Conference tournaments are in full swing, and a week from now we’ll know the 48 teams who are in the NCAA Tournament, we’re they’re going, and what path each team will have to take if they want to make a run to the College Cup. Before then, however, we have to determine which teams will get the automatic bids, and which teams might be sweating a bit on selection day. With some teams playing to keep their seasons alive, here are five matches that you need to watch this week. By Brian Ludden
.UIC vs. Missouri State [in Kalamazoo] – Wednesday (MVC semifinals)
A morning matinee in the Missouri Valley Conference semifinals not only determines who will play for the conference title, but also has important bubble and at-large implications.
Missouri State wrapped up their regular season with only two losses, and a 10-2-3 overall record. A win over Maryland (ranked #17 in the preseason poll) is Missouri State’s most notable victory, while losses to Memphis and Western Michigan are the two blemishes. The RPI rankings put Missouri State around the top 20, which historically speaking will be enough for an at-large bid. A top-16 seed and automatic bye looks unlikely for the Bears, but a home game in the first round seems realistic. Missouri State has been to the last four NCAA Tournaments, and as they’re set to make it five in a row, they’ll be glad that Creighton lost in the Big East Tournament. The Bears lost to Creighton in both the 2021 and 2022 NCAA Tournaments, so it will be a relief to not see them in the postseason this year. From an MVC Tournament standpoint, Missouri State will also hope to extend their three-year conference title streak, dating back to 2020. Missouri State finished second in the MVC standings, so they earned a first-round bye. If Missouri State can get past UIC, they will face either Northern Illinois or top seed Western Michigan in the MVC championship. Despite the very slim possibility of securing a top-16 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Missouri State will have to win on Wednesday and then hope they get another chance vs. Western Michigan to strengthen their resumé.
For UIC (University of Illinois Chicago), Wednesday’s game is likely a must-win for the Flames if they hope to get a chance for an at-large bid. In the most recent collegesoccernews.com bracketology, UIC was listed as one of the “first teams out”, just on the wrong side of the bubble. UIC has gotten a few wins since then, against Northern Illinois, Villanova, and Belmont. However, they’re firmly on the bubble, and their at-large hopes almost certainly hinge on how they do in the MVC Tournament. In terms of UIC’s resumé at this point, their best wins in terms of RPI ranking are over Loyola Chicago, NJIT, and Wisconsin. UIC also has a draw vs. Missouri State, which could also help boost their at-large chances. Obviously, the Flames can lock up their bid and remove all doubt if they win the Missouri Valley Conference title. A win on Wednesday would mean that UIC extend their stay in Kalamazoo, and play on Saturday for the MVC title. However before then, the Flames will need to get past Missouri State, an opponent that they’ve never beaten. A loss for UIC would make for a nervous wait until selection day. But a victory on Wednesday morning would give UIC their best win of the season and improve their resumé, while also giving them the opportunity to “play their way in” on Saturday in the MVC championship game.
A player to watch for Missouri State will be Jesus Barea, who leads the team in both goals (five) and assists (four). Gijs Hovius also has five goals, while goalkeeper Harry Townsend is tied for the conference lead with eight clean sheets.
A player to watch for UIC is leading scorer Bart Muns, who has tallied eight goals and six assists. Joshua Torres (seven goals, six assists), and Jesus De Vicente (four goals, 11 assists) are other attacking threats that will look to provide the goals.
How to watch: ESPN+
Prediction: UIC 2, Missouri State 2 (UIC advances 4-3 on PKs)
NJIT @ New Hampshire – Wednesday (America East semifinals)
An America East semifinal is on tap for Wednesday evening, with five seed NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology) traveling up to Durham for a match against top-seeded New Hampshire.
Over the past few years, New Hampshire has established themselves as not only one of the best teams in the northeast, but also the nation as a whole. The Wildcats have been to the NCAA Tournament six years in a row, dating back to 2017, and will be back again this year, potentially with a top-16 seed. New Hampshire has lost just one match this season, vs. Cornell in early September. Wins over FIU and Vermont are notable results on New Hampshire’s resumé. In the selection committee’s in-season rankings that were released a few weeks ago, New Hampshire found themselves in the 12 spot. They’ve won three straight since then, including a win over Vermont who was ranked one spot ahead of New Hampshire. Considering the committee viewed them as a top-16 team a few weeks ago, New Hampshire should be able to consider themselves a lock to receive a top-16 seed next Monday when the official bracket is released. While a top-4 seed (and home field advantage through the quarterfinals) seems unlikely, a top-8 seed could be a possibility for New Hampshire. A top-8 seed would mean the Wildcats will be at home until the quarterfinals, which could provide a significant advantage if they host a team from a warm-weather area such as Florida or Southern California. New Hampshire won’t get a chance for another win over Vermont, but a win over NJIT and potentially Bryant could see the Wildcats get rewarded with a top-8 tournament seed.
NJIT hasn’t had a winning season since 2019, and is not typically seen as a team who will be competing for conference or national titles. Unlike New Hampshire, there won’t be an at-large bid for NJIT to fall back on if they don’t win the America East. The Highlanders sit at an even 7-7-4 record on the season, including two wins over Vermont. After defeating Vermont 1-0 at home in the regular season, NJIT went on the road and took down Vermont by a 2-1 scoreline in the America East quarterfinals on Saturday. Now in the semifinals, NJIT is just two wins away from finding themselves back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since that 2019 season, where they fell to Providence in the first round. If NJIT can pull off the upset and defeat New Hampshire on Wednesday, they will either host Binghamton or face Bryant on the road on Sunday in the America East championship. However, to even think about Sunday, they’ll have to do something they’ve never done before: beat New Hampshire. There have only been three matches between the two sides, with New Hampshire winning all three. In the meeting between the two sides earlier this season, NJIT narrowly lost 2-1. After upsetting Vermont for the second time all season, there’s reason for belief in the NJIT camp. They’ll have to play even better than they did on Saturday to pull off another upset and keep their season going.
We mentioned New Hampshire’s leading scorer Eli Goldman as a player to watch last week vs. Vermont, and he delivered, scoring New Hampshire’s second goal in the 2-0 win. He’ll look to find the back of the net for the fourth time in five games on Wednesday.
For NJIT, Alvaro Heredia and Hugo Tavares are the team’s leading scorers with five goals each. Maximus Barboto leads the team, and conference, with nine assists.
How to watch: ESPN+
Prediction: New Hampshire 3, NJIT 1
Kentucky @ Marshall – Wednesday (Sun Belt semifinals)
A Sun Belt semifinal features one team fighting for the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, and one team fighting just to get into the tournament.
For much of the season, Marshall was widely considered to be the best team in the nation. Back-to-back wins over James Madison and UCF (ranked #11 and #4 respectively at the time) in September pushed Marshall to the top of the rankings, where they remained for a month. However, their perfect season came to an end with two consecutive losses in October, first at West Virginia, then at home against Kentucky. Despite the two losses, Marshall has been able to bounce back, with three straight wins by identical 2-0 scorelines. From an NCAA Tournament seeding perspective, the Thundering Herd moved back to the top of the RPI rankings following Notre Dame’s loss on Sunday, and were given the #2 overall seed in the most recent CSN bracketology. Marshall seems to be locked into a top-4 seed, meaning that one of the roads to Cary will go through Huntington, West Virginia. With Notre Dame’s loss to Louisville on Sunday night, Marshall has a legitimate chance to regain the title of top team in the nation, and two wins will likely give them that top seed in the NCAA Tournament. While a loss probably won’t knock Marshall out of the top 4, the Thundering Herd will definitely not want to lose twice to the same team in less than a month. Marshall will have to slow down Mason Visconti, who scored both of Kentucky’s goals in their regular season meeting.
There might not be a hotter team in the nation right now than the Kentucky Wildcats. After getting the top overall seed in the 2022 NCAA Tournament, and despite their quarterfinal loss to Pittsburgh, there were high hopes for Kentucky coming into 2023. However, things quickly turned south for the Wildcats, with losses vs, Wisconsin, Louisville, South Carolina, Ohio State, and Old Dominion all within the first eight games of the season. But since a narrow 1-0 loss to UCF in late September, Kentucky hasn’t lost a game, and currently sits on an eight-game unbeaten streak. Wins over Marshall and West Virginia are the two most notable wins, while a draw vs. Indiana is another good result. Three straight Sun Belt Conference wins to close the regular season saw Kentucky earn the five seed in the conference tournament, and a 2-1 victory over James Madison in the quarterfinals puts them where they are now, with another matchup against Marshall. Another upset over Marshall would send Kentucky to the championship and allow them to play for the automatic bid. But from an at-large perspective, Kentucky might be on the bubble. Currently sitting at a 7-6-4 record, the Wildcats are guaranteed to at least have a .500 winning percentage, making them eligible for an at-large bid. Taking a closer look at their resume, the two top-ten RPI wins over Marshall and West Virginia definitely help their case, while draws vs. two other top-50 RPI teams in Indiana and James Madison also help. Kentucky’s worst losses are against teams in the 100s of the RPI rankings, South Carolina and Old Dominion. At an RPI ranking of 37, Kentucky can be considered to be on the bubble heading into the week. With that being said, a loss in the Sun Belt semifinals will leave Kentucky hoping they did enough in the last month of the season, while a win would greatly boost their at-large outlook and give them an opportunity to play for the conference’s automatic bid.
A key player to watch for Marshall is the team’s top attacking threat, Matthew Bell. Bell leads the team with eight goals, and also leads the team with 11 assists. Pablo Simon (six goals, six assists) and Marco Silva (seven goals, three assists) will also look to make their presence felt.
A player to keep an eye on for Kentucky is Mason Visconti, who scored a brace vs. Marshall in the regular season. Visconti also scored Kentucky’s first goal in the quarterfinal win over James Madison. It’s also important to note that Kentucky will be without midfielder Martin Soereide, who picked up a red card vs. James Madison.
How to watch: ESPN+
Prediction: Marshall 2, Kentucky 1
Michigan @ Indiana – Wednesday (Big Ten semifinals)
If you couldn’t tell yet, Wednesday is an absolutely massive day with a monster slate of games all day long. The nightcap is a Big Ten semifinal between one of college soccer’s most historic teams looking to build their resumé, and another team just hoping to live to see another day.
We featured Indiana last week ahead of their Big Ten quarterfinal match vs. Wisconsin, and the Hoosiers escaped with a 2-1 win, despite being outshot 9-5. It was a win that kept Indiana’s season alive, both in the Big Ten Tournament and with their at-large hopes. Despite winning a share of the Big Ten regular season title and being the top overall seed in the Big Ten Tournament, Indiana’s resumé isn’t too spectacular. Their lone top-50 RPI win over Penn State and a draw vs. Notre Dame are the two most notable results on Indiana’s schedule, and the RPI rankings put them at 32. Obviously two straight wins from this point on would give Indiana the Big Ten title and the NCAA Tournament automatic bid. That’s the easiest way in for Indiana, who won’t want to put their chances in the hands of the selection committee. From a resumé-building viewpoint, the Hoosiers likely would’ve preferred to face Northwestern, as that would have given them another chance to get a top-50 RPI win. Indiana did lose to Northwestern in the regular season, so not having to play them again could also be seen as a good thing from Indiana’s point-of-view. If Indiana wins on Wednesday, they’ll host the Big Ten championship game on Sunday against either Ohio State or Penn State. The Hoosiers would have an opportunity to get into the field of 48 via the conference tournament, and do it in front of their home fans. But a loss to Michigan would mean Indiana will have to wait until next Monday to find out their fate.
For Michigan, their outlook is much simpler than Indiana’s, or any other team on the tournament bubble. Win, and the Wolverines keep playing. Lose, and their season is over. With an RPI in the 60s and not many quality wins, there won’t be any at-large bid for Michigan to fall back on. The only stand-out results on Michigan’s schedule are back-to-back wins over Northwestern. Michigan first defeated Northwestern on the final day of the regular season, and then did it again on Friday night in the Big Ten quarterfinals. Despite the tough task of playing the top seed on the road, there’s reason for optimism within the Michigan locker room. A 0-0 draw vs. Indiana in the regular season extended Michigan’s unbeaten run vs. the Hoosiers to three games. An overtime win in 2021, and draws in 2022 and 2023 will give Michigan hope and belief that they can pull off the upset. A win on Wednesday for Michigan would mean that they would either host Ohio State, or face Penn State on the road. As we mentioned, a loss means the end of the road for the Wolverines.
We mentioned Samuel Sarver as a player to watch for Indiana last week vs. Wisconsin, and he assisted on Indiana’s second goal. He will also look to add to his tally of seven goals on the season.
For Michigan, Alex Waggoner is the team’s leading scorer with six goals and has scored in the past three games. Bryce Blevins also has four goals and three assists.
How to watch: Big Ten Network
Prediction: Indiana 3, Michigan 1 [after extra time]
California @ Stanford – Saturday
Although it’s not a conference tournament game, the Pac-12 wraps up its slate on Saturday night (both this season and potentially forever). Stanford and California will face off in what is an important game on both sides in terms of the NCAA Tournament.
Stanford enters the final matchday in a precarious spot. The Cardinal seem to be right on the line of the top-16, and it looks like it could go either way. The hope for Stanford is obviously to get that top-16 seed, first round bye, and second round home game. The latest CSN bracketology has Stanford as the #15 overall seed, while the latest RPI rankings have Stanford just outside the top 16. The committee did not have Stanford in its top-16 rankings made back in October, although the Cardinal have gone 2-1-2 since then. Wins over Creighton, Georgetown, and Oregon State are strong points on Stanford’s schedule, but a loss to San Francisco is one that they wish they could have back. A loss to UCLA on Sunday was a missed opportunity for Stanford to get a top-25 RPI victory, which would have strengthened their resumé and case for a tournament seed. Now, it seems like Stanford’s shot at a top-16 seed rests in the balance ahead of Saturday’s Pac-12 finale. A win over California might end up being just enough to get into the top 16 and secure a first round bye, as well as a home game in the round of 32. But a loss would mean that Stanford could find themselves playing in the first round and possibly having to make a long journey across the country in the second round.
California enters the last week of the regular season with a 7-5-5 record, which puts them at an RPI ranking of 38. In the recent CSN bracketology, the Golden Bears were projected as one of the last teams in the field. They have gone 1-0-2 since then, but it’s safe to say that they remain on the bubble. California’s resumé includes some good draws against Wake Forest, Oregon State, UCLA, and Stanford. However, there aren’t many standout wins, with Washington being the most notable. Like Stanford, California fell to San Francisco, a game that could end up being the difference-maker. Win that game, and California is sitting at 8-4-5 record with their “worst loss” being against Washington. But, that’s not the case, and with California currently sitting third in the Pac-12, they can’t win the conference title and automatic bid. Therefore, the only hope for the Golden Bears is an at-large bid. Considering the fact that California were on the good side of the bubble in the recent bracketology, a win on Saturday would give them a “standout win” and probably be enough to get into the field of 48. A loss on Saturday, however, may lead to some fingernail biting on Monday afternoon in Berkley.
A player to watch on the Stanford side is top scorer Zach Bohane who has seven goals. Bohane also leads the Pac-12 with 10 assists. Another player to keep an eye on is Shane de Flores, who has six goals and seven assists.
A player to watch for California is Evan Davila, who leads the team with five goals and four assists. Juan Martinez and Kevin Carmichael also have three goals each.
How to watch: Pac-12 Network Bay Area
Prediction: Stanford 2, California 0
Bonus games: Gonzaga @ San Diego (Friday), Pacific @ Santa Clara (Saturday)
The West Coast Conference is one of two conferences (along with the Pac-12) that does not have a conference tournament. Instead, the regular season champion is given the conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. In the WCC, the title comes down to the final matchday. San Diego and Santa Clara are level on 13 points atop the table, with Portland just behind them with 12.
San Diego holds a slight advantage thanks to their 2-1 win over Santa Clara a few weeks ago. As a result, the Torreos have the head-to-head tiebreaker if the teams finish level on points. With that being said, a win over Gonzaga on Thursday night will seal the WCC title for San Diego. San Diego is hovering around the top 30 in RPI, sitting at 31 to be exact. They could have an at-large bid to fall back on, but will seal their spot with a win. A draw would also be enough with: Santa Clara loss/draw and Portland loss/draw. A loss would still give San Diego the title if Santa Clara and Portland both lose as well.
Santa Clara doesn’t have the luxury of a potential at-large bid if they don’t win the WCC title. With a record of 6-7-3, Santa Clara comes in at 81 in the RPI rankings. Santa Clara will be the world’s biggest Gonzaga fans come Friday night, as the Broncos will need Gonzaga to do them a big favor. A San Diego loss or draw opens the door for Santa Clara to come in and take the conference title. A San Diego draw means that Santa Clara would need a win, while a San Diego loss and Portland loss/draw would mean Santa Clara just needs a draw. A loss, and it’s season over for Santa Clara. A San Diego win on Friday night also means it’s over for Santa Clara.
Historical fact: Santa Clara and San Diego finished tied atop the WCC Standings in 2015, but Santa Clara got the NCAA Tournament automatic bid due to the head-to-head advantage that year. Should we get another tie, it would be San Diego getting the auto bid.
Both matches will be on ESPN+.
Other games to keep an eye on:
North Carolina @ Syracuse (ACC semifinal)
Louisville @ Clemson (ACC semifinal)
Ohio State @ Penn State (Big Ten semifinal)
South Carolina @ West Virginia (Sun Belt semifinal)
Washington @ Oregon State (Oregon State loss/draw gives UCLA Pac-12 title)
Harvard vs. Yale (Ivy League semifinal)
UCLA @ San Diego State (If Oregon State wins, UCLA can clinch Pac-12 with win/draw)
ACC Championship (teams TBD)
Big Ten Championship (teams TBD)
Picture from Marshall Athletics
Brian Ludden is a contributing writer for College Soccer News.