Well it’s finally here. On Monday, the bracket for the 2023 NCAA Men’s Soccer Tournament was revealed, with all 48 teams learning their fate and potential road to the College Cup in Louisville. Over the next few weeks, we’ll have 47 matches across the nation, culminating with the College Cup Final on December 11th in Louisville, Kentucky. With that being said, let’s dive into some predictions for each of the 47 matchups. By: Brian Ludden
Note: In each matchup besides the College Cup, the home team is listed first.
San Diego 3-0 Cal Baptist
Missouri State 2-0 Omaha
Charlotte 3-1 High Point
Syracuse 1-0 Boston University
(1) Marshall 2-0 San Diego
(16) Stanford 2-1 Missouri State [after extra time]
(9) Clemson 2-0 Charlotte
(8) New Hampshire 1-1 Syracuse [3-4 on PKs]
Marshall 3-2 Stanford
Clemson 2-0 Syracuse
Marshall 1-2 Clemson
From the outset, this region looks to be one of the toughest. The three most recent national champions (Marshall, Clemson, and Syracuse) are all grouped together in this quadrant. Deservedly, Marshall was given the #1 overall seed after they defeated West Virginia in the Sun Belt championship. In terms of other selections, I don’t really disagree with anything. The only thing that somewhat surprised me was Clemson’s seed. But if that’s my only concern, then the committee did a pretty good job.
Now for the predictions: I think the first round will go without any upsets, with each home team getting the victory.
For the second round, however, I have Syracuse upsetting New Hampshire. It’s been a very up and down season for the defending national champions, with wins over Pittsburgh and North Carolina, but also losses to Temple and Cornell. Syracuse pulling off an upset in the second round will honestly depend on which Syracuse team shows up: If we get the team that defeated North Carolina and Pittsburgh, we could have an upset in Durham. But if it’s the team that shipped five to Duke and lost to Temple, it could be a disappointing day and early exit for the Orange.
Elsewhere, I think the most likely quarterfinal matchup is Marshall vs. Clemson. Clemson has been playing well, and is currently on a nine-game unbeaten run. I think they’ll be able to get past either Syracuse or New Hampshire in the third round, setting up a meeting in Huntington with the top-seeded Thundering Herd.
Now here’s where history will come into play. Marshall fans look away, because only once since 2012 has a #1 overall seed made the College Cup. It’s been a lot of early exits and both Marshall and Clemson know about that all too well. Back in the 2020 tournament (spring 2021), it was Marshall who upset the top-seeded Tigers in the third round, en route to their first ever National Championship. Also adding to the historical aspect, a top overall seed hasn’t won the College Cup since 2011 (North Carolina defeating unseeded Charlotte 1-0). So a Marshall-Clemson quarterfinal meeting will not only be a revenge game for the Tigers, but also a match in which Marshall can overcome the “top seed curse” and get back to the College Cup.
And as you can see, I’ve picked Clemson to go on the road and defeat Marshall. Both teams are playing well entering the tournament, with Marshall being widely regarded as the best team in the nation all year. However, there have been slip ups for the Thundering Herd – two consecutive losses to West Virginia and Kentucky in October showed that Marshall can be vulnerable. In the defeat to West Virginia, Marshall conceded three goals within a two minute span in the first half, before conceding two more within a ten minute span in the second half. Turning this into a free-flowing, end-to-end game and striking multiple times in a short period of time could be the key for Clemson to pull off the upset and advance to the College Cup.
Give me Ousmanne Sylla to score for Clemson in the 20th and 23rd minutes, before a 81st-minute Alvaro Garcia-Pascual goal gives Marshall hope. But in the end, Clemson hold on for a 2-1 victory, sending them through to the College Cup semifinals.
Louisville 4-0 Dayton
Vermont 2-0 Rider
Loyola Marymount 2-1 UC Irvine [after extra time]
Pittsburgh 3-2 James Madison
(5) West Virginia 2-1 Louisville
(12) UCF 2-0 Vermont
(13) UCLA 0-0 Loyola Marymount [5-3 on PKs]
(4) Georgetown 1-0 Pittsburgh
West Virginia 3-2 UCF
Georgetown 2-0 UCLA
Georgetown 1-1 West Virginia [5-6 on PKs]
The bottom left quadrant of the bracket contains two bubble teams facing off, with Pittsburgh hosting James Madison in the first round. From a bubble standpoint, I think the committee got it spot on. I had Pittsburgh as one of the teams in the “last four in”, with James Madison as the literal last team in. Elsewhere, we have a potential Sun Belt showdown in round three, and potential old Big East matchups in multiple rounds.
Predictions wise, I think this bracket will go chalk for most of the way. Louisville and Vermont should have relatively easy wins in the first round, while I think Loyola Marymount does enough to get past UC Irvine in extra time. In the standout first round matchup, I think we get a thriller in Pittsburgh. Two teams with good offenses and mediocre/average defenses? I think we get a five-goal thriller, with the home side nabbing an 87th-minute winner to send the home crowd into a frenzy and Pittsburgh through to the second round.
In the second round, I’ve gone with no upsets again, although I think Loyola Marymount takes UCLA all the way to penalties. A potential matchup between Pittsburgh and Georgetown will bring back some memories of the old Big East, where the two sides met nine times between 2000 and 2012.
In the third round, I think West Virginia gets past Sun Belt foe UCF, while Georgetown defends its home field against West Coast opponents UCLA. Finally, the quarterfinals: in the lone upset of this quadrant, I have West Virginia defeating Georgetown. In what would be another rematch from the old Big East, I think we get treated to the excitement of a penalty shootout.
West Virginia and Georgetown have had similar seasons, and both sides have been among the best in the nation. Each side only dropped only one conference game by identical 1-0 scores. Both West Virginia and Georgetown recovered from those losses, and reached their respective conference tournament finals. However, they both lost by narrow margins (West Virginia by one goal to rival Marshall, Georgetown in penalty kicks to Xavier). If that’s not enough to convince you that these teams are pretty evenly matched, they’ve also scored the exact same amount of goals (41). Georgetown also holds a slight advantage in terms of goals against (17, compared to West Virginia’s 20). The two sides are basically as close to even as you can get, so for that reason, I think it’ll go the full 90, plus 20 in extra time, all the way to pens.
For how it all plays out, I’ll go with a Joe Buck first-half goal for Georgetown, canceled out by a Yutaro Tsukada 57th-minute penalty to level it at 1. Penalty kicks are often considered to be a coin flip, and while I don’t necessarily agree with that, give me West Virginia narrowly advancing to their first ever College Cup after seven rounds.
North Carolina’s quadrant
Memphis 1-0 SIUE
Bryant 2-0 Yale
Oregon State 1-2 Seattle
Denver 4-0 Long Island
(3) North Carolina 2-0 Memphis
(14) Hofstra 0-1 Bryant
(11) Portland 3-1 Seattle
(6) SMU 2-1 Denver
North Carolina 0-0 Bryant [3-5 on PKs]
SMU 2-1 Portland [after extra time]
SMU 1-0 Bryant
This is likely to be considered the “easiest” quadrant on the bracket, with North Carolina, SMU, Portland, and Hofstra making up the four seeded teams. When the bracket was released and seeds were announced, I was surprised at North Carolina’s #3 seed. Yes, the Tar Heels are a very good team. However, I did not think they were going to get a top-4 seed. But the committee thought otherwise, and rewarded North Carolina with the #3 overall seed.
The top-four seeds may not be as strong or have “big-names” like other regions, but there are some other non-seeded teams who could make some noise. Bryant, Oregon State, Seattle, and Denver are all teams who could pull off an upset and are capable of making a run.
For the first round, I think Memphis gets through a tough match with SIUE, while Bryant and Denver get relatively comfortable victories. In the lone first-round upset, I’ve gone with Seattle defeating Oregon State. Oregon State has had a shaky season, with just two wins since September. They do have some good wins over Stanford and Washington, but also a head-to-head loss to the same Seattle team that they’ll face on Thursday. In that matchup, a 2-1 Seattle victory, two second-half goals gave the Redhawks a home win. Let’s go with an identical 2-1 scoreline, this time in favor of the visitors.
In the second round, I have Bryant upsetting Hofstra by a 1-0 scoreline. Bryant has, by a good margin, the best defense in college soccer. The Bulldogs have only conceded five goals on the season, not allowing multiple goals in any games. Hofstra is a good team, but I don’t think they get past the nation’s shutout leader, Antreas Hadjigavriel. Give me Bryant to pull off the upset.
In the third round, I have the biggest upset so far: Bryant over North Carolina. A common saying in sports is “defense wins championships”, and I think that holds true here as well. We mentioned Bryant’s strong defensive abilities, however, North Carolina is strong defensively as well. The Tar Heels have conceded only 13 goals on the season and have the third best goals against average in the country. For those who like defensive battles, this one’s for you. We could very well have a 0-0 draw and go all the way to penalties, which I think happens. Bryant does have a very good attack as well (8th best scoring offense in the nation), but I still think we get penalty kicks. From there, I’ll go with the America East champions converting all five of their spot kicks and advancing to the quarterfinals.
However, I think Bryant’s run comes to an end in the quarterfinals. I believe SMU also has one of the best goalkeepers in the nation, Cole Johnson. I think we get another low-scoring matchup, with each keeper pulling off a few fine saves. In the end, I think Jelldrik Dallmann finally breaks through and scores in the 75th minute to send SMU to their first College Cup appearance since 2005.
Notre Dame’s quadrant
FIU 3-1 Mercer
Indiana 2-0 Lipscomb
Western Michigan 4-0 Green Bay
Xavier 0-2 Kentucky
(7) Virginia 2-1 FIU
(10) Wake Forest 1-2 Indiana
(15) Duke 3-0 Western Michigan
(2) Notre Dame 2-2 Kentucky [4-2 PKs]
Virginia 0-1 Indiana
Notre Dame 3-1 Duke
Notre Dame 1-2 Indiana [after extra time]
In an ACC-heavy quadrant, the seeds are all teams from college soccer’s best conference. Surprisingly, none of the four ACC teams in this section of the bracket made it to the semifinals of the ACC Tournament. Nevertheless, they make up the top seeds in a very interesting quadrant. Another notable inclusion here is Kentucky, who was one of the bubble teams that received an at-large bid. Thanks to their late-season run and wins over Marshall and West Virginia, the Wildcats were rewarded with a spot in the big dance.
Staying on the topic of Kentucky, I think the Wildcats keep their strong form going, and defeat Xavier in the first round. Xavier is in the tournament as a result of their thrilling Big East final win over Georgetown, likely stealing a bid from teams such as California, Penn State, and Northwestern. Elsewhere, I’m going with FIU, Indiana, and Western Michigan to get past a trio of conference champions.
In the second round, I think Kentucky’s run comes to an end. Notre Dame has been strong all season, and although I think we get an exciting penalty kick shootout, I’ve gone with Notre Dame getting through. Duke should have enough to ease past Western Michigan, while Virginia narrowly defeats FIU. In the lone upset in the second round, I think Indiana defeats Wake Forest in Winston-Salem. Currently on a five-match win streak, Indiana is playing like one of the best teams in the nation. The Hoosiers got three straight one-goal wins in the Big Ten Tournament, including a 4-3 thriller vs. Michigan, to win the Big Ten crown. I think they carry that momentum into the tournament and into the third round.
In an all-ACC third round showdown, I’ve gone with Notre Dame over Duke. Notre Dame has been a cut above everyone else in the ACC, and I think they continue to show it in the NCAA Tournament. A bad first half against Louisville saw Notre Dame fall into a 3-0 hole, but three goals within the final 25 minutes saw the Fighting Irish live true to their nickname and level the game. An 89th-minute set piece goal was their undoing as they lost 4-3, but I still believe Notre Dame does more than enough to get past Duke. The two sides met during the regular season, which resulted in a 1-0 Notre Dame win.
In addition, I think Indiana defeats another ACC team, this time Virginia. Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley has his boys playing some exceptional soccer when it counts the most, and I’m all aboard the Hoosier hype train. I think a Samuel Sarver first-half goal and JT Harms clean sheet will send Indiana to the quarterfinals.
And finally, with a spot in Louisville on the line, I’m riding with Indiana. The Hoosiers have been to the College Cup twice in the past three years, reaching the College Cup Final both times. Notre Dame and Indiana already met once this season, way back in August. That matchup ended in a 1-1 draw. I think we get another 1-1 draw after 90 minutes, before Samuel Sarver continues his strong NCAA Tournament with a 102nd-minute game winning goal.
Clemson vs. West Virginia
In the first semifinal, I have Clemson and West Virginia facing off for the first time in almost half a century. The two sides met twice back in the early 70s, with Clemson winning both matches by one goal (3-2 in 1972, 2-1 in 1974). The 1972 meeting was in the first round of that year’s NCAA Tournament, but this time they meet with a bit more on the line. West Virginia has never been to the College Cup, much less the National Championship. Clemson, on the other hand, has been to nine College Cups, winning three of them.
I think the key player to watch in this one will be Clemson’s Ousmanne Sylla, who leads the team with 10 goals and 9 assists. Sylla also recorded three goals and two assists in the ACC Tournament, playing a part in over half of Clemson’s goals en route to the ACC title.
West Virginia has some playmakers in their own right, with Marcus Caldeira (12 goals, 2 assists) and Yutaro Tsukada (9 goals, 9 assists) leading the team in goal contributions. Caldeira hasn’t scored in six matches however, and will have to get back in form if he wants to help the Mountaineers make a run. In the end, I think we get a fast, end-to-end match between two high-powered attacks, ending with a Clemson victory.
Prediction: Clemson 3, West Virginia 2
SMU vs. Indiana
In the second semifinal, I’ve predicted SMU vs. Indiana. As mentioned earlier, SMU hasn’t reached the College Cup since 2005, and they’ve never been to the College Cup final. Meanwhile, Indiana has a bit more College Cup experience to their name. To be exact, the Hoosiers have reached the College Cup 22 times in their history, five times under head coach Todd Yeagley. I pointed out Cole Johnson as a potential difference maker for SMU, while Indiana’s keeper JT Harms is just as good.
As for the game itself, I think we get a slow first half, with each team trying to feel the other team out and get a sense of the game. But as you know by now, I’m a believer in Indiana. Coming into the tournament on a five-match win streak and the attack clicking at the right times, I think the Hoosiers get it done. After a goalless first half, I think Maouloune Goumballe finds the back of the net for Indiana, before Samuel Sarver seals it in the 88th minute. In the end, I just think Indiana is able to contain Jelldrik Dallmann, and the combination of Goumballe and Sarver proves to be too much for an SMU team in the spotlight of the College Cup.
Prediction: Indiana 2, SMU 0
Clemson vs. Indiana
After five rounds, 46 matches, some upsets, and plenty of goals, we’ve reached the College Cup final. A champion is set to be crowned on December 11th at Lynn Family Stadium, and the two teams playing for the trophy will be Clemson and Indiana. In a year where non-traditional powerhouse teams have proved themselves to be some of the best in the nation, I believe that we will get two of college soccer’s most reputable schools in the final.
Following a disappointing 2022 tournament, I’ve got Clemson getting back to the College Cup final for the second time in three years. In their most recent trip to the College Cup final, Clemson won the 2021 National Championship with two early goals from Isaiah Reid giving the Tigers a 2-0 win over Washington. But Reid has since left Clemson and embarked on his professional career, so it’s time for someone else to step up.
Ousmanne Sylla leads the team in both goals and assists, with Alex Meinhard, Nathan Richmond, and Mohammed Seye recording a combined 17 goals and seven assists. In their 2021 title run, Clemson defeated top-seeded Oregon State on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals. And now, I have Clemson defeating the top overall seed once again in the quarterfinals, this time over Marshall. The Tigers will hope to make a similar run from the top-right corner of the bracket all the way to the final, and have it culminate with a title celebration once again.
Todd Yeagley led Indiana to their 8th National Championship in 2012, but that ninth title has eluded the Hoosiers. In 2017, Indiana hearts were broken as a Sam Werner golden goal gave Stanford the title in extra time. After the Covid-19 pandemic forced the 2020 NCAA Tournament to be played in the spring of 2021, it was extra time heartbreak again, this time at the hands of Jamil Roberts and Marshall. 2022, and Indiana was back to the National Championship. Third time’s the charm, right? Wrong. Despite coming back from 1-0 and 2-1 deficits, Indiana experienced the agony of defeat once again, falling 7-6 on penalties to Syracuse.
Now, I have Indiana in the final once again, running through the ACC gauntlet of Wake Forest, Virginia, and Notre Dame before knocking off SMU. Will the Hoosiers be able to finally break through and get head coach Todd Yeagley’s second national title and the program’s ninth overall? If Samuel Sarver, Maouloune Goumballe, and JT Harms have anything to say about it, the trophy is headed back to Bloomington.
In the end, I think it’s heartbreak again for Indiana. Indiana is one of college soccer’s hottest teams coming into the tournament, but Clemson is hotter. Wins of 4-0, 4-1, 5-1, and 6-0 have given the Tigers loads of confidence, and I honestly don’t think anyone is stopping them. I’ve rode with Indiana throughout the tournament, but despite their strong defensive record, I don’t think they stop Clemson’s even stronger offensive prowess. I’ll go with a Ousmanne Sylla brace to secure the offensive MVP award, and while a 77th-minute goal from Maouloune Goumballe gives Indiana hope, a late Mohamed Seye goal seals Clemson’s fourth National Championship in program history with a 3-1 victory.
Picture from Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville
Brian Ludden is a contributing writer for College Soccer News.