Birmingham, Alabama hosted the D1 NCAA College Cup this past year where we witnessed four tremendous teams battle for the most sought after crown in the college landscape. All of these teams were great this past 2011 season, but can they prevail again and make a run to the final four?
UCLA: The Bruins were preseason favorites last year and although they began the season shaky, they finished strong winning 18 of their last 21 games. UCLA had one of the best classes leave this past year by a show of their six MLS combine invitees. They will definitely miss their non-returning players, which include Chandler Hoffman and Kelyn Rowe. Hoffman is one of the best pure finishers in the game, and Rowe, the Pac-10 player of the year, is a highly coveted playmaker. These two star players will be missed, but there are plenty of backups for these first round draft picks.
Coach Jorge Salcedo brings in, arguably the best recruiting class in college soccer for 2012. The Bruins were able to sign to two College Soccer News top ten players and four top forty. (5, Mario Rodriquez; 10, Javan Torre; 29, Holden Fender; 36, Cole Nagy). The most intriguing of these standouts is Mario Rodriguez. Rodriguez, a forward from North Hollywood, was a U-17 World Cup star for the USA squad and should have an immediate impact for the light blue and white this upcoming year. Rodriguez will be a valid replacement for Hoffman this year, but Rodriquez may be a one and done player or do the same as Rowe and stay until his sophomore year. Cole Nagy should flourish under this possession-oriented style offense while Fender and Torre will help solidify this already tough Bruins defense.
Besides the incoming freshman, UCLA already has loads of talent. Anyone remember Ryan Hollingshead’s long-range rip in the college cup semis? Hollingshead (3g, 7a) will bring his long shot ability and senior leadership to this otherwise youthful squad. Victor Chavez (4g,3a) is another player who was overshadowed by Hoffman last year, but has the individual skill to score in double-digit figures.
If UCLA plays to their talent level, they should have no problem making the NCAA tournament, if the freshmen live up to their hype, UCLA could work their way to the college cup for the second consecutive year.
North Carolina: Last year the Tar Heels won it all: the ACC regular season title, ACC tournament title, and the NCAA Tournament title. This past year’s squad was one of the most talented overall squad’s in UNC history. Similar to UCLA, UNC has lost loads of talent, but are replacing them with just as talented freshman. It’s hard to replace three first team All-Americans, (Matt Hedges, Enzo Martinez, Billy Schuler) and five players to professional teams. UNC is losing four key players, all down the middle of the field, and will have to replace the core of their midfield.
Coach Carlos Somoano has picked up three College Soccer News top 17 recruits. (12, Daniel Garcia; 14, Joseph Amon; 16, Jonathan Campbell), four other Academy prospects, and College of Charleston transfer, Andy Craven. Amon, a US youth national team defender, should start or see quality minutes in the Tar Heels already talented midfield. Campbell, the local N.C. Fusion prospect, may find it difficult to compete for playing time for this stacked backline, but with a little experience and/or a year under his belt, Campbell will be a force to be reckoned with.
Now looking at the returning squad, UNC still has outstanding talent. In the goal, UNC retains college cup savior goalkeeper Scott Goodwin. Then, Jordan McCrary, the freshman “left back” will pinch in at center back next year. The right-footed center back was forced to uncomfortably play on the left side due to senior Matt Hedges, the steel force of the defense. McCrary did an adequate job out on the wings, but you could tell he would’ve been more comfortable in the middle. The youth continues in the squad, with Boyd Okwuono, the monster freshman center back who started all 26 games for the Tar Heels.
In the midfield, junior Jordan Gafa returns to the squad as an experienced leader who will replace senior Kirk Urso in the center of the park. A player who should take over Martinez’s playmaking role is Mikey Lopez. Lopez, the youth national teamer, recorded ten points last year and stood out in the College Cup to prove he could play at the next level. If the 5’7” midfielder plays to his capability, then he could declare early for the MLS draft next year.
The all-star for this dynasty is going to be Rob Lovejoy (7g, 5a). Lovejoy found playing time this past year despite playing along side Schuler, Speas, and Martinez. The quick winger came up big for the Heels this last season and will lead the squad again this upcoming season.
Despite the vast majority of starters leaving, North Carolina has the capability to repeat as national champions.
Charlotte: The 49ers were the quintessential Cinderella team of the tournament this past year. Charlotte made a surprising run to the College Cup final, where they lost by a narrow margin to UNC. This 49ers team was highly underrated last year, but had some key players that led them to their postseason run. Charlotte’s squad included NSCAA First Team All-American, Charles Rodriguez, and fellow MLS combine draftee Evan James. These two players, alongside freshman Giuseppe Gentile, helped lead this non-seeded tourney team to the national spotlight.
Looking at the returning players, they carry one of the best players in college soccer, Giuseppe Gentile. Gentile, the highly recruited true freshman, tallied ten goals and scored when Charlotte needed it most. Gentile has the size and pace to compete with the NCAA’s best and with another year of experience he will be the focus of the 49ers attack. Alongside Gentile, Charlotte returns junior forward Donnie Smith. Smith (5g, 3a) will play a major role in the front line with the graduation of Evan James. Although Smith played in all 25 games this past year, he was much more of a bench threat, but in 2012 he will need to be a consistent starter if Charlotte wants to regain their 2011 stardom.
Junior Tyler Gibson (3g, 6a) will be another player to watch this upcoming year. The small midfielder will start in the playmaking role and be an essential piece in setting up scoring opportunities. Charlotte’s back line will stay relatively the same with the exception of Charles Rodriguez. Rodriguez, a senior captain, provided stability and good service on the left wing. The remaining three defenders, including Aaron Weldon and Thomas Allen, will still make Charlotte a steady force in the back.
Coach Langan has brought in a slender, but talented group of players for 2012. The only four players announced are all development academy players from top clubs. The best of the four is Brandon Kardos a local defender from Charlotte. Kardos, ranked 113 by College Soccer News, may slip into Rodriguez’s position at outside back. There aren’t any huge name players in this incoming freshman class such as last year’s Gentile, but all of these players are capable of making an impact in the next few years.
Charlotte may not have the star power of UCLA and UNC, and they will miss Jeremy Gunn who resigned after five seasons to accept the head coaching job at Stanford, but the 49ers will continue to be a well coached side under Langan with enough talent and determination to make another deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Creighton: This past year, the Blue Jays, led by college coaching legend Elmar Bolowich, lost a heartbreaker to Charlotte in the semi-finals, despite a near perfect season. Creighton only lost two games during the entire season, which included clutch wins against six ranked opponents. They also are losing a strong senior class, by show of their four All-Americans, and just as many MLS Superdraft picks. This squad was centered around Hermann Award finalist, Ethan Finlay (14g, 6a), but the defense was the strength of the team. Creighton recorded 19 shutouts in 24 games and only gave up five goals all season. Despite the loss of talent, coach Bolowich has a knack for picking up top players and shouldn’t have a problem adjusting.
Creighton brings in a class of seven recruits, two of which are college transfers. The highest regarded prospect, has to be McAmos Paye. Paye, has a dual Liberian and American citizenship as well as experience with the US youth national team and a reputation as one of Raleigh’s best. Paye can score a flurry of goals and may slot into Finlay’s role right off the bat. Three of these incoming freshman come from a development academy program and aren’t rated very highly, but like the saying goes “coach knows best” especially when the coach is Elmar Bolowich.
Although Creighton is losing a deep class, they have just as many talented returning players. Up at forward they lose arguably the best player in college soccer, Ethan Finlay, but are keeping Andrew Ribeiro. Ribeiro (4g,1a) has good size and won’t produce Finlay’s numbers, but has the ability to set up his teammates as well. Despite the lack of depth up top, the midfield has players capable of making big plays. Two small crafty returning players for the Blue Jays are Bruno Castro and Jose Gomez. Castro (6g, 8a), 2nd in points for the team last year (20), can score when needed, but is a “pass first” type of player. Another playmaker for this squad is Jose Gomez (4g, 8a), who should replace the MLS draftee Greg Jordan’s role as the box-to-box midfielder.
The defense was by no means an issue last year and it’s going to be tough to replace the stellar backline. At left back, Creighton must find a way to replace current New England Revolution draftee Tyler Polak. Polak covered the wing well and is irreplaceable. Without Jace Peters and Andrew Duran, the center back position will be weak, but expect freshman standout Eric Miller to transition into the position without a problem. Guarding the net, Creighton loses All-American goalkeeper, Brian Holt, who only allowed five goals all season. The goalie to assume the starting role will most likely be the coach’s son Alex Bolowich. Bolowich played nineteen minutes last year and has some big shoes to fill.
Creighton may not dominate like they did last year, but with the talented players and coaching staff, don’t count out the Blue Jays to make the final four again.
Ben Roth is a contributing writer to College Soccer News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on twitter at benrothpda16.