The circumstances surrounding the eight teams featured may be somewhat different but all share the common goal of being highly motivated to be a part of the forty-eight team NCAA Tournament field in 2017 after being absent in 2016.
Wisconsin – A solid core returns from a relatively young Badger team that was 11-4-4 overall last year, 9-0-1 when playing at home, second in Big Ten regular season play with a 4-2-2 record, and advanced to the championship contest of the Big Ten Tournament. Wisconsin was arguably among the best teams in the country that didn't receive an invite to the NCAA Tournament in 2016.
The potential exists for that outcome to change in 2017 with nine starters returning from what will no doubt be a motivated and focused Badger team. Wisconsin's lineup will feature senior forwards Christopher Mueller (8g, 11a) and Tom Barlow (5g, 4a), senior midfielders Mark Segbers (3g, 2a) and midfielder Mike Catalano (4g, 2a) and a defensive anchored by three returning starting defenders and redshirt senior goalkeeper Phillip Schilling who had a 0.72 goals against average last year.
UC Santa Barbara – The Gauchos were conspicuously absent from the NCAA Tourney field last year. Tim Vom Steeg's squad completed the 2016 season with a good but not vintage by UCSB standards ten win season that included a 6-1-3 mark in Big West Conference play. An early exit from the Big West Tournament and an RPI in the 80's no doubt contributed to the fact that the Gauchos were among the teams that were left standing at the altar last year when it came time to award at-large berths in the NCAA Tourney.
Vom Steeg will head into the 2017 campaign with some big shoes to plug on the offensive side of the ball but with a solid core returning on the defensive side of the ball including senior center backs Jeff Quezada and Josue Salgado and sophomore netminder Titouan La Roux who gained valuable experience last year. Senior midfielder Kevin Feucht who had a team leading eleven goals in 2016 looks to be the key to UCSB's offensive productivity in 2017. Sophomore forward Ignacio Tellechea who was an NAIA All-American at West Virginia Tech last year is among the newcomers who could be a difference maker.
North Carolina State – The Wolfpack have appeared in the NCAA Tournament a total of thirteen times but have been absent from the field since the 2009 season including the 2016 season during which they were 5-12-0 overall with a 1-7-0 mark in Atlantic Coast Conference play.
Kelly Findley who served as the N.C. State head coach from 2011 through 2016 has been replaced by George Kiefer who comes to Raleigh after a very successful fifteen year tenure as the head coach at the University of South Florida. During those fifteen season, South Florida earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament ten times. Findley is a very good coach who assumed the Wolfpack head coach role after a successful four year tenure as the head coach at Butler. Unfortunately, Findley was never able to turn the corner at N.C. State during his six year tenure in Raleigh where he was 45-51-13 overall with a total of only nine wins in the highly competitive Atlantic Coast Conference.
It is an understatement to say that Kiefer has his work cut out for him but he is a competitor and great recruiter who looks to be up to the task in front of him and a good fit to lead the program. Evidence of that is reflected in the fact that Kiefer has already added a very highly regarded recruiting class that includes several players who could have an immediate impact. In addition, the hiring of Jeff Negalha, who is very familiar with the ACC, as the associate head coach looks to be a big plus. Negalha has served as an assistant coach at both North Carolina and Boston College and worked for a while under Kiefer at South Florida.
N.C. State may not return to the NCAA Tourney field in 2017 but you can count on it being among team goals. Chances are pretty good that Kiefer will get the Pack back in the NCAA Tourney field sooner rather than later.
SMU – Will the real SMU men's soccer program please stand up. Perhaps no team in the country had more of an unexpected swing in their win total in 2016 as compared to 2015 than the Mustangs. The problem is that it was a disappointing, puzzling, and unexpected swing downward rather than upward.
In 2015 the Mustangs generated a lot of momentum and excitement under the direction of then first year head coach Kevin Hudson when they roared to a 15-3-4 overall record with a 7-0-1 mark in American Athletic Conference play that included a berth in the 2015 NCAA Tournament and a run to the Sweet Sixteen.
Hudson replaced Tim McClements who had served as the Mustang mentor for eight seasons. During his tenure McClements recorded a 68-46-16 record that included a ten win season in 2014 and a three win season in 2013 during which SMU, which is normally a staple in the NCAA Tournament, did not earn a berth.
With a solid core of returning players in 2016 expectations were high at SMU as reflected in the fact that the Mustangs were ranked as the number eleven team in the nation in the NSCAA Preseason Poll and the number ten team in the College Soccer News preseason poll. However things didn't go as expected as SMU struggled from the get-go and ended the 2016 campaign with a 6-9-1 overall record and a 2-4-1 overall record in AAC play.
The Mustangs will enter the 2017 season looking solid on paper once again with the likes of senior forward Mauro Cichero, junior midfielder Emil Cuello, senior defender Jordan Cano, senior goalkeeper Michael Nelson and sophomore forward Garrett McLaughlin among a talented group that is slated to return.
The potential clearly exists for SMU to rebound and return to the NCAA Tournament field in 2017 but it remains to be seen whether they will be able to put all the pieces back together and return to the level of play they displayed in 2015.
UMass Lowell – No one really anticipated the type of season that UMass Lowell would have in 2016. The Riverhawks were in their fourth and final transition season of play at the Division I level in 2016 and therefore not eligible for post season play.
UMass Lowell was predicted to finish at the bottom of the standings in the preseason America East preseason poll. The Riverhawks exceeded expectations with a breakthrough season during which they were 13-1-2 overall and secured the America East regular season title with a 5-1-1 mark in conference play.
UMass Lowell would have been the frontrunner to win the America East Conference Tournament and claim the league's automatic berth into the 2016 NCAA Tournament had they been eligible to participate in the America East Tournament. Chances are pretty good that they would have punched their ticket to the NCAA Tourney with an at-large berth even if they didn't win the tournament.
Coach Christian Figueroa will enter the 2017 season with several very big shoes to fill due to the graduation of All-American midfielder Wuilito Fernandes (11g, 5a) who was the 2016 American East Striker of the Year, midfielder Carlos Ruiz (3g, 3a) who was a three-year starter, and back Eric Martin who was honored as the 2016 America East Defender of the Year. Despite the losses there are plenty of reasons to feel good about the Riverhawks' chances of taking the program a step further in 2017 and claiming their first berth in the NCAA Tournament as a Division I team.
Eight starters are slated to return including redshirt sophomore forward Ivan Abramovic (9g, 8a) who was named the 2016 America East Rookie of the Year, junior midfielder Jakov Basic (0g, 1a) who was a 2016 America East First Team selection, sophomore midfielders Dario Jovanovski (0g, 8a) and Joe Kellett who now have a year of starting experience under their belts, senior midfielder Federico Ferre (0g, 2a), sophomore defender Ivan Blaskic, junior defender Franky Martinez, and senior Justin Kroll who was the 2016 America East Goalkeeper of the Year.
Ohio State – The Buckeyes looked to be a team on a roll after earning a berth in the NCAA Tournament in 2014 followed by a very impressive 2015 season in which they secured thirteen wins including five in conference play, won the Big Ten Regular Season title, and advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in the NCAA Tournament.
Ohio State entered the 2016 season with a solid core of returning players supplemented by a very good recruiting class. As a result the Buckeyes were ranked in both the NSCAA and College Soccer News preseason polls as the number eighteen team in the country.
Unfortunately the Buckeyes fell way short of preseason expectations recording a 5-13-1 overall record and a 3-4-1 mark in conference play. The Buckeyes opened the season with losses in five of their first six contests and never seemed to be able to get back on track. It warrants pointing out that Ohio State faced adversity and key injuries that likely had an impact on their productivity.
Ohio State will enter the 2017 season with several voids to fill due to the graduation of forward Danny Jensen (4g, 3a) and backs Austin Bergstrom and Tyler Kidwell among others. On the other hand, a very solid core of players return for a program that has shown a lot of resilience and determination in the past.
Senior forward Nate Kohl (6g, 2a) and junior midfielder Abdi Mohamed (4g, 3a) are back to lead the attack. Senior back Hunter Robertson who has been a starter since arriving in Columbus, senior back Niall Logue who was a starter last year and redshirt sophomore Parker Siegfried who now has the benefit of a year of starting experience in goal give Ohio State head coach John Bluem a solid foundation upon which to retool the defense. It is also a big plus that the Buckeyes have added another very highly regarded recruiting class that includes transfers Michael Prosuk, Kevin Blackwood, and Jake Scheper along with several freshmen who appear capable of hitting the ground running.
Ohio State opens the 2017 season with contests at home against Pittsburgh, Florida International, Lehigh and Wright State before traveling to open Big Ten play against a Northwestern team that will also be hungry to rebound in 2017. A successful outcome in those contests look to be an important ingredient for a team that needs to gel early, build momentum and confidence, and resume playing at the level that they did in 2015.
Georgetown – The Hoyas were one of the more noteworthy absences from the 2016 NCAA Tournament field. Georgetown emerged as a force on the national scene in 2012 when they advanced to the national championship contest. They followed that up with appearances in the NCAA Tourney in 2013, 2014 and 2015. The Hoyas looked to have reached the point where they reloaded rather than rebuilt but that was not the case entering into the 2016 campaign when they had more holes to plug due to graduation and early departures to enter the professional ranks than a piece of Swiss cheese.
Regardless, based on the level of success the program has enjoyed over the past few seasons it seemed unlikely that Georgetown would experience a major drop off in the level of their play. As a result, it was a bit of a surprise when the Hoyas were 6-9-2 overall with a 3-4-2 mark in Big East Conference play in 2016. Without a big playmaker on the offensive side of the ball the Blue and Grey managed a total of only seventeen goals in 2016 which was a noticeable decline in productivity for a team that averaged over thirty-seven goals per season for the previous four years.
It is not clear where the scoring will come from in 2017. The key returning forwards, senior Zach Knudson and sophomore Achara, only netted a single goal each last year. Perhaps one of the newcomers will step up and help fill the void.
The backline and play in goal look to be team strengths with defenders Brendan McDonald, Peter Schropp, Kyle Zajec and Dylan Nealis who were starters last year slated to return along with highly regarded junior goalkeeper JT Marcinkowski who has been the starter for the past two seasons.
Georgetown will be eager to get back on track in 2017. Chances are pretty good that head coach Brian Wiese will reload and get back into the Big East title hunt and the NCAA Tourney but it may take a year or two for that to occur. Georgetown's Big East schedule in 2017 is favorable in that they host frontrunners Butler, Providence and Creighton which is always a slight advantage.
Connecticut – The Huskies have earned a berth in the NCAA Tournament seventeen times in the last nineteen seasons. The outlook for a relatively young Connecticut team looked bright heading into the 2016 season with most everyone from the 2015 squad that had secured ten wins and earned an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament returning.
During the twenty seasons to date that Ray Reid has been at the helm of the UConn program, the Huskies have become one of the teams you expect to be in the NCAA Tournament field every season. Unfortunately for the Connecticut faithful the 2016 campaign was an exception.
Connecticut jumped out to a 10-3-0 overall record last year with a 3-0-0 mark in America East Conference play that included a seven game win streak during which time they outscored opponents sixteen to two they looked to be headed for another berth in 2016.
However, the Huskies uncharacteristically stumbled down the home stretch going 1-4-1 in their last six contests during which time they managed a total of only two goals while allowing eight.
The Huskies hoped to recover by winning the AAE Conference Tournament where they faced a Tulsa team in the semifinals that they had topped 1-0 on the road during regular season play. A disappointing 2-0 loss in that contest brought to close UConn's 2016 season with a respectable 11-7-1 overall record, a 3-3-1 mark in conference play which was good for a third place finish, and a season ending RPI of forty-four which was no doubt impacted by their play down the home stretch.
While a case can be made that the Huskies who had signature non-conference wins over Providence and Boston College,deserved an at-large berth, none was forthcoming. As a result, Connecticut belongs on the short list of teams that will be highly motivated and eager to return to the NCAA Tourney field in 2017.
Junior forward Abdou Thiam (10g, 4a) who has powered UConn's offense the past two seasons, senior holding midfielder Cheikh Coly who has been a starter for the past three seasons, sophomore midfielders Munir Saleh and Niko Petridis, sophomore center back Jacob Hauser-Ramsey, and redshirt senior Scott Levene who has been the starter in goal for the past three seasons are among key returning players.