We’ve said that it’s getting close to crunch time, but for some teams, it’s now or never. Teams across the nation are fighting for conference tournament qualification or seeding, regular season titles, and resumé-building wins. As some teams get set to close out their regular seasons, here are five games you need to watch this week. By Brian Ludden
Indiana @ Northwestern – Tuesday
A Tuesday night showdown in Evanston has big seeding implications ahead of the Big Ten Tournament. With both sides pushing for both home field advantage and the regular season title, Tuesday’s matchup is sure to be one to watch.
This is the third consecutive week that we’ve featured Northwestern, but it hasn’t been all sunshine and roses for the Wildcats in big games. Back to back losses against Penn State and Michigan State have seen Northwestern slip down to fourth in the Big Ten standings, with 10 points from seven matches. Two chances for resumé-boosting wins have slipped by the wayside for Northwestern, as a seemingly impressive 9-2-3 record doesn’t boast wins of the highest caliber. The latest collegesoccernews.com bracketology had Northwestern as one of the four teams on the outside looking in, so the Wildcats could very well be considered on the wrong side of the bubble. A Big Ten title might be the only way in for Northwestern, so they’ll undoubtedly be looking to set themselves up in the best possible situation to do so. The Wildcats find themselves three points behind leaders Michigan State and Penn State, although they do have a game in hand over the leaders. There is still plenty to play for, as a win over Indiana would see Northwestern secure a first round home game. Two wins from their final two matches would see Northwestern finish with a top-two seed, and dependent on other results, potentially a regular season title and top overall seed. So there’s plenty of scenarios and possible seeds for Northwestern, but Tuesday’s match plays a large part in anything that happens. A win would see Northwestern bounce back from consecutive losses, but a third-straight loss could see the Wildcats slip further down the table and continue on their downward trajectory.
It was a relatively slow start to the season from Indiana’s standards, with just three wins from their first ten matches. However the Hoosiers have bounced back, rattling off a four-game win streak with wins over Penn State, Evansville, Ohio State, and Maryland. Three consecutive conference wins have pushed Indiana up to third in the Big Ten standings, with 11 points from seven games. Along with Northwestern, Indiana also has a game in hand over Michigan State and Penn State. Sitting just two points behind the two leaders, Indiana can win the Big Ten regular season title and top overall seed with two wins from their final two conference games. Indiana was also out of the recent bracketology projected field, with an RPI of 44. Indiana’s best shot of getting in the tournament could also come from winning the Big Ten Tournament, so like Northwestern, the Hoosiers will hope to set themselves up in the best position possible. I won’t dive completely into the possible scenarios, but a win on Tuesday would give Indiana a top four seed and round one home match. A top-two seed is also possible with a win, as a loss from either Michigan State or Penn State will see Indiana secure home field advantage through at least the semifinals. With both in-conference and potential NCAA Tournament bubble ramifications, a win over Northwestern would give Indiana a 5th straight win, but a loss could see them fall behind in the conference standings and RPI rankings.
We’ve highlighted Northwestern’s leading scorer Justin Weiss as a player to watch for Northwestern, as he provides the main attacking threat with both goals and assists (seven on the season). Ugo Achara Jr. and Rom Brown also have four goals each.
For Indiana, Samuel Sarver leads the team with six goals and four assists on the season. On the goalkeeping side of things, Indiana keeper JT Harms is second in the Big Ten with six clean sheets on the season.
How to watch: Big Ten Network
Prediction: Indiana 1, Northwestern 0
Charlotte @ Florida International – Friday
A Friday night matchup in Florida sees two teams fighting for seeding in the American Athletic Conference Tournament battle under the lights in the penultimate matchday.
Florida International comes in with a record of 8-3-3, which includes a win over Oregon State and draws vs. UCF and SMU, creating a resumé that warranted a 8th-place ranking in the selection committee’s in-season top 16 poll. The Panthers recently saw a seven-match unbeaten run come to an end on Friday, as they fell at the hands of Florida Atlantic. The good run of form has given FIU a conference record of 4-1-1, putting them at 3rd in the AAC standings. FIU has mathematically secured a spot in the AAC Tournament, but are still in contention for a top-two seed and first round bye, as well as the top overall seed. The regular season title and top seed may be a bit out of reach, considering league leaders SMU have a three point lead over FIU and play the conference’s two weakest teams in their final two matches. But a first round bye is still well within reach for the Panthers, as two wins from their last two matches would see them pass Charlotte and move into the top two. A draw would keep them alive for 2nd going into the final matchday, but Florida International will surely be looking to take control themselves and jump ahead of Charlotte.
Charlotte entered the week with a record of 8-2-1, and 5-1 in conference play. The 49ers don’t have any eye-popping wins or draws, but have beaten the teams that they’ve been expected to beat, with their only losses coming to SMU and UNC Greensboro. In the latest CSN bracketology, Charlotte is one of the first teams out, and currently sit on the wrong side of the bubble. Charlotte may have to do things the hard way and take the American Conference’s automatic bid, and to do so they will obviously want to set themselves up in the best possible situation to do so. In addition to Friday’s matchup vs. FIU, Charlotte will host Memphis on the final day. A draw and a win from these final two games would give Charlotte a first-round bye, meaning that they would need two straight wins in the conference tournament to remove all doubt and lock up an NCAA Tournament bid. Charlotte sits one point behind SMU, so the top seed and home field advantage is still an outside possibility. As mentioned before, SMU dropping points seems unlikely, but we can’t count anything out. A win on Friday over FIU would also see Charlotte secure a first-round bye.
A player to watch for FIU is leading scorer Eduardo Mustre, who has nine goals on the season. Bernardo Dos Santos Monteiro also has five goals.
Charlotte’s joint leading scorers are Brigham Larsen and Brandon Morales, with both players tallying three goals and three assists each.
How to watch: ESPN+
Prediction: Florida International 1, Charlotte 1
North Carolina @ Virginia – Friday
This week’s Friday night ACC action has an impact on not only ACC Tournament seedings, but also pits two teams looking to improve their resumés in hopes of securing a top-16 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Virginia heads into their final ACC match on the back of a 3-0 win over in-state rivals Virginia Tech, improving their record to 8-3-3 on the season. The Cavaliers came in at 15th in the selection committee’s in-season top 16 rankings on Friday, very similar to the CSN bracketology prediction of 14th. Virginia looks to be in the driver’s seat for a first-round bye in the NCAA Tournament, but are also looking to secure a first-round bye in the ACC Tournament. The Cavaliers sit at fourth in the overall ACC standings, and the top four in the conference earn a first-round bye. Virginia has a seemingly simple path to securing that first round bye, as a draw or a win vs. North Carolina will do the job. But a loss and a Duke win would mean that Virginia has to play in the first round of the ACC Tournament. Granted, a first round matchup would be against one the two weakest teams in the conference, but anything can happen in college soccer. A loss to North Carolina and a loss to Boston College or NC State in the first round of the ACC Tournament wouldn’t remove Virginia from at-large bid consideration, but would likely see them fall short of a NCAA Tournament seed. Before Friday’s finale, Virginia hosts NCAA Tournament hopefuls High Point.
North Carolina comes in with a 7-2-5 record, and nine points in the ACC, putting them at 9th in the conference standings. The Tar Heels boast a similar RPI as Virginia, but were not rewarded with a top-16 seed in the committee’s rankings. The most notable win for North Carolina is a 2-1 win over Duke back in September, but draws vs. Loyola Maryland and William & Mary could be viewed as potential shortcomings on North Carolina’s resumé. From an ACC standpoint, North Carolina cannot get a first round bye, but are in good position to at least get a home game in round one. A win will mathematically secure a top-8 seed and home game, while a draw will also be enough unless Virginia Tech defeats Duke by six or more. The ACC Tournament could provide North Carolina with multiple opportunities for another quality win, as a potential scenario could see the Tar Heels face Notre Dame, Clemson, and Wake Forest in the conference tournament. That path is purely hypothetical at the moment, but a few wins over top seeds could mean North Carolina finds themselves with a top-16 seed and first-round bye come selection day.
A player to watch for Virginia is Stephen Annor Gyamfi, who leads the team with ten goals on the season. Mouhameth Thiam leads the team with four assists.
For North Carolina, Quenzi Huerman is the team’s top scorer, with eight goals and three assists. Martin Vician also has five goals of his own.
Where to watch: ACC Network
Prediction: Virginia 1, North Carolina 1
UC Santa Barbara @ Cal State Fullerton – Saturday
For the first time in the Five Games You Need to Watch This Week series, we dive into some Big West Conference action, with a top of the table clash on the final day being of utmost importance.
Cal State Fullerton currently boasts a record of 11-4-3 on the season, which includes a 4-1 win over UCLA and a draw vs. Washington. With an RPI ranking of 52, Cal State Fullerton likely won’t be in contention for an at-large bid if they fail to win the Big West Tournament. As we’ve mentioned, winning your conference is the only way to guarantee your spot in the field of 48, and Cal State Fullerton will look to do just that. Before then, however, is a de facto “regular-season title game” vs. UC Santa Barbara. Cal State Fullerton sits on 16 points, two points ahead of Santa Barbara and three points ahead of both UC Irvine and UC Davis. With four teams still in contention for a top-two seed and first round bye, Cal State Fullerton can still fall down to third and have to play a first round game in the Big West Tournament. However the situation is simple for the Titans, as a win or draw for Cal State Fullerton will mean they win the regular season title, top overall seed, and home field advantage through the conference tournament. A loss, however, and they could fall down to third if UC Irvine also wins their game on Saturday. And coming off a surprising 5-0 loss to Cal Poly on Sunday, Cal State Fullerton will have to put in a much better performance in Saturday’s late-night matchup.
UC Santa Barbara’s record sits at 9-6-2, and with an RPI in the 70s, there’s no potential at-large bid for the Gauchos to fall back on if they don’t win the Big West title. From a Big West Tournament seeding perspective, Santa Barbara will finish with at least a top-four seed, so at least one home game is assured. However the top overall seed and home field advantage is still a real possibility, and a win on Saturday would give Santa Barbara that top seed. But anything less could see both UC Irvine and UC Davis, two teams with very winnable matches, pass the Gauchos and push Santa Barbara down to fourth. This is actually the second straight year that Santa Barbara finds themselves in this type of situation. Last season, the Gauchos went on the road and fell to UC Riverside on the final matchday, squandering the Big West regular season title and top overall seed in the process. The loss meant that Santa Barbara had to go on the road for the Big West title game, where they lost to UC Riverside for the second time in 14 days, ending their season. Santa Barbara could be finding themselves in a bit of deja vú, but will hope that this time they can reverse the roles and not only win the regular season title and potentially have a home championship game, but also get back to the Big Dance.
A player to watch for Cal State Fullerton is top soccer and top assist provider Roberto Ordonez. Ordonez has tallied nine goals on the season, along with his conference-leading ten assists. Sulaiman Bah (seven goals) and Erick Serrano (four goals, seven assists) are two other players to keep an eye on.
On the Santa Barbara side, Lucas Gonzalez leads the team in both goals and assists, with five in each category. Nemo Phillipp and Mikkel Goeling both have four goals as well.
How to watch: ESPN+
Prediction: Cal State Fullerton 2, UC Santa Barbara 0
Oregon State @ UCLA – Sunday
A Sunday night Pac-12 matchup could play a key part in deciding the conference’s champion, as two teams with Pac-12 title aspirations face off in the City of Angels.
UCLA enters the week with a 6-3-3 record, including a 3-0-2 conference record (11 points). A Friday night win over San Diego State saw UCLA move to the top of the Pac-12 standings, before Oregon State retook the top spot following their win over California on Sunday. Notable results on UCLA’s resumé include wins at Virginia Tech and Washington, and a draw vs. Stanford. The Bruins currently sit at 23 in the RPI rankings, a key factor in determining at large selections. The latest CSN bracketology has UCLA as one of the last teams in the field, so a few bad results could see them slip out of the projected field. A few more good wins could be enough for UCLA to get an at-large bid, but the Bruins also control their own fate in the Pac-12 title race. The Pac-12 is one of the few conferences that does not have a conference tournament, and instead the regular season champion is awarded the conference’s automatic bid. Entering the week, UCLA sits one point behind Oregon State, but with a game in hand. UCLA will face Washington on Thursday prior to Sunday’s matchup, the first of their five remaining conference matches. If they can take all 15 points possible, then they’ll be crowned Pac-12 champions. But a few poor results and failure to win the conference title could make for a nerve-racking selection day in Los Angeles.
We featured Oregon State last week ahead of their matchup with Stanford, but the Beavers put up a dud on Thursday night, falling 4-0 at home. The loss was Oregon State’s first conference loss of the season, and saw the Beavers slip to 2nd in the conference standings, but a 1-0 win over California on Sunday afternoon saw Oregon State move back up to the top of the Pac-12 table. Wins over Washington and Stanford are highlights of the Beavers’ schedule, and Oregon State’s RPI is one behind UCLA at 24. The Beaver’s might have a good enough resumé to get in with an at-large bid, but will also hope to remove any selection day stress and lock up the Pac-12 title. However, unlike UCLA’s five remaining games, Oregon State only has three. If the Beavers want to win the Pac-12, they’ll not only need to do their part and win their games, but also hope for some help from elsewhere. Oregon State closes out their regular season with a road game at San Diego State on Thursday, before Sunday’s clash at UCLA. Following Sunday’s match, UCLA will have 10 days off before a meeting with Washington on November 9th to close out their season. Three wins from three will likely be enough for Oregon State to secure an at-large bid if they don’t win the conference, so a win Sunday could go a long way in both their tournament and potential conference title hopes.
A player to watch for UCLA is leading scorer Jack Sarkos, who has tallied 8 goals on the season, while Ryan Becher has also found the back of the net on four occasions. Sarkos and Becher were UCLA’s two goal scorers against Oregon State in their first meeting this season.
We mentioned Logan Farrington as a player to watch for Oregon State last week ahead of their Stanford match, but Farrington, along with the rest of the Oregon State squad, weren’t able to do anything offensively. But one bad game doesn’t typically define a player, and we’ll be expecting Farrington (10 goals, 4 assists) to be Oregon State’s main attacking threat.
How to watch: Pac-12 Los Angeles
Prediction: UCLA 2, Oregon State 1
Picture from Indiana University Athletics
Brian Ludden Ludden is a contributing writer for College Soccer News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org