College Soccer Preview: Road to Birmingham begins

School is back in session.

The abbreviated college soccer preseason is nearly over, and this coming weekend, the start of a long road that begins, one that will end with the College Cup in Birmingham, Ala., in December.

Many of last season’s heroes are now enduring the long season of MLS, and another talented group of players will look to step up and fill in the gaps to players lost to graduation.

Each program deals with a varying amount of departing talent, and how each copes with it will determine success over the next few months. Here’s a look at some of the teams to look out for this year:

Top Contenders

LOUISVILLE

Last year’s runners-up return the bulk of their squad this season, and they are pursuing the challenge of a second straight trip to the College Cup. Coach Ken Lolla will certainly have his troops grounded, and this experienced bunch will lean on Colin Rolfe to help jumpstart the offense.

Key Players: F Colin Rolfe, F Dylan Mares, D Austin Berry

UCLA

Perhaps the most talented team in the nation, last year’s entire starting 11 returns for the Bruins. Led by Kelyn Rowe, a dynamic midfield talent with US youth international experience, there’s no question that head coach Jorge Salcedo has a team capable of winning a national championship.

Key Players: MF Kelyn Rowe, MF Victor Muñoz, F Eder Arreola

AKRON

If there’s anything to learn from in the past, it’s to never count out a Caleb Porter-coached team. After losing seven starters, Porter has scouted around the world to bring in adequate replacements.

Even with the losses, the talent is there to contend, with newcomers from MLS academies. Wil Trapp, DeAndre Yedlin and Bryan Gallego are all likely to make an impact straightaway.

Key Players: F Darren Mattocks, D Chad Barson, MF Scott Caldwell

NORTH CAROLINA

One of the best recruiting classes will help the Tar Heels reload quickly — not to mention the return of top class forwards Cameron Brown and Billy Schuler back after missing 2010 through injuries.

Biggest question is the coaching situation. Elmar Bolowich made the move to Creighton, and his top assistant Carlos Somoano was appointed as his replacement. With his experience, UNC shouldn’t miss a beat.

Key Players: D Matt Hedges, F Billy Schuler, MF Kirk Urso

MARYLAND

Every team copes with the talent drain in different ways. Fortunately for Maryland, the departure of Zac MacMath might not be as big of a loss as experienced goalkeeper Will Swaim stays on for another year to provide some experience. He’ll compete for the starting job with the freshman Keith Cardona, a product of the New York Red Bulls Academy.

Regardless, provided that there is stability in goal, the Terps have enough punch going forward to contend at the end of the season.

Key Players: F Patrick Mullins, F Casey Townsend, D Taylor Kemp

In the Mix

UC SANTA BARBARA

Last year’s hosts of the College Cup lost midfielder Danny Barrera to pro aspirations, but they can lean on a vibrant attack this year. The biggest question that will determine the team’s success is in defense. If they can keep things organized, it could mean for good things in December.

Key Players: F Sam Garza, F David Opoku, MF Luis Silva

NOTRE DAME

The transfer of Duke forward Ryan Finley could be the missing piece in South Bend. While the mercurial forward can be a handful off the field, Finley’s arrival, along with the presence of midfielder Dillon Powers and defender Aaron Maund, the Irish have a formidable spine that could make some noise in the tournament.

Key Players: MF Dillon Powers, F Ryan Finley, D Aaron Maund

DUKE

Two of the best defenders in the nation, Andrew Wenger and Houston Dynamo Academy product Sebastian Ibeagha make this Duke side one of the best in recent memory.

The attack will be the issue: The incoming freshman class, including Sounders FC Academy midfielder Nick Palodichuk and Red Bulls Academy midfielder Sean Davis must be able to pick up the slack right away in order for the Blue Devils to reach their potential.

Key Players: D Andrew Wenger, D Sebastian Ibeagha, GK James Belshaw

CREIGHTON

A new coach is on the scene out in Omaha, and Elmar Bolowich brings championship experience to the program.

There’s certainly a talented bunch in the Midwest, led by forward Ethan Finlay and defender Tyler Polak. Those two can’t win games alone, and what Bolowich can get out of the supporting cast will determine their success this year.

Key Players: F Ethan Finlay, D Tyler Polak, MF Greg Jordan

CONNECTICUT

Replacing graduated goalkeeper Josh Ford is one of the keys to the season for the Huskies, who had one of the best defenses in the league according to goals allowed last fall.

However, this time around the attack will need to carry things, led by forward Tony Cascio, who bagged 10 goals last season.

Key Players: F Tony Cascio, MF Carlos Alvarez, F Stéphane Diop

MLSsoccer.com's Preseason Top 20

1. UCLA
2. Akron
3. Louisville
4. North Carolina
5. SMU
6. Notre Dame
7. Creighton
8. Connecticut
9. Maryland
10. UC Santa Barbara
11. Michigan
12. Virginia
13. Indiana
14. Princeton
15. Duke
16. Boston College
17. Penn State
18. California
19. Brown
20. William & Mary