Before they go for Olympic gold or World Cup glory, the best soccer players in the United States chase the College Cup. And the new college season offers no shortage of intrigue. Here are five questions to set the stage:
1. Was last season only the beginning for Stanford?
The tricky thing about history is that it's difficult to write in the present. So it is that we're left to wonder if Stanford, coming off its first national championship, enters the 2012 season poised to cement its place as the sport's new dynasty or drift back to the pack after a remarkable four-year run in which it went 95-4-4 and lost just once in the regular season.
The defending champions open this season without familiar personnel. Departed seniors Camille Levin, Teresa Noyola, Lindsay Taylor and Kristy Zurmuhlen all started in last season's championship game and played on teams that reached four consecutive College Cups. For her efforts, Noyola earned the Hermann Trophy as the nation's best player last season. Stanford will also have to wait for star-in-waiting Chioma Ubogagu, as the sophomore striker will miss at least the first six games while competing for the United States in the Under-20 Women's World Cup.
Some past champions returned more and still failed to repeat. In fact, no team other than North Carolina has ever won back-to-back titles, and Notre Dame's fall from grace last season underscores the challenge.
Then again, Stanford is used to filling big cleats. This is the third season in a row the Cardinal will replace a Hermann winner. They moved on without Kelley O'Hara two years ago and Christen Press last year and reached at least the title game in both instances. It's partly that line between rebuilding and reloading that separates dynastic programs.
The back line returns close to intact (Levin split time between outside back and midfield during most games), with goalkeeper Emily Oliver behind outside backs Rachel Quon and Annie Case and center backs Alina Garciamendez and Kendall Romine. That group allowed just nine goals last season, and Quon, whom coach Paul Ratcliffe mentioned as a possible option in midfield, may be the best in the nation when it comes to pushing forward on the flank.
The challenge comes in reconstituting an attack that lost 39 goals and 33 assists from the seniors, and 49 goals and 43 assists while Ubogagu is missing. There is the typical assortment of highly touted freshmen, midfielder Kate Bettinger among them, and sophomores seeking expanded roles, but one key is Courtney Verloo. A redshirt junior who missed last season with an injury, she's a natural forward who also played some in the back for Stanford two years ago. A player who was part of the U.S. entry in the last Under-20 World Cup, she has breakout potential.
"Courtney's a critical player for this team," Ratcliffe said. "She's a great talent, she can score goals, she can create goals. I think she's an amazing athlete, so she's going to be critical to our success. Last year she was disappointed to not be able to be involved."
Stanford's top challengers: Duke, Florida State, Texas A&M, UCLA, Wake Forest.
2. How will the FIFA Under-20 World Cup affect the college season?
It's not quite "The Hunger Games," but every two years top programs hope the odds are ever in their favor when it comes to the reach of the Under-20 Women's World Cup. The biennial tournament will run from Aug. 19 to Sept. 8 in Japan, which stepped in when original host Uzbekistan was eliminated as a result of infrastructure issues.
Since its inception in 2002, the premier international youth tournament in women's soccer has served as a launching pad for players like Marta, Christine Sinclair and Alex Morgan. It has also proved a thorn in the side of college teams in the United States that lose top players to national team duty during the NCAA season. Stateside teams were lucky two years ago when the tournament in Germany fell in the summer, but as with the 2004 and 2008 events, this year's championship will remove some of the best players in college soccer from the field for a significant amount of time.
It appeared at one point that the tournament might take place at the end of September and beginning of October, a development which would likely have led many members of the United States team to take redshirt seasons (such was the case in the 2004 edition of the tournament, then still an under-19 event, when players like Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn skipped the entire college season). But college teams caught at least a small break when this year's tournament was moved to Japan with a schedule that conflicts only with the start of school and season.
Duke is among the programs most affected, losing forwards Kelly Cobb and Mollie Pathman. Those two accounted for 17 goals and 20 assists last season and helped transform the Blue Devils from a quality ACC side into a conference champion and national finalist. The Blue Devils return nine other starters, which no doubt eases the pain, but the search for goals will put pressure on players like converted midfielder Kim DeCesare and sophomore Katie Trees to produce against an early schedule that includes William & Mary, Florida, USC, San Diego and Marquette.
"Our girls are very happy for both Mollie and Kelly; they celebrated their accomplishments for them," Duke coach Robbie Church said. "But they're also excited that it's an opportunity for them to get on the field. That's what we preach to them. This is how life is. The real world, something happens and the opportunity comes for you, and you have to step forward. That's what has to happen for us."
If the United States is around through the end of the tournament in Japan, Cobb and Pathman will return to Durham on the eve of the team's first ACC games, including a Thursday night game at Florida State that could have a lot to do with the conference race and NCAA tournament seeding. Church isn't sure if he'll bring back Cobb and Pathman for that game or let them catch up on classwork and rejoin the team for a game in Miami that weekend. Elite teams around the country will face similar quandaries, both in replacing stars and then adding them back to the restructured mix.
Along with Duke, North Carolina (Crystal Dunn, Bryane Heaberlin, Kealia Ohai), Notre Dame (Mandy Laddish, Cari Roccaro), Penn State (Maya Hayes, Taylor Schram) and UCLA (Samantha Mewis, Sarah Killion) lose multiple players, while Virginia loses star Morgan Brian and coach Steve Swanson, who will guide the U.S. national team.
3. Who are five players to watch in the Hermann Trophy race?
The Under-20 World Cup is also likely to affect the race for college soccer's top individual honor. It's a limited history, but no player who participated in the event when it fell during the college season also won the Hermann in the same campaign. That's logical; even for those players who didn't redshirt, it was too much time missed to make up ground on older stars who played a full season. In any other year, Duke's duo, North Carolina's Dunn, Penn State's Hayes, Wake Forest's Katie Stengel and Stanford's Ubogagu would rank among the favorites. But with their odds lengthened in shortened seasons, the race appears wide open.
Aubrey Bledsoe, Wake Forest: The first thing to concede is that, yes, any keeper faces a potentially insurmountable hurdle in laying claim to the award. But a team that went to the College Cup last season and opens this season ranked No. 3 should play at a level that leaves people looking for someone to reward. If that isn't Stengel, it might well be the star at the other end of the field. Along with Oklahoma State's Adrianna Franch, Bledsoe is as good as it gets in goal in the college game as both shot-stopper and organizer.
Tiffany McCarty, Florida State: A veteran offensive force on a team likely to hang around the top five in the polls all season, McCarty is pretty much the definition of a Hermann contender. Returning to the field last season after missing the 2010 season with an injury, she led the Seminoles with 18 goals and 42 points en route to the College Cup. She reached double-digit goals in each of her first three seasons on the field for the Seminoles. Technically, athletically and in experience, Florida State's all-time leading scorer is too much for most college defenders to handle.
Kristen Mewis, Boston College: The senior midfielder is undoubtedly one of the most technically gifted players in the country, and trained with the full national team in advance of the Olympics, but the nature of the award is such that either she needs the kind of gaudy statistics usually reserved for strikers or her team needs to emerge from the crowded ACC race as a top-five squad. If the two come together like they did her sophomore year, when she totaled 10 goals and 14 assists en route to the College Cup, she might be rewarded.
Beth West, Texas A&M: She's off the radar at the moment, but in the wake of Teresa Noyola's Hermann, not to mention Spain's Andres Iniesta winning player of the tournament in this past summer's European championship, we live in the age of the playmaker. That would suit a player who finished last season with almost as many assists (14) as shots (17) just fine. Healthy last year after two seasons battling knee injuries, the diminutive midfielder played a big role in freshmen Kelley Monogue and Annie Kunz piling up goals. If Texas A&M is a contender, people will notice the midfield engine.
Colleen Williams, Dayton: Call this the Sarah Hagen corollary after the sensational standout from Wisconsin-Milwaukee made a run at the Hermann last season. A quality program but a mid-major nonetheless, Dayton doesn't fit the mold of programs that produce winners of college soccer's top individual honor, but Williams could be prolific enough to elbow her way into the conversation. She totaled 16 goals and 15 assists last season, and while she's small of stature for a small program, she's a big-time talent.
4. Are Texas A&M and the SEC a perfect match?
Texas A&M may well be the best program never to reach a College Cup, losing in the quarterfinals four times since 2000. The SEC last sent a team to the final weekend in 2001, when Florida made its second appearance, and the conference is still largely living off the national championship the Gators won in 1998. Bringing the two together has the potential to end both streaks in one fell swoop.
Along with fellow SEC newcomer Missouri and its Big 12 replacements, West Virginia and TCU, Texas A&M is living the reality of conference realignment. That's a grind in the SEC. Unlike last season, when the Aggies had a pair of one-game weekends after the start of Big 12 conference play, they have no such opportunities to catch their breath this season.
"There's a lot of question marks, just because there's a lot of places we've never been before," Texas A&M coach G Guerrieri said. "It's going to be a big challenge -- No. 1, there are a lot of NCAA tournament teams in the SEC. But the fact that we have to play 13 straight games with no rest built in, that's a tough grind for everybody. One of the things we want to be able to do is manage the players and manage our play as we navigate through the new league."
But attrition may have a better shot at stopping the Aggies than do their opponents. Texas A&M is the kind of team neutral fans should hope survives that grind, as the program's style is built around playing the ball on the ground and playing a technical, attacking style. That reached new heights a season ago, when the Aggies led the nation in scoring with 76 goals and 3.17 goals per game. Yet for a young team that returns 10 sophomores this season, full throttle came at a price. In the span of seven days early last season, they beat McNeese State 9-0, lost 7-2 against Duke and beat then top-ranked North Carolina 4-3 in overtime.
"One minute we were scary to the opponent; the next minute we were scary to ourselves," Guerrieri said. "There was so much learning that had to happen early in the season. I think we were a little surprised at how naively we played those first eight games. But as the year went on, credit to the players, they learned from their mistakes and learned from their experiences."
Eight starters return, a number that climbs to nine if you count forward Kunz, who technically came off the bench but played starter's minutes and finished second on the team with 14 goals. That doesn't include midfielder Jayne Eadie, an Oregon State transfer who missed last season with an injury but is in line to claim a starting spot this fall and add that much more playmaking experience. With Kelley Monogue healthy again after missing time in the spring following a freshman season in which she scored 19 goals, the Aggies again look like one of the most dangerous offensive teams in the nation.
Texas A&M got one final lesson last season, losing to a rugged Virginia Tech team in the second round of the NCAA tournament, but experience should make it that much better in new surroundings.
5. What about some other teams to watch?
The start of the season isn't just a time to talk about championship contenders and award winners. Whether any of these teams make a run at the trophy, they offer some of the season's most intriguing plots.
Central Florida: Last season was tremendous for teams from beyond the traditional power conferences in women's college soccer, with Central Florida, Memphis, Pepperdine and Wisconsin-Milwaukee among the programs that spent much of the season climbing the polls. Central Florida reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament and eliminated North Carolina in Chapel Hill in a Sweet 16 penalty shootout. With nine returning players who logged at least 1,000 minutes last season, the Golden Knights are among the best positioned to try and prove last season's upswing was no fluke.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels are very much national championship contenders, the stunning exit from last season's NCAA tournament notwithstanding, but the program Anson Dorrance built into arguably the most dominant in any college sport is less of a sure thing these days and arguably more fascinating because of it. Things only got more interesting when highly touted incoming freshman Lindsey Horan elected to instead skip college and sign professionally in France. Still, once the U-20 World Cup participants do return (freshman Summer Green may also miss time for the Under-17 World Cup), the Tar Heels have the talent with Dunn, Ohai, Amber Brooks, Ranee Premji and others to right the possession woes that plagued them last season.
Notre Dame: Preseason polls are always an exercise in regurgitating the previous season, but Notre Dame entering this season unranked is baffling. As much as things went wrong last season for a team that entered the campaign as defending champion and finished with a first-round road loss in the NCAA tournament, there is too much talent to repeat the depths of last season's plunge. Whether or not Notre Dame is just a top-25 team will depend on how much players like Laddish, Lauren Bohaboy and even a freshman like Roccaro take the reins of what is a very young roster.
Northwestern: Look at the teams in last season's championship game -- Duke and Stanford -- and it's clear there could be a place for a school like Northwestern in the upper echelon of the college game. Getting there is more than an overnight trip, but first-year coach Michael Moynihan may be the right guide. Moynihan turned what was essentially a family business at Milwaukee into a mid-major dynasty and knows the Midwest well. Northwestern had more losses (16) than goals (13) last season, so don't look for miracles. But look to see if the Wildcats are more competitive.
USC: There are 17 freshmen and four first-year transfers listed on USC's roster. Colonies have been started with fewer settlers than that. Five years after the Women of Troy won the first national championship for a program in what is now the Pac-12, the search continues for some of that magic. USC sank to 7-13-0 last season, the first losing record under coach Ali Khosroshahin and the first time one of his teams didn't make the NCAA tournament. Such a sizable roster overhaul is a bold move, but will it play out as decisive or desperate for the program?