For those that were quick to write off UC Santa Barbara's chances to compete with college soccer's elite a year after the shock national finalists lost much of its top talent to graduation, think again. The Gauchos pulled off two convincing wins, including a 6-1 drubbing of a good Northwestern team, after opening the season with a winless weekend. Coach Tim Vom Steeg has been able to replace his departed vets with talented newcomers who will only get more comfortable adjusting to NCAA play as the season wears on. Plus, Herman candidate Tyler Rosenlund is off to a fast start and senior Jonathan Davis (who netted twice along with Rosenlund against the Wildcats) will continue to provide vital experience to a young group. Gaucho fans will be happy the knock Davis picked up Sept. 9 wasn't serious.
Biggest surprise so far? How 'bout them North Carolina Tar Heels? Sure, NC is a traditional power, but they've rolled to their 4-0 record (the 'Heels won just ten matches a year ago) without conceding a goal. Their main man has been midfielder Corey Ashe, who's enjoying a breakout junior year in Chapel Hill. One of the nation's top recruits in 2003 after the exposure he got playing alongside Freddy Adu and Jonathan Spector on the U.S. U-17s, Ashe's college career got off to a slow start. But he's found his groove as the team's engine in '05 and if he keeps his current form (and UNC keeps winning) he could be a Hermann Trophy dark horse.
Connecticut has also started four-and-oh, surrendering just one goal. They beat UNC Greensboro on Saturday by a convincing 2-0 score line. Ray Reid's men came in under the radar in '05 after finishing with a relatively average 12-8-3 record last year, but the man with the most wins in college soccer history could add another national championship to his resume before Christmas. The opening preseason loss to Maryland might serve the Huskies well during the stretch: Reid's teams don't like to lose and have been unbeatable overall since dropping that meaningless 1-0 decision. Oh, and after Indiana tied Saint Louis on Friday, UConn is Soccer America's new number one.
Speaking of the Hoosiers, don't worry -- they'll still be standing in December. Pro prospect Jacob Peterson finally broke his scoring duck vs. the Billikens, then added a hat trick two days later as Indiana took out its frustrations in a 5-0 shellacking of Boston University. The Bloomington Boys will always have a target on their backs, but Brian Plotkin's leadership is making up for the loss of defensive standouts Drew Moor and Danny O'Rourke. Frosh star Lee Nguyen looks like the real deal: he was the best player on the field against a quality Saint Lou squad.
Duke and UCLA, who along with IU and Maryland were our preseason final four picks, both stand 3-1. Again, suffering an early season hiccup might drop these powers in some weekly rankings, but that won't matter come tourney time. Out west, Bruins super soph Marvell Wynne's Hermann stock keeps rising. He is the most dominating right back the college game has seen since Indiana's Nick Garcia. Duke was soundly beaten, 4-1, by a good St. John's side, a result that raised eyebrows everywhere. But again, it's early yet, and this is the type of loss that can galvanize a team and pay dividends when the weather gets cold and the games mean much more. Another reason to still like the Dookies' prospects? Defender Kyle Helton has been a rock in the back (despite that ugly loss).
Maryland seems to have recovered from its 4-0 defeat at UCLA last week. Don't underestimate the psychological effect Hurricane Katrina had on Terps' star and Louisiana native Jason Garey. Maryland's top player/goal getter's mind was obviously elsewhere opening weekend. The trickle-down effect was also understandable: even good teams go how their leaders go. Garey went just fine next time out, notching a brace against Santa Clara. That Wesside loss remains the only blemish on the College Park clan's record.
Biggest disappointment? Gotta be UNC-Greensboro. A top-ten preseason pick, Greensboro has simply not done the business and has been dropped out of several rankings altogether. On the bright side, UNC-G smoked Charlotte 4-0 last week behind Randi Peterson's three-goal outburst. Still, the Spartans have a ways to go to restore the confidence observers had in them early.
One team we're really rooting for is New Mexico. Jeremy Fishbein's Lobos were a wonderful team to watch in 2004, and lost just one game all season. Unfortunately, it came in the tournament after the NCAA looked past an undefeated record and gave them a bum draw. Another strong season will prove that they're no joke. With Jeff Rowland scoring goals like it's his job, New Mexico could win it all this year. Rowland's a great story too: The former walk-on scored 19 times last year, and doesn't seem to mind being a marked man this one: Rowland's got four tallies already and is an early Hermann fave.
Surprisingly, Still Undefeated: Vermont (5-0), Akron (4-0), FDU (4-0, including a win over Boston College) and Seton Hall (4-0 behind the stellar play of junior All-American Sacha Kljestan).
Tube Time: Set your VCR timers, your TiVos, whatever. Living in the age of 500 digital channels has its benefits, especially for college futbol fans. There will be more televised NCAA soccer in 2005 than ever before, and we're not talking just Conference championships and tourney games. Check out these early-season tilts on a set near you in the coming weeks:
Penn State vs. UCLA: Friday, Sept. 16, 8pm EST, Fox Soccer Channel St. John's vs. Notre Dame: Monday, Sept. 19, 8pm EST, CSTV Connecticut vs. St. John's: Friday, Sept. 23, 8pm EST Fox Soccer Channel
And, if that's not enough for you, check out some future college standouts as the U.S. U-17 national team competes in the FIFA World Championship in Peru.
The U.S. takes on Italy, South Korea and Ivory Coast in group play, beginning Sept. 17. Coverage is available in English (on Fox Soccer Channel), or en Espanol (Galavision).
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.