (4g, 2a) and goalkeeper Andrew Epstein who also bring three years of starting experience to the table return to anchor what should be a very solid Cardinal defense. Drew Skundrich (4g, 3a) is among a solid group of very capable returning midfielders.
Last year the Cardinal played well in the early going but they lacked the edge and perhaps focus they needed to prevail against several top level opponents. The fact that they had key gaps to plug due to departures contributed to the fact that they didn't seem to fully gel as a team until a few weeks into the season. That should not be a problem in 2017. However, the X-Factor in 2017 may be the degree to which Stanford remains hungry for continued success because that will have a big impact on whether or not they have the edge, focus and toughness needed to win another Pac-12 Title and contend for the national championship.
It is an understatement to say that the Cardinal will have a huge target on their chests anytime they take the field in 2017. They will have to bring their A game or something close to it anytime they take the field. Stanford seemed to learn that the hard way last year when they were upset by San Francisco. The good thing though is that they did learn from it and that loss proved to be a turning point in their season. While having a target on your back is a nice problem to have, it underscores the need for Stanford to have a mindset of continued improvement, focus, and big play ability on both sides of the ball in 2017.
The bottom line is that Jeremy Gunn will enter his sixth season as the Stanford head coach with a team that looks to be as talented and experienced as any in the country. The Cardinal will remain the team to beat until someone else proves otherwise.
Maryland - The Terps will enter the 2017 season without one of the best 2016 senior classes in the country that included Cody Niedermeier, the Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year, Alex Crongnale who was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year as well as backs Chris Odoi-Atsem and Suli Dainkeh. Accordingly, Maryland head coach Sasho Cirovski has some vacancies to fill on the defensive side of the ball. However, that task is made last daunting since Maryland always has a talented pool of players on board that are eager and ready to assume a greater role. The Terps will therefore be reloading and not rebuilding in 2017.
The situation is very different on the offensive side of the ball where a solid contingent of proven goal scorers are slated to return including All-American forward Gordon Wild (17g, 5a), forwards Sebastian Elney (3g, 4a) and D.J. Reeves (3g, 6a) and midfielders Amar Sejdic (9g, 9a), Jake Rozhansky (3g, 8a), and Eryk Williamson (3g, 5a).
The Terps were head and shoulders above everyone else at the conclusion of regular season and conference tournament play in 2016. They were unbeaten for the first time since 1968 with a 18-0-2 season after winning the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles. They were ranked the number one team in the country by everyone and were awarded the number one seed in the NCAA Tournament.
However, success breeds high expectations and success is something that Maryland has had plenty of under Cirovski. Ultimately seasons at Maryland are judged by how far the Terps advance in the NCAA Tournament. As a result when the Terps were upset by Providence 5-4 at Ludwig Field in the NCAA Tournament it took some of the glitter away from what was otherwise an outstanding season. The fact that Providence came from behind to win after Maryland was ahead 4 to 1 in the second half put the outcome of the contest in the surreal category.
No matter how you spin it, the 2016 campaign was a "what it might have been" type season for Maryland. While Cirovski and the Terp players will likely be eager to put the way their season ended in the NCAA Tournament in the rear view mirror and move forward, it will no doubt sting for a while and leave a bitter taste in their mouths. That in turn will create focus and make Maryland a very motivated and determined team in 2017. It may take a few contests for the Terps to gel as a team in 2017 but when they do they should be very good.
North Carolina - Seven starters are slated to return from the 2016 team that was 14-3-4 overall and advanced to the College Cup where the Tar Heels were edged 10-9 in penalty kicks by Stanford in a contest that easily could have gone the other way. In addition a very talented group of very capable players return who look to be ready as well as eager to earn a starting role. This group includes members of the 2016 recruiting class that was ranked by College Soccer News as well as others as the best incoming class in the nation.
Veterans Zach Wright (5g, 7a) and Alan Winn (3g, 4a) along with Nils Bruening (8g, 1a) who was a starter last year return to give the Tar Heels another potent offense. A very talented group of midfielders will also be on hand including highly regarded sophomores Cam Lindley (0g, 7a) and Maurico Pineda (4g, 1a) who now have the added advantage of a year in Chapel Hill under their belts.
The defense which was among the best in the country last year, as reflected in the fact that they only allowed a total of ten goals, will have job openings that must be filled due to the graduation of backs Colton Storm and Tucker Hume. However Carlos Somoano has a solid foundation upon which to build on with back Alex Comsia and goalkeeper James Pyle among those slated to return.
Somoano, who is the active leader in winning percentage among Division Division I head coaches, will enter his seventh season at the helm of a program that has been a top ten ranked team eight of the last nine years. The competition in the Atlantic Coast Conference will again be fierce but all signs point to another top ranking and a lot of wins once again in Chapel Hill in 2017.
Denver - Past success is no guarantee of future success. However, it is a solid predictor particularly when it involves momentum which Denver certainly has plenty of after recording a total of thirty-nine wins over the past two seasons including an historic 2016 campaign in with the Pioneers were 20-1-3 overall and advanced to the College Cup for the first time in the history of the program.
Jamie Franks has some gaps to plug on the defensive side of the ball due to the graduation of All-American back Reagan Dunk (0g, 5a) and the decision of center back Kortne Ford (5gm 2a) to leave early and forgo his senior season to enter the professional ranks. The Pioneers also will be without midfielders Sam Hamilton (0g, 9a), Karsten Hanlin (5g, 8a) and Chandler Crosswait (1g, 5a) due to graduation.
On the plus side of the ledger Andre Shinyashiki (9g, 5a) and Blake Elder (7g, 2a) return up top to spearhead the attack along with midfielder Alex Underwood (3g, 5a). Defensive midfielder Graham Smith (3g, 3a), back A.J. Fuller (1g, 0a) and netminder Nick Gardner, the 2016 Summit League Goalkeeper of the Year, are among those who will anchor the defense.
Denver may not enter the 2017 campaign with as strong a team from top to bottom as they have had the past two seasons. However this is a program with a winning culture and a mindset of individual and team accountability which are key intangibles. Despite the gaps to be plugged, the Pioneers have sufficient talent, depth, and momentum to remain on the short list of top contenders in 2017.
Virginia - A relatively young Virginia team had a successful but not vintage season last year during which they were 11-4-5 overall with a 3-2-3 record in Atlantic Coast Conference play. The Cavaliers were awarded the number twelve seed in the NCAA Tournament and advanced past Vermont before their season came to an end in the Sweet Sixteen when they lost 1-0 on the road to eventual national champion Stanford.
George Gelnovatch will enter the 2017 season with almost everyone back from the 2016 team including nine players that were regularly in starting roles and others who had a lot of minutes. With the exception of an inexplicable and embarrassing 6-1 thumping from Louisville in late September, Virginia played everyone close. That contest actually proved to be a wakeup call and gut-check of sorts for the Cavaliers who then rolled out a ten game unbeaten streak that included wins over North Carolina and Notre Dame before losing to Louisville again 1-0 in the ACC Tournament.
Midfielders Pablo Aquilar (7g, 2a) and Jean-Christophe Kofi (1g, 2a) and forward Edward Opoku (6g, 2a) are among returning players who should add to the Cavalier offense in 2017. Goalkeeper Jeff Caldwell, right back Bay Kurtz, left back Robin Afamefuna, and center back Sergi Nus are among a very solid core of returning defenders who should hit the ground running.
Last year Virginia tallied a total of twenty-nine goals to average 1.5 goals per game. Gelnovatch has indicated that adding additional pop on the offensive side of the ball is among his priorities heading into the 2017 season. It appears that he will be adding several new faces who should be able to contribute in that area. If Virginia can up their productivity on the offensive side of the ball and eliminate the lapses in play that hurt them at times on the defensive side of the ball last year they should be very competitive in 2017. At Virginia there is never a question in regard to the level of soccer talent. The best Cavalier teams in the past have been the ones that have combined their talent with mental toughness.
A young Virginia team showed a lot of grit as the season progressed last year which is an indication that with a year of experience under their belts they could be very good in 2017. If everything falls into place, look for the Cavaliers to win the close contests in 2017 that eluded them in 2016.
Wake Forest - You don't win thirty-six contests and go 11-1-4 in the highly competitive Atlantic Coast Conference over a two year span as the Demon Deacons have without having a lot of things going for you.
Wake Forest will enter the 2017 season with seven starters back in addition to sophomore goalkeeper Andreu Cases Mundet who played in eight contests last year including several crucial games down the home stretch when he was called upon by Bobby Muuss to replace veteran All-American netminder Alex Ferrell who had to sit out several contests due to a knee injury.
The Demon Deacons will discover what life is like in 2017 without All-American midfielders Ian Harkes (5g, 4a) and Jacori Hayes (8g, 3a). Harkes and Hayes were impact players during their four year stay in Winston-Salem and will not be easily replaced.
Senior forward Jon Bakero (7g, 4a) and sophomore midfielder Ema Twumasi (6g, 4a) are very capable goal scores who will be among those counted upon to help fill the void their departure creates on the offensive side of the ball.
The Deacons should once again be very strong on the defensive side of the ball with senior back Kevin Politz along with juniors Lou Gdula (0g, 2a) and Sam Raben who were starters last year slated to return. Cases Mundet gained valuable playing time last year that should enable him to hit the ground running in goal.
Wake Forest may need a few contests to fully gel as a team due to the departures but once that has occurred it is highly likely that Muuss will once again field another highly ranked and very competitive team.
Clemson - The Tigers will welcome back eight starters from the 2016 team that was 14-4-5 overall, earned the number three seed in the NCAA Tournament, and advanced to the Elite Eight.
Forward Diego Compos (6, 4a) returns to power the attack. A balanced and experienced midfield that includes Oliver Shannon (1g, 6a), Michael Melvin (0g, 2a), Grayson Raynor (2g, 3a), Saul Chinchilla and Malick Mbaye (2g, 1a) who had a banner season last year as a freshman will be strong and quick.
Ximo Miralles who had a 0.72 goals against average last year returns to anchor the defense along with very capable backs junior Patrick Bunk-Andersen and sophomore Tanner Dieterich who now has the benefit of a year of starting experience. In addition, Mike Noonan has also added another very good recruiting class.
You can count on Noonan once again fielding an extremely competitive team in 2017 for which the sky in the limit.
FGCU - Bob Butehorn, who served as the head coach at FGCU for ten seasons, has departed to take the head coaching job at former in-state rival South Florida. However, Butehorn left new Eagle head coach Jesse Cormier, who previously served as the head coach at Vermont for thirteen seasons, with a cupboard that is fully stocked with talented and experienced players.
Last year FGCU won a school record fourteen contests, won their fourth ASUN Championship title in the past six years, and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles had a prolific and explosive attack in 2016 that produced a total of sixty-two goals. With almost everyone back, FGCU appears well positioned to build on the success they enjoyed in 2016.
Senior Albert Ruiz (22g, 5a), one of the three finalist for the 2016 MAC Hermann Trophy, is among the most effective and explosive finishers in the country. Ruiz will be joined up-top in 2017 by redshirt junior Arion Sobers-Assue (11g, 11a) who is also capable of scoring in multiples. Sophomore forward Shak Adams (4g, 0a) who saw action in every contest in 2016 as a freshman also adds yet another dimension to the Eagle attack.
The midfield looks to be talented and experienced with seniors Kamar Marriott (1g, 2a), Jiro Barriga Toyama (2g, 3a), and Robert Ferrer (3g, 4a) along with graduate student Dylan Sacramento (4g, 3a) returning. Sophomore Migel Perez (2g, 3a) who gained valuable experience last year also figures to be in the mix in the midfield.
The defense should be improved in 2017 with sophomore Jared Brown returning in goal with the advantage of a year of playing time under his belt along with senior backs Nicolas Samayoa, Eli Roubos, Caleb George, and junior Preston Kilwien.
FGCU has dominated the ASUN Conference and Butehorn did a great job of getting the program on the college soccer map from a national perspective. However, the Eagles have yet to put together a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Cormier looks to have the ingredients on board to have a good shot at accomplishing that in his first season at the helm of the program in 2017.
Louisville - The Cardinals, like just about everyone else, have some holes to plug heading into the 2017 season due to graduation. Perhaps the most crucial one is the gap that exists between the pipes due to the departure of graduate student Stefan Cleveland who played for three seasons at Dartmouth before a one year tenure at Louisville in 2016.
The good news, and there is plenty of it, is that forward Mohamed Thiaw who was the main man in the Louisville attack last year returns for his senior season. Thiaw, who joined Louisville last year after two banner seasons at Cincinnati State Technical Community College, hit the ground running. Thiaw made a huge impact finding the back of the net twelve times in 2016 including seven, yes seven, game-winning goals.
Tate Schmitt (5g, 2a), Jack Gayton (3g, 0a) and Chenf Dieye (5g, 0a) are among returning players who provide Ken Lolla a solid core of midfielders around which to build. Ditto that for a backline that will feature All-American Tim Kubel (3g, 11a), Danny Reynolds and Joey Kunkel (0g, 1a).
Lolla will likely again bring on board a recruiting class that will include several players, like Cleveland and Thiaw last year, who will contribute immediately.
Louisville finished the 2016 campaign with a 14-6-2 overall record. They were awarded the number four seed in the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in the past seven years. The Cardinals belong in any discussion of potential top contenders heading into the 2017 season.
Butler - The Bulldogs may not contend for a national title in 2017 but they look to have the personnel and the momentum to have another very successful season.
Nine starters are slated to return from the 2016 team that was 13-5-2 overall, won the Big East Tournament, returned to the NCAA Tournament field, and was awarded the number fifteen seed. As a result Paul Snape looks to have the talent and the experience on board needed to build on the success they enjoyed in 2016.
Sophomores Lewis Suddick (11g, 4a) and Issac Galliford (4g, 6a) and juniors Jared Timmer (2g, 9a), Marco Charalambous (3g, 3a) and Eric Leonard (2g, 2a) are among those who will provide offensive punch for the Bulldogs. The defense should be very solid with redshirt senior goalkeeper Eric Dick and backs Joe Moulden, Alex Lehtinen, and Kieran Geldenhuys all slated to return.
The unanswered question, and it is a big one, is who will fill the void on the offensive side of the ball due to the graduation of All-American forward David Goldsmith (12g, 4a). Solve that and opponents will find Butler to be a very difficult team to have on their dance card.