And just like that, another season of college soccer suddenly is upon us. Most of the Division I teams kick off for the first time this weekend, and this season promises to be NCAA futbol's best ever. Here it is folks, our 2007 preview:
Five teams to watch
1. UC Santa Barbara
Nobody will underestimate the Gauchos this time. The defending national champs enter their tilt against Stanford Friday sitting atop the NSCAA preseason rankings. Last year, they surprised everybody by beating local rival and heavy favorite UCLA in the 2006 College Cup finale. They surprised everybody, that is, except themselves. Although the Gauchos lost nine seniors heading into this year, star defender Andy Iro and midfielder Eric Avila return and are bolstered by a solid group of recruits.
They always have the talent. But many wondered if the young, 2006-edition Bruins had the heart to make a serious title run. Turns out, Jorge Salcedo's team had it in spades. This year, the coach returns almost his entire team. Yes, they lost U.S. U-20 star Sal Zizzo when the forward signed with Hannover 96 in the German Bundesliga. But they still have his U-20 teammates Brian Perk (GK) and Tony Beltran (D) anchoring the back. Underclassmen Maxwell Griffin (F), Kyle Nakazawa and Jason Leopoldo (both M) also return for the Bruins, who have only one goal in mind: hoisting the hardware in Cary, N.C. this December.
3. Wake Forest
Jay Vidovich's team had its best-ever season in 2006, reaching its first College Cup and coming thisclose to a berth in the final itself, eventually succumbing to UCSB on penalties. This could be the year Wake takes it one step further. Vidovich has built a fine program in Winston-Salem, N.C. and the school has been a pipeline to the pros like no other except perhaps UCLA and Maryland in recent years. The 2007 Demon Deacons' squad is headlined by stalwart backs Pat Phelan and Julian Valentin.
The Blue Devils have had a devil of a time turning an embarrassment of riches into hardware. Competing in the uber-tough Atlantic Coast Conference can do that to you. Duke has been pegged as a potential Cup winner each of the last three seasons, but found ways to underachieve each time. The Blue Devils will be looking to reverse that trend in 2007, with star midfielder Michael Videira and another blue-chip recruiting class leading the way.
Just because they haven't won a title since their back-to-back triumphs in 2003 and '04, doesn't mean people should be quick to write off NCAA soccer's most storied program. If anything, it means they should be afraid. If history has taught us anything, it's that the Hoosiers never lie dormant for long. Coach Mike Freitag returns forwards Darren Yeagle and Brian Ackley and defender Ofori Sarkodie, who is coming off a fine U-20 World Cup. Factor in another top recruiting class, and this group looks like a lock to pick up a 13th Big Ten regular season title.
Five Hermann Trophy Candidates
1. Andre Akpan, F, Harvard (sophomore)
The six-foot Texan was the top-scoring freshman last season (10 goals, 12 helpers in 19 Games), leading the Crimson to a 14-5 record and berth in the NCAA tournament. That was enough to impress U.S. U-20 national team boss Thomas Rongen, who named Akpan to the team that reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Canada this summer.
2. Andy Iro, D, UCSB (senior)
Nobody who watched him inspire his team to the title on one leg will forget it anytime soon. Scary thing is, with that troublesome knee finally healthy following offseason surgery, the Englishman can show just how good he really is in his final college season. If he does, don't be surprised if Premier League clubs are lining up to take a chance on the 6'5", 220-pounder in January.
3. Stephen King, M, Maryland (senior)
Terps coach Sasho Cirovski calls King "the most underappreciated player in the country." That could change in 2007. The slick, attacking midfielder does it all for Cirovski's team. He has started every game for UM since arriving in College Park in 2004 and was a key player on the Cup-winning 2005 squad, notching an incredible 15 goals along the way. The New Jersey native is a lock to join former teammates Jason Garey, Maurice Edu and Robbie Rogers in MLS next season -- if Europe doesn't come calling first.
4. Joe Lapira, F, Notre Dame (senior)
After registering just seven goals as a sophomore, Lapira burst onto the national scene last season, leading the NCAA with 22 goals in 23 games. In tournament play, his double-OT winner ended Maryland's title defense, but he was held in check by Virginia in the Irish's quarterfinal loss. Now, in his final campaign in South Bend, Lapira hopes his marksmanship can take Bobby Clark's men one step further: to a first-ever College Cup berth.
5. Bruno Guarda, M, SMU (junior)
Guarda might have won Conference USA MVP honors last season, but it was still a heart-wrenching season for the Brazilian playmaker and his SMU mates. After opening 2006 with a 17-game unbeaten run, the Mustangs fizzled down the stretch and were knocked out of the tourney in the first round by eventual champs UCSB. If coach Schellas Hyndman can coax a just little more out of Guarda this year, the Stangs will be a tough out in November -- and the Hermann could be his.
Story lines to follow
1. Can Duke do it this year?
It's John Rennie's 35th and final season in Durham, N.C.. And once again, his team has the talent to win it all. But for some reason, the wheels always come off in the postseason. Is the coach to blame? Not likely. Rennie is one of the most successful bench bosses in NCAA history (sixth in career wins) and led the program to its only national championship in 1986. True, 21 years is a long time. But the ever-increasing parity in the college game makes consistency harder than ever to achieve nowadays, especially for teams that compete in the incomparable ACC. Still, Duke's got as good a shot as anyone, and Rennie's charges will be extra-motivated to send their coach off in style, like Indiana was for Jerry Yeagley in 2003.
2. Which rook will impress us most?
Two years ago it was Rogers. Last year? Either Akpan or UCLA's David Estrada. This year, we'll be keeping an close eye on George Mason freshman Fro Adu. Freddy's little bro wasn't hyped like SMU forward Chad Bauman or Duke midfielder Cole Grossman -- but that's precisely was makes Fro, a defender who chose an emerging program instead of a name school, even more compelling
3. How many attendance records will fall?
Teams seemed to set new attendance marks on a weekly basis last year. Expect more of the same in 2007. Already, Indiana's athletic department is urging fans to "Fill the Bill" on Sept. 2. The Bill, of course, is Bill Armstrong Stadium, and the school wants to break a 20-year old record by luring more than 6,000 spectators there for its game against UCLA.
4. What team will surprise us the most?
The likes of Akron and West Virginia have upset the balance of power near the top of the national rankings in recent years. Which school will do it this year? We probably won't know until about 10 games in, when only a few undefeated mid-major teams are left in the mix. Again, blame parity. "At one time there were 10 schools capable of winning the national championship," says Wake coach Vidovich. "Now, in any given season, maybe 30 schools can win."
Doug McIntyre is a soccer columnist for ESPN The Magazine and ESPNsoccernet.