The time finally has come for Maryland to step outside the glow that has surrounded College Park since the Terps took home the NCAA trophy last December and get down to the serious business of defending that hardware.
But as coach Sasho Cirovski prepares to kick off the post-Jason Garey era ranked No. 1 in both the College Soccer News and NSCAA preseason polls, developments within the program and the emergence of several opposing teams could make the achievement of a fifth straight College Cup even more impressive, from a coaching standpoint, than last year's title run.
First, talented winger Robbie Rogers, who would have been a crucial part of the Terps' attack, signed what Cirovski called "a substantial contract" earlier this week with Dutch Eredivisie club Heerenveen. That may be good news for fans of U.S. soccer because Rogers has the opportunity in Holland to grow significantly as a player. But it means one of the NCAA's brightest stars will not play college soccer again.
Rogers' departure complicates Cirovski's planning so fundamentally just weeks before the start of the 2006 season that one has to wonder what impact it will have on the defending champions.
Then there is the fact that several programs, all with realistic expectations of taking the national title themselves, have accelerated quickly in the offseason into Maryland's rearview mirror.
Let's examine the challengers.
It's no surprise that Maryland's toughest competition likely will come from its own conference. Last year eight of nine teams from the Atlantic Coast Conference reached the NCAA tournament, and Clemson joined Maryland in the last four. The ACC consistently counts three or four top-10 soccer teams among its ranks.
But when a 2005 College Cup team (Clemson) begins the year picked fifth in the conference according to the ACC's coaches, you know you've got a strong crop even by ACC standards.
The class of the crop this year is North Carolina. Leading scorer Ben Hunter (13 goals) is joined by nine other returning starters for the Tar Heels, who retain 95 percent of their scoring and all of their defense from a year ago.
Dax McCarty may have left for MLS, but Carolina replaced him with midfielder Garry Lewis, a second-team All-Big East selection as a freshman who transferred from St. John's. Add to that mix Eric Lichaj, Parade Magazine's high school defender of the year; Bill Dworsky, the golden boot winner at last year's Adidas ESP camp; and Eddie Ababio, another Parade All-American and member of the U.S. U-20 team, and one needn't stretch to argue that coach Elmar Bolowich has the tools to engineer a second NCAA title in five years.
Duke, Virginia and Clemson all pose threats from the ACC as well. Duke won the conference tournament last year before succumbing to a disappointing early loss in the NCAA tournament. Nine starters return for the Blue Devils, including the inspirational Chris Loftus, a gangly central midfielder who developed a habit of popping up with key goals during the regular season.
Virginia, which returns 10 starters, earned top-six rankings from College Soccer News and the NSCAA and the No. 2 ranking in the ACC coaches' poll largely due to the high expectations for its two center forwards, Yannick Reyering and Adam Cristman. Reyering, an All-American forward from Germany, should perform even better now that he has a year of college soccer under his belt. Coach George Gelnovatch also can mix in Jonathan Villanueva, who figures to be an impact freshman, and he finally has an experienced back line, led by four-year starter Ryan Burke in goal.
One could argue that Southern Methodist arrived last year when the Mustangs got all the way to Cary, N.C., and fell one match short of the national championship game.
Before that, however, Coach Schellas Hyndman took a lot of people by surprise when his team trounced UCLA in the NCAA tournament on its way to the College Cup.
This year, SMU is a known commodity, as indicated by its No. 2 ranking in the College Soccer News preseason poll. Forward Paolo da Silva returns to lead the attack, and SMU's young players proved they had character by overcoming a miserable start to 2005. The Mustangs caught fire in the second half of the 2005 season, but it remains to be seen whether they have retained any of that momentum for the 2006 campaign.
Penn State and Connecticut (No. 2 in the NSCAA poll) both return most of their starters from teams that achieved high levels of success last year.
The Nittany Lions, in particular, opened many eyes by defeating Maryland and running the table in the Big Ten. With forwards Simon Omekanda and Jason Yeisley back to continue their productive goal-scoring partnership (15 goals and 15 assists combined), coach Barry Gorman's boys have set themselves up nicely for a run in 2006.
The real strength of this team lies in its defense, with goalkeeper Conrad Taylor and his co-captain, Finnish defender Markku Viitanen, hoping to better their total of 10 clean sheets from last season.
Gorman certainly did not shy away from challenging his players; Penn State's schedule includes North Carolina, Akron, Maryland and San Francisco, as well as conference rivals Indiana and Ohio State.
Connecticut, in fairness, may not really count as an up-and-comer. After all, the 2000 NCAA champs have won the Big East title for two straight seasons. But Big East dominance has not translated to NCAA tournament success, which is why the Huskies qualify for this list. UConn has an excellent chance to change that this season, especially with its Caribbean connection -- Jamaican forward O'Brian White and Trinidad & Tobago defender Julius James -- leading the way.
The Wild Cards
This list could encompass any number of teams, but two stand out.
No conversation about NCAA championship contenders can take place without mention of UCLA. Exceptional recruiting, ironically, has been the bane of coach Jorge Salcedo's tenure. His best players constantly leave early, meaning UCLA always seems to be starting from scratch.
As a result, the Bruins have been wildly inconsistent, last year crushing Maryland early in the year and then suffering a devastating blowout loss to SMU in the NCAA tournament.
UCLA lost more talent in the back last year than anyone, with Marvell Wynne, Patrick Ianni and Jordan Harvey all now playing in Major League Soccer. Brandon Owens is questionable to return after suffering an ACL injury in the spring.
But Salcedo still has Premier Development League Goalkeeper of the Year Eric Reed in goal. And his newcomers once again carry the promise of huge potential -- if he can harness it. College Soccer News ranked his incoming freshmen the No. 1 such class in the nation, and for good reason. Seven have youth national team experience, eight were prep all-Americans and local product Kyle Nakazawa could remind UCLA fans of Benny Feilhaber.
The arrival of so many talented freshmen makes UCLA a wild card. The Bruins are expected to tear through the Pac-10. They face a stern test to start the season however, as they play Maryland, Virginia and New Mexico, all on the road, in the first week.
Akron lost coach Ken Lolla to Louisville, which makes the Zips an interesting study for 2006. Last year, the Zips very much resembled New Mexico circa 2004: A team that came out of nowhere, won almost everything in sight, beat some high-powered programs, then fell agonizingly short of the College Cup. In 2005, of course, New Mexico reached the national championship game.
Akron also lost its leading scorer, Ross McKenzie. But it held onto Sinisa Ubiparipovic and Matt Tutich, who combined for 25 goals, and goalkeeper Evan Bush, who notched 14 shutouts. If new coach Caleb Porter reminds his players how narrowly they missed reaching elite status last year, and if that near-miss lights a fire in their bellies, seeing the Zips in the College Cup would not come as a shock.
Mike Hanzel covers men's college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached on email@example.com