Three of the nation’s top five teams and four of the top eight hail from the Pacific Coast, surpassing the East Coast for its hold as home of college soccer’s top tier.
Leading the way is the Pac-12, home of No. 1 California, No. 3 Washington and No. 8 UCLA. That’s half of the six-team conference ranked in the top 10. (And that’s not to overlook the outstanding play of No. 5 Cal State Northridge out of the Big West.)
Lowest on the aforementioned list — and even that position is an enviable spot to most of the teams in Division I soccer — the Bruins have to be considered as much a contender as anyone. The preseason Pac-12 favorite and reigning conference champion has long established itself as a member of NCAA soccer’s upper echelon. The fact that UCLA (7-3-1) is ranked in the top 10 even with a trio of losses – a 3-1 defeat against Cal Poly, a 3-0 loss at UC Irvine and a 3-2 defeat against Cal – is a testament to just how strong the Bruins are this season. Not to mention a nod to how incredibly unpredictable this season’s been around the country – truly no team looks unbeatable.
Cal’s golden goal win over its southern counterpart on Sunday showed that the Bears are just a little bit stronger, giving Cal (9-0-2) an ever-so-slight edge in the Pac-12 debate. The top team in the nation, Cal has to play with the added pressure of a target on its back – a challenge the program has clearly risen to meet.
The last week proved especially defining for the Golden Bears as they took on Washington, San Diego State and UCLA. Cal first battled the Huskies to a 1-1 draw. In the last two games of that challenging stretch, coach Kevin Grimes’ program demonstrated the invaluable ability to battle back. The team fell behind for the first time all season against SDSU, only to rebound late in the game with a pair of goals. Cal found itself down twice against the Bruins before pulling out the win in the Bears’ fifth overtime game this season.
It’s not an insignificant fact that the last 11 Pac-12 (nee Pac-10) championships have gone to only either UCLA or Cal. Washington is looking to add its name to the not-so-lengthy list. The Huskies proved themselves formidable challengers at Cal.
Third-ranked Washington (8-0-3) has established itself as one of the top defensive teams in the country, seventh overall with a team GAA of .51. Defender Taylor Peay has been a key contributor to the Huskies’ success, earning him accolades from College Soccer News as well as being named Pac-12 player of the week twice so far in 2013. In addition to his contributions on that end of the ball, Peay has added six goals on eight shots.
Then factor into the Pac-12 mix a Stanford team that has consistently received votes this season and are just outside the rankings. While the Pac-12 might not rival the mega-conferences of the ACC or Big East in terms of size, it makes up for in competitiveness.
But let’s not leave out Cal State Northridge, holding its own among the powerhouse conference players. Of course, the Big West has a history of producing formidable (national championship caliber) level programs. And the reality is — even with the level of parity that has come to define college soccer — to achieve such a lofty ranking to make the top five, smaller schools often have to play better and accomplish more. The Matadors have done just that.
They’re 11-2 with losses coming against UCLA and No. 20 UC Santa Barbara. Even with the loss to the Gauchos over the weekend, the Matadors only slipped a single spot in the rankings. UC Irvine, UC Riverside and Cal Poly have been on the receiving end of votes for the top 30 this season, meaning the Big West will be a proving ground this season.
The 2013 College Cup might be held on the East Coast (Philadelphia), but don’t be surprised if the team that brings it home hails from the West.
Maria Burns Ortiz is a contributing writer for College Soccer News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org