No clear favorite has emerged heading into this year’s NCAA Tournament.
North Carolina may be best poised to make some noise, but have a first-year coach in Carlos Somoano and a star striker who battled an injury the past week. Akron, after a dream season a year ago, hasn’t been able to completely recover from losing so many players. And while others have worn the “favorites” mantle at times this year, none has done so wire-to-wire.
So instead of one dominant force, here are eight teams ready to contend starting this weekend:
The closest there is in the field to a favorite, the Tar Heels haven’t skipped a beat since former coach Elmar Bolowich departed for Creighton. UNC have the all-around ability to make the College Cup, but the health of junior forward Billy Schuler could prove to be their undoing. Sidelined with a groin injury in the ACC tournament, if their leading scorer isn’t up to par, it could be a disappointing end in Chapel Hill.
Bolowich’s arrival in Omaha came with a desire to take this program to another level – namely, a national championship. The expectations will be high for this No. 2 seed, and with standout forward Ethan Finlay leading the way and a record-setting defense locking down opponents, Bolowich’s magic could make this a year the Bluejays will never forget.
Talent is no problem for the Huskies – they have that in bunches, whether it’s in the attack (Mamadou Diouf, Tony Cascio), midfield (Carlos Alvarez, Stephane Diop) or in defense (Andrew Blake, Andrew Jean-Baptiste). Putting it all together in the postseason, however, has been an elusive target up in Storrs. They’ve produced a lot of talent through the years, but no title since 2000.
Riding a four game winless streak heading into the tournament is not where the Terrapins want to be. But if they can channel the form of September that saw them score almost at will, and if senior forward Casey Townsend can get back on track, then it could be another deep run for the 2008 champions.
So how does an undefeated team, ranked by most polls as No. 1 in the country, enter as a bit of a sleeper? New Mexico’s regular season accomplishments have been impressive, but it hasn’t come against dangerous opposition. The experience of seniors Mike Green and Lance Rozeboom will key any tourney success the Lobos manage.
Entering this season as one of the hot favorites for a title, a slow start left the Bruins adrift early on in the year. However, after dominating Pac-12 competition, a strong UCLA attack led by Chandler Hoffman, Kelyn Rowe and Eder Arreola could provide the firepower needed for a deep tournament run.
UC Santa Barbara
West coast teams don’t get much love, and out of 48 teams, just five are in the Pacific Time zone. The Gauchos, however, are fresh off another good year, have played in some pressure-packed atmospheres, and could have a final say against the Eastern elites.
After losing seven players from last year’s championship team, it was also going to be a tough ask for the Zips to replicate 2010’s title run. And it’s been a season of ups and downs for Caleb Porter, as his young team couldn’t convert numerous chances in a shock penalty kick loss in the MAC tournament semifinal. Nonetheless, if forward Darren Mattocks can deliver, the Zips certainly have the talent to trouble the best teams in the field.
Travis Clark covers D.C. United, College and Youth soccer for MLSsoccer.com