We’re now less than two months from the first round of the NCAA Tournament, as teams start to shift their focus from the non-conference slate to the in-conference schedule. After a weekend with some upsets and shifts in the rankings, we take a look at five games this week that you need to be watching. By Brian Ludden
Notre Dame @ Akron – Tuesday
This week’s first featured match pits #23 Notre Dame against #2 Akron.
The boys from Akron moved up three spots to #2 in this week’s CSN Top 30 poll, and deservedly so. The Zips sit undefeated on the season, with five wins and two draws. Two top 15 wins over then-#7 Vermont and #11 Florida International have bolstered Akron’s resume, plus wins over Niagara, Southern Indiana, and Long Island. A 1-1 draw in Ann Arbor against Michigan and a 3-3 draw vs. Providence last Friday are the only blemishes on an otherwise perfect record for Akron.
Notre Dame began their season with a 1-1 draw vs. Indiana, before rattling off four consecutive wins, the last of which was a back-and-forth 3-2 win over Clemson. However, the Fighting Irish dropped their following match at home vs. Michigan State, before salvaging a 1-1 draw with North Carolina thanks to an 84th-minute equalizer.
A player to watch for Akron will undoubtedly be Jason Shokalook, as the junior has three goals in the past two games, including a brace vs. Florida International. Shokalook also leads the Zips in assists, so he will be looking to make his presence felt on the attacking side. For Notre Dame, Matthew Roou leads the team with five goals on the season and will hope to lead the line for Notre Dame as they look to pull off the upset.
How to watch: FloSports
Prediction: Akron 2, Notre Dame 0
Pittsburgh @ Syracuse – Friday
One of three ACC clashes on this week’s list sees #18 Pittsburgh head to upstate New York to face #5 Syracuse.
We mentioned Syracuse in last week’s edition, ahead of their showdown with Wake Forest. Syracuse gained an early advantage, scoring in just the second minute and taking a lead that they would hold for a majority of the match. However, a 75th-minute Wake Forest equalizer meant Syracuse had to settle for a draw. It’s just a small sample size, but two of Syracuse’s three draws have come as a result of Syraucse conceding an equalizer from winning positions. It shouldn’t be too big of a concern for the Orange just yet, but it’s something that they can’t let continue if they want to successfully defend their national title.
On the other side of the coin is Pittsburgh, a team who have had a very up-and-down start to the season. After taking a 1-1 draw against in-state opponents Penn State and comfortably defeating Howard, Pitt suffered two losses in five days, falling 4-1 to Georgetown and 3-1 to Marshall. But following the Marshall defeat, Pittsburgh came right back and handily beat Wake Forest by a score of 3-0. This past weekend saw the Panthers play out a goalless draw at Boston College, and then a 5-1 win over Fairleigh Dickinson on Monday.
We noted last week that Lorenzo Boseli was a player to watch for Syracuse, with four goals in six games. Furthermore, Jeorgio Kocevski will be one to keep an eye on, with the senior midfielder leading Syracuse with three assists on the season. On the Pittsburgh side, Luka Kozomara is the team’s leading scorer with three, including scoring Pitt’s only goals in the defeats to Georgetown and Marshall.
How to watch: ACC Network Extra
Prediction: Syracuse 1, Pittsburgh 1
Vermont @ Bryant – Saturday
This might not be the high-level, powerhouse matchup that you expected, but a Saturday night showdown in the northeast sees #12 Vermont face the Bryant Bulldogs.
For those of you who may not know, Bryant is a small university in Smithfield, Rhode Island. The Bulldogs haven’t had a winning season since 2014, and have never been to the NCAA Tournament at the Division 1 level. So why are they being featured today? Well first off, Bryant is one of just two teams with a perfect record, as they sit 6-0-0. The key to this success hasn’t been their goal-scoring prowess, but rather the opposite. The Bulldogs are statistically the best defensive team in the nation, not allowing a goal through their first six matches. (San Diego State is the only other team yet to concede a goal, but have played one fewer game.) Granted, the teams that Bryant have played aren’t top-tier teams that you’re likely to see come tournament time (Central Connecticut State, Fairfield, Merrimack, Holy Cross, Stonehill, and Brown), but 540 minutes without conceding a goal is impressive nonetheless. Bryant will face one of their toughest opponents so far on Tuesday when they host Rhode Island, but if they can keep the shutout streak going, it sets up a very enticing matchup on Saturday vs. Vermont.
While we went pretty in-depth on Bryant and their season so far, we also have to point out the success of the Catamounts from the University of Vermont. Following a 2022 season in which they exceeded expectations and reached the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals, Vermont currently comes in at #12 in the CSN poll. Vermont began their season with three straight matches against teams who qualified for the NCAA Tournament last season, defeating Western Michigan and Cornell, and losing to Akron. Wins over Colgate and Lehigh, and a draw vs. Harvard rounds out Vermont’s opening six games as they sit on a 4-1-1 record.
A key player for Bryant will obviously be Antreas Hadjigavriel, the senior goalkeeper who has kept all six clean sheets, along with the entire backline that has helped preserve those shutouts. For Vermont, Carter Johnson leads the team offensively with two goals and two assists, while Yaniv Bazini (two goals, one assist) will also hope to get past the Bryant defense.
Where to watch: ESPN+
Prediction: Vermont 0, Bryant 0
Duke @ North Carolina – Saturday
The biggest rivalry on the basketball court transitions to the soccer field, as #10 Duke makes the short trip to Chapel Hill to face North Carolina.
One of the remaining undefeated teams in college soccer, North Carolina currently sits a record of two wins and three draws. The Tar Heels began their season with a 1-1 draw vs. Loyola (MD), before consecutive wins over East Tennessee State (2-1) and VCU (4-1). North Carolina kicked off their conference schedule with a 1-1 draw vs. Virginia Tech. In their following game vs. Notre Dame, the Tar Heels took a 1-0 lead in the first half, only to see Notre Dame equalize in the 84th minute for another 1-1 draw.
Duke was featured here last week ahead of their game vs. Clemson, but it was a disappointing result for the Blue Devils, as they suffered a 2-0 defeat. Following their first loss of the season, Duke will now have 8 days to lick their wounds and try to turn things around. Duke sits at a record of 4-1-1, and fell six spots in the updated rankings, from #4 down to #10. There’s obviously no need for the Blue Devils to panic, but a win on Saturday vs. their biggest rivals will not only earn bragging rights, but would also ready the ship and get them back in the right direction.
A player to watch for North Carolina is Quenzi Huerman, as the grad student from France leads the team with four goals. Meanwhile for Duke, Forster Ajago leads the team with five goals in six matches, as Nick Pariano leads the team with four assists.
How to watch: ACC Network Extra
Prediction: Duke 1, North Carolina 0
UCF @ Marshall – Saturday
This week’s “Game of the Week” is a Sun Belt Conference meeting between #1 Marshall and #4 UCF.
We featured Marshall last week ahead of their matchup vs. James Madison, and when I predicted Marshall would win by a score of 3-1, they made me look like an absolute genius and did just that. The Thundering Herd ran out to a 3-0 lead, and despite a James Madison goal to cut the deficit to two, Marshall secured the win. Thanks to their win, along with Stanford’s loss, Marshall jumped up to number one in the rankings, where they sit with a perfect 7-0-0 record. Marshall however will be facing UCF without midfielder Theo Godard, who picked up a red card vs. James Madison.
UCF jumped up three spots in the updated rankings, where they are found at #4. The Knights were in action on Friday, hosting then-#8 West Virginia. The two sides showed that they are pretty even both in the rankings and on the field, as they played out a 2-2 draw in which UCF fell behind twice but came back both times. UCF is another one of the nation’s unbeaten teams, as they sit at four wins and two draws. After opening the season with a win at Clemson, UCF defeated Stetson and NC State, before a 2-2 draw vs. Florida International and 2-0 win vs. Brown. With one key win already on their resumé, UCF will surely be looking to get another big victory and gain an early edge in the conference standings.
Two key players for Marshall will be Matthew Bell (six goals, five assists) and Marco Silva (seven goals, two assists) as they look to lead the line for the nation’s best attack. On the UCF side, goalkeeper Juanvi Muñoz will have to play a key role in slowing down the Thundering Herd, while leading scorer Lucca Dourado will look to provide the goals.
How to watch: ESPN+
Prediction: Marshall 3, UCF 1
Brian Ludden is a contributing writer for College Soccer News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org