August 16, 2012 – Arguably the best conference in the country, the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) will be even tighter this year. Don’t even get me started about the 2013-2014 season because the ACC is adding even more competitive teams and will undoubtedly be the best. You could make a case that 5 or 6 of these schools are College Cup caliber. This powerhouse conference is home to the returning national champs and don’t be surprised if another ACC is lifting up the trophy come December in Alabama.
North Carolina (Favorite): The reigning national champions shouldn’t find much trouble replicating the talent they lost last year to the MLS (Matt Hedges, Billy Schuler, Enzo Martinez). These three All-Americans were the glue that kept this team together, but the Tar Heels still have plenty of talent to hold up. They enter the season ranked #1 in the country and rightfully so. Their incoming class ranked 3rd by College Soccer News shouldn’t hurt either.
They bring in another stellar recruiting class led by three top 20 College Soccer News incoming freshmen (12, Daniel Garcia; 14, Joseph Amon; 16, Jonathan Cambell). Any of these three men can be playmakers in this already star-studded lineup along with their seven other incoming freshmen. Seven of the ten freshmen were development academy players, including Daniel Garcia who won the u17/18 National Championship with FC Dallas. Garcia, is an immediate impact player who should slide in nicely into the midfield with the all the players they lost in the middle of the park. Amon, a youth national teamer is another quick midfielder who may slip into the starting lineup and while gaining experience could become a real presence. Cambell, the local USSDA prospect may have to wait a year for significant playing time considering the Tar Heels backline is one of the best in the country.
The ACC Champs while losing a wealth of talent also return players of the same level. Their goalkeeping stays in tact as they retain arguably the best goalkeeper in the country in Scott Goodwin. Their backline continues to be strong with sophomore Jordan McCrary and Boyd Okwuono. Okwuono, had an incredible year starting every game at center back. Then, there is the midfield that carried the team to Alabama last year. They lose playmaker Enzo Martinez and a tough defensive midfielder in Kirk Urso, but they shouldn’t have much trouble replacing the current pros. Their playmaker will be Mikey Lopez. The youth national teamer had a superb end of the season, which resulted in a starting gig in the midfield. Don’t be surprised if you see Lopez’s name as a possible Hermann trophy award candidate. The gem in the squad may be Rob Lovejoy. Lovejoy (7g, 5a) locked down a starting spot and the speedy leader will be an essential piece for their quest for a repeat National Championship run. If coach Carlos Somoano can coach this all-star team to the best of their capabilities, don’t’ count this young, but highly talented team out to win the ACC and another College Cup.
Maryland (Favorite): The Terps are continuously a top contender for the College Cup and expect this year to be no different. They are ranked #9 by CSN and after a disappointing early exit in the NCAA Tournament, the coach Cirovski led side is ready avenge last year’s loss and win the national championship. This squad is talented enough to win everything. Their only major loss was forward and MLS draftee Casey Townsend, but almost everything else stays the same; plus they bring in a recruiting class rated #7 that could compete with almost anyone.
Their top recruit is without a doubt Michael Ambrose ranked #2 by CSN. The FC Dallas outside back is an incredible prospect and has been on the national team radar for some time. The only negatives about bringing in Ambrose is that the Terps already have two solid outside backs, but Sasho will find a spot for the talented Freshman. The Terps second highest rated recruit is Christiano Francois. The Haitian forward has an uncanny ability to score goals and his speed will be an asset up top. Francois scored 60 goals and handed out 41 assists for St. Benedicts high school while leading them to a 24-0 record. The Terps next top recruit is Ntokozo Tshuma. The midfielder from Zimbabwe played for Bethesda SC and his game should translate well into the squad. The Terps bring in six other quality recruits including five total USSDA players and forward out of Hungary, David Kabelik.
Maryland’s starting lineup will again be one of the best in the country which all starts in the back. Sophomore goalkeeper Keith Cardona out of Red Bulls Academy earned some playing time at the tail end of the season as a Freshman over redshirt senior Will Swaim. The 6’4” 200 LBS shot stopper will keep the backline organized and make the occasional big save they need. The experienced backline returns two consistent starters in London Woodbury and Taylor Kemp and add Ambrose to that lineup and you’re basically set.
The Terps midfield is one of the nations best as they keep 5’6” playmaker Sunny Jane (1g, 8a) and Heige Leikvang (20 starts). Plus you add two standout freshmen with u20 US national teamer midfielder Dan Metzger and Alex Shinksy. Metzger was a constant bench threat and will look for a starting spot this year while Shinksy had an injury that kept him out most of the year, but will look to rebound and live up to his hype. While the Terps lose possibly the most dangerous forward in the country they still have Patrick Mullins (6g, 3a) and John Stertzer (14g, 4a). Both these men played significant roles this past season and will be relied on heavily to carry the load as forwards. Maryland is talented beyond belief and if they get things clicking at the right time don’t be surprised to see them silverware in December.
Duke (Top Contender): The Blue Devils finished the season with an 11-8-3 record along with having the best player in all of college soccer, Andrew Wenger. After losing the Hermann Trophy winner, most teams would be in bad shape, but Duke still has a quality side. They still have a strong team capable of competing with the best and coach John Kerr brings in an equally impressive recruiting class ranked #16 in the nation.
Their incoming freshmen includes two College Soccer News top twenty-five players. The highest rated player for the Blue Devils has an impressive resume. His name is Luis Rendon. Rendon was the national Gatorade player of the year as a junior and while he struggled with an injury his senior year, he is ready to return back to his prior form. The second highest rated recruit is Zachary Mathers out of Solar Chelsea SC. The Texan midfielder is a natural talent and led his team to the USSDA playoffs in Houston this past month. The incoming freshmen class is slender with only six players, but they are a talented bunch and bring in defender Jake Coleman who is a transfer from Indiana University. Expect a couple of these players to be impact players but most of the other will most likely be bench players or make an impact in a couple years.
The current team is in good shape with James Belshaw back in the cage for his senior year. The 6’3” Brit will single handedly keep the team in some games and he’ll look to make the ACC-first team for the second straight year. The defensive line is anchored by center back, Sebastien Ibeagha and Nat Eggleston. Ibeagha, an athletic US youth national teamer has speed and strength like no other and with a solid year he could be gone to the MLS. The midfielder running the show is Nick Palodichuk (8g, 6a). Palodichuk is the highest returning points leader and will be a definite leader for the Blue Devils. The rest of the starting midfield has graduated which leaves sophomore Sean Davis with much responsibility. Davis was possibly the highest touted freshman last year and coming off an injury he should immediately become a star for the team. Up top Duke loses Andrew Wenger and this is where they will hurt. Wenger was most of their goal production and their next highest point leader, Chris Tweed-Kent also graduated. They are going to rely on Paloduchuk in the scoring column along with Luis Rendon if he’s at 100%. Duke doesn’t have the same scoring threat that they had last year, but with a solid defense and Belshaw in goal expect Duke to go toe to toe with anybody and reach the NCAA tournament.
Virginia (Dark Horse): The Cavs had a disappointing first round NCAA tourney loss to Delaware but they’re back and the #28 ranked squad is revamped for the upcoming season. For the Cavaliers standard’s, they’ve had a couple off seasons, but they are coming back to their dominance as they did in the Bruce Arena days. Coach Gelnovatch has always been a good recruiter, but this year’s class has a special quality to them that has them ranked #4 out of the best incoming classes.
The incoming freshmen make up an eight men class that is easily top five in the country. They have three top twenty-five recruits and five top sixty in total along with plenty others that could be ranked equally as high. Their list of outrageously great players starts with #8, Zachary Carroll; #18, Marcus Salandy-Defour; and #22, Brian James. Any of these players would be instant starters on 90% of division 1 teams, but this Virginia team is stacked so they’re going to have to earn their spots. Carroll is a huge center back from Michigan who has the size to transition into the college game without a problem. Salandy-Defour, a forward out of Maryland has impeccable pace and a knack for the goal. James is a solid passer with a great motor who again should transition in the Virginia system well with some experience. Todd Wharton (#52) and Scott Thomsen (#57) are two more incoming players that are extremely talented. Wharton should boost the attack along with Salandy- Defour and in the near future they will be a scary dynamic duo. Thomsen is a lefty playmaker that connects his passes and has a nasty bend on free kicks. The rest of their recruits are talented as well and if the Cavs don’t make it deep into the tourney this year, expect them to be there once these players mature.
The Cavaliers remain the same in the net with quality sophomore goalkeeper, Spencer LaCivita. The backline will mainly be freshmen/inexperienced players considering most of the frequent starters graduating including MLS draftee Hunter Jumper.
The midfield is much of the same as many of the talented incoming freshmen may take over, but there are a few names to remember. Maybe the best returning midfielder is Ari Dimas. While the 5’5” RS senior is the most dominating presence, Dimas can take over a game in an instant. The forward position is a tricky area for the Cavs as well. They lose forwards Brian Span and Brian Ownby to the professional ranks, but they still have their best threat in Will Bates (14g, 4a). Bates has a chance to be ACC Player of the Year and if he stays healthy, nobody can stop the returning points leader. The other player who will make Bates life easier is sophomore Ryan Zinkhan (4g, 3a). Virginia is a hit or miss team. Most of their players are young and inexperienced, but expect the natural talent to take over and by the end of the year nobody will want to mess with the Cavs.
Wake Forest (Underdogs): The Demon Deacons are one of the most storied college soccer franchises of all time and this year they will look to continue the tradition. By Wake’s standards the past two years haven’t been the program’s finest but they are eager to bounce back. Coach Jay Vidovich has brought in one of his best recruiting classes in his 18 years at the helm of the program that is ranked #1 in the country and they will not disappoint. The Deacons picked their game up at the end of the year getting points against two top 10 teams (#7, Akron; #4, Maryland) and finished the year with a .500 record overall. They enter the season ranked #19 and should they live up to their expectations they will only jump up the ladder.
This incoming 2012 freshmen class has the capability of being the driving force behind a long standing powerhouse and can help this squad back to their ACC prominence. Their top recruit needs no introduction. He’s the #1 overall ranked incoming freshman by College Soccer News; Michael Gamble. Gamble, when healthy has no limits to his potential. The creative midfielder has a never say never mentality and a motor that will allow him to make an immediate impact to the Demon Deacons. If Gamble can avoid his frequent injuries expect him to be a future MLS draft pick. Their next top recruit isn’t too far behind on our top 150 list. His name is Jalen Robinson and the #3 recruit is another player bound to make a mark at the program. Robinson, a youth international plays center back for DC United Academy and the US u18 men’s squad. Jalen is a rare youth player that already is physically matured and has the technical abilities to go along with it. His game translates well with the college level and Jalen should standout immediately. Wake picks up another quality local product with Baltimore Bays goalkeeper, Andrew Harris. Harris, should be the starter by his sophomore year and will only add depth to this already loaded side. There are six others in this recruiting class that will make this squad one for the future including talented DC United midfielder Collin Martin and Lonestar forward Thomas Haws. Any of the nine incoming freshmen can make an impact in the squad and expect them to lead this team for many years to come.
The incoming players will only compliment the talented group of players already in the program. They return their top point leaders Andy Lubahn (4g, 6a) and Luca Gimenez (6g, 1a). The two forwards compliment each other well and along with young scoring talent like Sean Okoli (4g, 3a) and Teddy Mullin (1g, 6a) Wake Forest won’t have trouble scoring. Wake scored 28 goals this past year and will only increase with experience. Their troubles came defensively as they allowed a mediocre 31 goals, but with the new young wave of talent it should slowly decrease. Defender Danny Wenzel will add experience to this otherwise young squad and with goalkeeper Michael Lisch defending the net the defense should suffice. Wake Forest was a powerhouse just a couple years ago and with the solid current group of players and an outstanding freshman class expect this team to be one for the future.
NC State (Rebuilding): The Wolfpack are unlucky to be in an extremely tough conference and therefore it’s hard for them to compete with some of the nation’s best. Though, coach Kelly Findley is doing his best to put the Pack on the map. In only his second year, he’s started off fresh with the program and accumulated a 7-11-2 record. This roster was made up of primarily newcomers and therefore it was difficult for the team to gel in the beginning. You could see potential in the team and they picked up significant wins against #13 Boston College and #9 SMU. Add this to the recruiting class coming in and NC State should be competitive.
The team’s nine player recruiting class has six USSDA players and while there may be no standouts they are all solid players. Many of the Freshmen are local players from North Carolina including Joaquin Del Rosario. The CASL Chelsea midfielder spent some time with the US youth national team and should be a key asset if given playing time. Another intriguing pick up is goalkeeper Alex McGauley who will immediately be thrown in as the back up keeper. After two years behind Fabian Otte, MacGauley will challenge keeper Joe Mills as the starter. Last year’s incoming class was superb and this group isn’t too far behind. The entire squad is young and therefore everybody has a chance to make an impact right away.
With only one senior, Moritz Steidten, in the squad everyone must assume a leadership role. One of these players bound to make an impact is Mazmi Albadawi (9g, 3a). The playmaking forward was the leading points leader for the Pack and if they want to stand a chance in the ultra competitive ACC, Mazmi is going to have to repeat his ACC player of the week numbers. His forward partner Zabarie Kollie (2g, 4a) should make Mazmi’s life easier. The 6’2” Kollie is great at holding the ball up and feeding his teammates and can score the occasional necessary goal. The team also keeps their next four highest point leaders which means they should not have a problem on the offensive side. With another year of chemistry, the Wolfpack may be trouble for their oppositions offensively.
Defensive may be the problem as they allowed 32 goals this past year but that will surely improve. They still have strong center back Gbenga Makinde (1g, 1a) and junior Ryan Metts locking things up in the back, which is tough for any partnership to pass. NC State faces another incredibly tough schedule and while it may be improbable for them to make the NCAA tournament this year; Coach Findley is only helping the squad. Expect the Pack to be a serious contender within the next couple years.
Boston College (Experienced): The Golden Eagles endured an up and down season but finished the season fantastically earning themselves a top four overall seed for the NCAA Tournament. They are expected to do well this year being ranked #12 in the country and should stay a top 25 team for the duration of the year. The ACC Tournament finalists only lose three starters and keep the core of the team. They also bring in a eight member class, two of which are transfers, that ranks 22nd out of all incoming classes by College Soccer News.
The biggest incoming player has to be Marist College sophomore transfer Matt Wendelken. The center back is tall and is reminiscent of UNC center back Matt Hedges. He was so impressive his freshmen year that he earned a u20 national camp invite. Another player with a fantastic resumé is midfielder, Jason Abbott. The Irish freshman plays for the u17 Irish national team and captains his club side. One for the future is definitely net minder Alex Kapp. The goalkeeper for FC Westchester academy has gained experience with the US youth national team and should be a starter in a couple years. Kapp’s academy teammate Daniel Norris may make just as much of a mark as Kapp. The Canadian defender has received notice from his country’s national team, even being invited to a camp. The rest of the four players have the capability to play as well, but it will be difficult for any of the incoming players to start immediately as there is already loads of talent who have solidified their positions.
Coach Kelly has a top group of guys to make a bid for the ACC title. The team is based around senior Kyle Bekker (8g, 7a). Bekker, has recently seen time with the Canadian youth national team and with a breakout year Bekker could find himself on the ACC first team. Senior Charlie Rugg (8g, 5a) is destined for another solid year and expect Rugg to get double digit goals en route to the NCAA Tournament. Sophomore Diego Medina-Mendez (8g, 2a) has a special quality about him and will this year become a go to guy in clutch situations. Diego really stood out at the end of the year and even made the ACC All-tournament team.
The defense stays stellar as usual with Kevin Mejia (1g, 3a), Colin Murphy (1g, 3a), and Stefan Carter (1g, 1a). The trio only missed two games between them last year and if they stay injury-free again then they should maintain their solid +9 goal differential from last year. Goalkeeper Justin Luthy needs to have another great year for BC to prevail as ACC champs. Boston College has a great history and with their wealth of experience they might push for a top spot in the country.
Clemson (Young): The Tigers aren’t the most well known ACC squad, but their storied franchise speaks for itself. They own two national championships and are home of US national team greats such as Stuart Holden and Oguchi Onyewu. They had a solid year earning themselves a .500 record and beating the likes of #14 Boston College and #1 Maryland. Their squad stays relatively the same and many of the players are only entering their second year after their incredible rookie seasons. Coach Noonan early in his career brings in another superb recruiting class.
Clemson’s incoming class is ranked 19th by College Soccer News and is led by midfielder Preston Gayton. Gayton, ranked #47, has some experience with the u17 USA men’s national team and finished the year with Concorde Fire as one of Development Academy’s leading goal scorers. Another top notch pick up is goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell. The Louisiana native is ranked #120 by CSN and should pick up the #1 spot in goal when Cody Mizell leaves. Their broad class also includes defender Matthew Freeman. Freeman has played for our u17 national team squad and is a future Tiger to keep an eye on. Clemson also brings in five other talented Freshmen and two other transfers including Louisville University midfielder, Manolo Sanchez.
Their current crop of players are young and have ridiculous talent. Coach Noonan may have done the best with his freshmen class last year over anyone else in the country. Clemson retains their top six point leaders including Sophomore Brynjar Benediktsson (7g, 5a). The Icelandic forward had an outstanding first year and will lead the charge for three more years for the Tigers. His forward partner senior Austin Savage (6g, 4a) will captain the squad and will provide the leadership they need in this otherwise young side. Two more rising sophomores that should have consecutive great seasons are Amadou Dia (4g, 1a) and Iain Smith (2g, 5a). The two attack men both have a knack for goal and can provide service for their fellow forwards. The midfield will be run by Ara Amirkhanian (1g, 1a) and Keegan Priest (0g, 3a). The main piece to Clemson’s squad is junior goalkeeper Cody Mizell. Mizell is easily a top five goalie in the nation and should provide the leadership and save making ability the Tigers need. This squad is young, eager to improve, and over the next couple years will only continue to get better. Don’t count them out on making a surge to the top of the ACC.
Virginia Tech (Young): The Hokies endured a tough and unlucky season last year with the margin of defeat in twelve of their thirteen losses a single goal. They were just lacking a major goal threat as they only scored 15 goals all year. Another issue comes on the road as Virginia Tech didn’t win one road game and must rely on their abilities at home. There is an upside as well; the Hokies have major potential. They beat the likes of #1 North Carolina and forced seven games into overtime. They are already a tough team to beat and they are a few goals away from being a serious threat in the ACC. These players could come from Coach Brizendine’s nine men incoming freshmen class.
One of the freshmen with the potential to make an immediate statement is defender Deven Mason. Mason, an athletic kid from New Mexico has the ability to start in his first year and is definitely a player to keep an eye on. Freshman goalkeeper Josh Penn is another one to watch. Penn has size and if he fills out more he will be a real presence in the net. Hopefully Penn’s club teammate Connor Pompilio a forward with good size can score some goals for this squad in need of them. Six of the nine freshmen are local products from inside the state and are high caliber players that should help the squad.
The returning players for this squad are mainly young, but have promise. The team is centered around sophomore center midfielder Ben Strong (2g, 2a). The team rookie of the year, is the pass master on the team and is the one they look for in desperate times. Strong was the points leader and will need to contribute the same numbers for the team to succeed. His midfield partner junior David Clemens (2g, 0a) will be a major influence to the team as well. Clemens sustained an injury last year which plagued him for half the season, but when healthy he was a connecting piece at the center midfield position.
The core of the defense is RS sophomore Drew Ranahan. Ranahan, a 6’4” defender played the third most minutes on the team and is an intimidating guy for opposing attackers. Behind Ranahan is junior goalkeeper Kyle Renfro. Renfro recorded 100 saves (6th in D1) with an .800 save percentage and is an essential piece of the squad. Virginia Tech has some work to become an elite ACC team, but they have the pieces to compete every game. If they can pull some goals out towards the end of games, the Hokies may surprise some schools and make a late season run.
Ben Roth is a contributing writer to College Soccer News. He can be reached at Ben.firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on twitter at Benrothpda16.