<
>

USC looks to repeat, Hermann favorites and new coaches headline '08 season

Between a defending champion that still looks a lot like the team that won the title, and still feels it has something to prove, and the looming presence of the Under-20 Women's World Cup in Chile this November and December, there are plenty of questions waiting to be asked in anticipation of the college soccer season. Here are five to get the debate started.

Is USC the favorite to win it all?

USC isn't the only team capable of winning the national championship this year. Maybe Ali Khosroshahin's team isn't an overwhelming favorite to win it all. But coming up with a rationale that plants the Women of Troy anywhere but at the top of the preseason charts would be an achievement worthy of a doctorate in contrarianism.

If it looks like a defending champion and sounds like a defending champion, it might just be a defending champion.

All but two players from last year's title-winning team are back for another go, a list that includes Olympian Amy Rodriguez and All-American keeper Kristin Olsen among 10 returning starters. And while things could change, none of those players currently appear in danger of losing games to service with the U-20 national team. Not that there is a paucity of talent from which to choose. As important as Rodriguez was in all phases of the attack last season, her teammates came up with 37 goals of their own. Lauren Brown took some of those with her in graduation, but take Rodriguez out of the mix and a lineup that included Megan Ohai, Ashli Sandoval, Janessa Currier, Marihelen Tomer and Ashley Nick would still cause defensive headaches for opponents. Add Rodriguez back in and you're working on a serious migraine.

The schedule includes games against San Diego, Portland, Santa Clara and Georgia (with three of the four on the road, where all three of last season's losses came) before USC even gets to three key Pac-10 tilts against UCLA, Cal and Stanford in the span of nine days in October. Even so, complacency may be the biggest hurdle the team will have to overcome.

Khosroshahin's team didn't roll over opponents en route to last year's title, winning four of six NCAA tournament games by one goal, including a double-overtime game against Missouri n the second round. What made USC successful, aside from the good fortune any championship team needs during the postseason, was that a young roster loaded with talent learned to play hard enough for an entire 90 minutes to be in position to take advantage of opportunities.

Which team could be this season's USC?

The full sweep of history in the college game suggests it's unlikely another team will match USC's leap forward, but Boston is as good a place as any to start searching for champions.

After all, teams from the Hub seem to be winning everything else these days.

Like USC the year before its championship, Boston College finished a moderately successful 2007 season with both a disappointing postscript and a lot of returning talent. Selected to host in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament, the Eagles watched their home turf become a neutral site in the second round after Connecticut upset its New England neighbor in the first round (ACC rival Wake Forest was the seeded team in the quartet and also fell at the hands of Connecticut in the second round).

Coach Alison Kulik welcomes what Soccer Buzz ranked as the nation's third-best recruiting class to Chestnut Hill this fall. Led by keeper Jillian Mastroianni -- who spent the summer playing for Tony DiCicco's WPSL team -- Alyssa Pember, Julia Bouchelle, Alaina Beyar and Michelle Spacciapolli, it's a class that should be able to make an instant impact. Should be able to, that is, if its members can find any playing time on a roster that returns all but one of the players who appeared in at least 15 games last season.

Whichever 11 players Kulik puts on the field, they'll need to produce more offense -- at least double last season's 1.15 goals per game to be any kind of legitimate championship contender. That's a tall order, but it's not out of line with the talent now on hand, especially if Gina DiMartino does not redshirt in advance of a likely U-20 national team stint. Opponents were too often able to key on and wear out DiMartino last season. Between the development of returnees like sophomore Brooke Knowlton and junior Kelly Henderson and an infusion of skill from the newcomers, the attack should have more points of attack and more punch at all of those points.

Who are the favorites for the Hermann Trophy?

Yael Averbuch, North Carolina
She's not the Olympian on Anson Dorrance's roster (that's junior Tobin Heath). She may not be the most naturally gifted player for the Tar Heels (more on that in a bit). But entering her senior season, Averbuch appears the best bet in Chapel Hill to add to the most crowded trophy case in college soccer. Last season was tough on all involved with North Carolina's offense, although a couple of hundred other coaches would love to live through such tough times. No player saw her numbers take a bigger hit than Averbuch, who went from 16 goals to six goals and took nearly 80 fewer shots without Heather O'Reilly and Libby Guess driving the attack. Even finding a middle ground between her sophomore and junior output might place her in the awards race, given where North Carolina is likely to finish, but as a heady player with a lethal shot, Averbuch has the maturity and talent around her to inch closer to her sophomore numbers.

Lauren Cheney, UCLA
A finalist for the award last season, Cheney is the closest thing the college game has to Abby Wambach, whom Cheney replaced on the Olympic roster after the U.S. star went down with an injury. Cheney is an imposing target player who isn't afraid of her own brute strength -- often to the annoyance of opposing defenders -- but she's also nimble afoot, with an ability to make use of the talent around her at UCLA. She had 11 assists last season, 11 more than she did as a freshman, but with 42 goals in 44 career games with the Bruins, it's no secret what puts Cheney near the top of any preseason lists.

Kerri Hanks, Notre Dame
When someone wins the award as a sophomore, it more or less locks down a place as a perennial favorite for the remainder of her college career. It also makes it possible for people to look at a season in which that player scored 14 goals, led the nation with 21 assists and took the Fighting Irish back to the College Cup as somewhat of a letdown. With those kinds of no-win expectations, perhaps it's no surprise Hanks sometimes appears to let frustration get the better of her. Or perhaps it's those displays of frustration that convince people to grade her on a tougher scale. The indisputable part of the equation is that Hanks is a gifted attacking player with perhaps the best vision in the college game.

Megan Rapinoe, Portland
Coming off two knee surgeries, and having not played a game for Portland since the midway point of the 2006 season, Rapinoe might in reality be more of a long shot than a favorite for the Hermann. But don't pull the emergency stop on this train of thought just yet. For starters, Portland coach Garrett Smith favors a style that allows his players to make use of their skills, which is not as much of a given as it ought to be in the college game. With three Pilots likely heading to Chile for the Under-20 World Cup, including last season's leading scorer Michelle Enyeart, someone is going to have to find the back of the net for Portland. And don't discount the pull of overcoming two surgeries as a tiebreaker for Rapinoe to have in her back pocket come balloting season. She's one of just three players in Portland's illustrious history, along with Tiffeny Milbrett and Shannon MacMillan, to total 25 goals and 15 assists over two seasons.

Amy Rodriguez, USC
A key component of the U.S. Olympic team, Rodriguez might seem like the odds-on favorite to win any college hardware that's available. But adding another NCAA championship might be a more likely outcome than winning the Hermann. First of all, Rodriguez spent most of the spring and summer working to earn the minutes she received in Beijing. Training with the world's best players for nine months isn't a bad way to enhance the skills she put on display in last year's NCAA tournament, but it's also a good way to wind up winded. As good as Rodriguez is, the Women of Troy have a number of potential breakout offensive talents. And Khosroshahin will know he needs Rodriguez fresh in November and December more than he needs gaudy numbers early in the season.

Filling out a first 11: Amanda DaCosta, MF, Florida State; Christina DiMartino, MF, UCLA; Tobin Heath, MF, North Carolina; Kristin Olsen, GK, USC; Janessa Currier, D, USC; Nikki Krzysik, D, Virginia; Kasey Moore, D, Texas; Emily Zurrer, D, Illinois.

Which player has the most to prove?

Forget the best player on the list above; North Carolina's Casey Nogueira may have as much natural talent as any player in the world that wasn't in the Olympics -- a list that includes the likes of Kelly Smith and last year's Hermann winner Mami Yamaguchi.

At her best, Nogueira is sublime, able to move with the ball at her feet in ways other players can't move even when unencumbered by such baggage. On other days, she's easy to miss for long stretches, a cardinal sin for someone who should leave opponents sleepless in the nights leading up to games. The sum total is a player who is in the midst of a nice college career, even by North Carolina's demanding standards. She was a key part of the postseason run to a championship two years ago and led the team with 13 goals last season. She could keep playing at a similar level for two more years and leave Chapel Hill with the kind of career most players only dream about.

Which first-year coach has the comfiest new digs?

While it's expressed in a rather unfortunate way for those in the coaching profession, nothing illustrates the growth of women's college soccer quite like the fact that 49 teams will take the field this fall under the direction of new coaching regimes. The sport may be blissfully removed from the rough-and-tumble booster politics of college football, but winning matters more than ever, and athletic departments are committing the resources -- in collective infrastructure and individual remuneration -- that fuels coaching carousels.

The biggest names in the new class are three people who were in China during the opening month of last season. Former United States coach Greg Ryan takes over at Michigan after a much-publicized exit from the national team. Current national team assistant coach Phil Wheddon, who also served on Ryan's staff, is the new boss at Syracuse. And Marci Miller, a reserve on the American side in the World Cup, takes over at Baylor, where former Ryan assistant Bret Hall will be her volunteer assistant.

Wendy Dillinger didn't need her passport to make the move from Washington University in St. Louis to Iowa State, but she has the talent on hand in Ames to make her own headlines. Iowa State missed the NCAA tournament last year (the program's only NCAA bid came in 2005), but wasn't for a lack of quality performances en route to an 8-6-5 record. The Cyclones beat Oklahoma State and Missouri, both ranked at the time, during Big 12 play and tied Texas when the Longhorns were ranked No. 3 in the nation. They also suffered a memorable loss in the conference tournament, succumbing to Texas A&M 8-7 in penalty kicks after playing to a 1-1 draw through regulation and overtime.

Iowa State lost some key faces to graduation, but returnees Jordan Bishop and Elise Reid teamed up for nine goals last season and have the potential for even better production under Dillinger's stated desire to play a more aggressive, attacking style. Keeper Ann Gleason also returns, along with several members of one of the Big 12's stingier defenses.

The road to a second NCAA tournament bid won't be easy, with trips to Texas, Texas A&M and Oklahoma State on the conference schedule, but Iowa State looks to have an ideal blend of battle-tested veterans and a young coach with little patience for rebuilding.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.