A Few Things To Think About When Looking Ahead To The 2018 Season

A lot is going to happen between now and the beginning of the 2018 College Soccer season.  However, it is never too early to look ahead regarding some of the key storylines coast to coast in 2018.  

Stanford - Winning a single national championship is an extremely difficult task. Winning three in a row is a hurculean and improbable accomplishment but clearly possible as Stanford estabished last year and Virginia did back in the day when they won four in a row.  As a result that begs the question. Can the Cardinal win their fourth consecutive national championship in 2018 as Virginia did or will this be the season in which one of the most spectacular runs in the history of college soccer comes to an end? 

Stanford has adjusted to key losses due to graduation in the past but the challenge they face due to departures and the resulting voids that have to be filled may be steeper in 2018 than in past seasons.  The seniors from the 2017 team includes forwards Foster Langsdorf and Corey Baird, midfielders Drew Skundrich and Bryce Marion, center back Tomas Hilliard-Arce, and goalkeeper Nico Corti.  During their tenure on The Farm, Stanford won three national championships, four Pac-12 titles, and recorded a 65-10-13 overall record. 

Langsdorf and Baird combined up-top to form one of the most dynamic forward duos in the nation.  All-American Langsdorf had thirty-seven career goals while Baird contributed a total of thirty career assists. Skundrich, a versatile four-year starter, was a team leader and the pace setter in the midfield while Marion, a two-year starter, added speed to the attack as an outside midfielder. Hilliard-Arce was a four-year starter and tenacious defender who also added an additional dimension to the attack out of set pieces. Corti assumed the starting role between the pipes in 2017 and recorded a 0.39 goals against average while notching fourteen cleansheets. 

The cupboard will be far from bare at Stanford in 2018 and head coach Jeremy Gunn has shown the ability to reorganize after losing key players in the past without missing a beat. The Cardinal will no doubt be extremely competitive once again in 2018 but four-peat good will require a great effort from a lot of new faces on both sides of the ball but it could happen. 

Creighton - The Bluejays are among the programs that you expect to see in the NCAA Tournament field as refleted in the fact that they had earned a berth in twenty-four out of the past twenty-five seasons heading into the 2017 campaign. However, no berth was forthcoming in 2017.  

Creighton finished the 2017 campaign with a 9-7-2 overall record and a disappointing 3-4-2 mark against Big East Conference members.  The Bluejays were a solid 7-1-1 when playing in the friendly confines of Morriston Stadium but didn't fare well on the road with a 2-6-1 record.

Creighton just never seemed to get in gear last year. Three of their Big East Conference losses seemed to reflect the season. The first was their opening contest in Big East Conference play against Butler on the road when they uncharacteristically blew a 2-0 lead allowing the Bulldogs to come from behind to secure a 3-2 win in overtime.  They then appeared to be gaining momentum before being upset by Seton Hall 2-0 on the road. Their third benchmark contest was a loss on the road to Marquette during which a porous defensive effort enabled the Golden Eagles to put four in the back of the net to become the first team to do that to Creighton since 2006. 

Key departures include forward Ricky Lopez-Espin (12g, 3a) who was the 2017 Co-Big East Offensive Player of the Year, forward Marios Lomis (5g, 1a), midfielder Noah Franke (3g, 4a), and defender Lucas Stauffer (2g, 6a) who collectively accounted for twenty-two of the thrity-two goals Creighton scored last year.

Elmar Bolowich has announced the addition of four newcomers including transfers defender Younes Boudadi from Boston College and goalkeeper Duncan Werling from UCLA who he hopes will help right the ship. The bottom line is that improvemet will be needed on both sides of the ball in order for Creighton to get back on track in a very competitive Big East Conference. Clearly some new faces are going to have to step forward for the Bluejays.  Just who they are going to be is a big question mark.

NJIT - The New Jersey Institute of Technology under the direction of second year head coach Fernando Barboto may not be a household word in college soccer but nonetheless they had a very a productive season in 2017 with a 8-7-4 overall record that included a 3-2-1 mark and third place finish in the ASUN Conference. The HIghlanders attracted a little attention when they opened the 2017 season with a 5-0-1 mark to record their best start since beginning Division I play back in 2004. 

Senior forward Mamadou Guirassy, the 2017 ASUN Player of the Year, found the back of the net sixteen times last year to lead the Division I in scoring after netting a total of ten goals the three previous seasons. Guirassy clearly played a key role in NJIT's succes. Whether the Highlanders will be able to increase their win total in 2018 will depend a lot on their ability to find a way to replace the offensive firepower that Guirassy and fellow senior Danny Cordeiro (5g, 3a) brought to the pitch.  They were responsible for twenty-one of the twenty-eight goals NJIT scored last year. 

Maryland - The Terps stumbled down the homestretch of the 2017 season and to the surprise of all were unable to recover. Will they rebound in 2018 after a puzzling and totally out of character conclusion to the 2017 regular season that included five consecutive losses and a one and done and stunned appearence in the NCAA Tournament in which they were topped by Albany in a penalty kick shootout?   

Maryland went from a number three national ranking with an impressive 10-0-3 record to conclude the season unranked with a 10-5-4 overall record.  It is noteworthy that during that six game stretch one of the most high powered offenses in the country managed a total of only two goals while the Terp defense allowed opponents to tally nine goals. 

Sasho Cirovski is among the best in the business and will have plenty of returning talent to work with in 2018.  However he must replace midfielder Jake Rozhansky and defender George Campbell who have graduated as well as forward Goldon Wild and midfielder Eryk Williamson who left early to enter the professional ranks.

Chances are pretty good that Cirovski and his staff will sort things out, address any deficiencies, and get the Terps back into contention on the national scene and in the Big Ten Conference. The focus at Maryland will be on moving forward so don't expect Cirovski to spend a lot of time looking in the rear view mirror.  Nonetheless, the unanswered question is how long will it take to implement the fixes? Time will tell.    

Saint Louis - Kevin Kalish, who played for the Billikens in 1997 and 1998, was named the seventh head coach at Saint Louis in January 2018. Kalish assumed the reigns of the program from Mike McGinty who served as the head coach at Saint Louis for eight seasons. McGinty replaced Dan Donigan who left to accept the head coaching jot at Rutgers. The Billikens made seven trips to the NCAA Tournament during the nine seasons that Donigan was at the helm of the program. During McGinty's tenure the Billikens were 81-56-14 with a 7-9-1 overall record in 2017 and a 4-4-0 mark in Atlantic 10 play.  During the eight seasons that McGinty was the head coach, Saint Louis punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament twice (2012 and 2014). 

Saint Louis is a proud program with a history of success but not in recent history.  A lot of very good soccer talent comes out of the Saint Louis area so Kalish's success may be determined in large part by how much of that talent he can attract. The fact that Kalish has a backgroud as a head coach at SIU Edwardsville (2008-2013) and most recently served as the Club Director at St. Louis Scott Gallagher would appear to be a plus in that regard.

Keep an eye on Saint Louis in 2018.  Kalish has his work cut out for him.  The A-10 Conferene is more competitive than many people think and clearly not the "cake walk" that many Saint Louis fans thought it would be when they joined the conference. The bottom line is that Saint Louis needs momentum and for that to occur the program and Kalish need tangible success that they can be build on.  A good showing in A-10 play in 2018 would be a good starting point and perhaps is a must.  A berth in the NCAA Tournament would be huge for the Billikens but may be a stretch goal in 2018.  

UC Santa Barbara - The Gauchos have been absent from the NCAA Tourney field for the past two seasons. UCSB was inconsitent in 2017 with injuries likey contributing to that. Clearly the loss of midfielder Kevin Feucht due to injury before the season started had a negative impact on UCSB's offensive productivity.  Another factor at play is the level of parity that now exists in the Big West Conference. 

Once a powerhouse, the Gauchos by their own standards, have struggled the past two seasons. UCSB was 6-8-5 overall last year with a 4-3-3 mark in Big West play. Last year they scored a total of only eighteen times while allowing opponents to score twenty-seven times.  

Forward Rodney Michael (8g, 4a), the Big West Freshman of the Year, was responsible for one-half of the eighteen goals that UCSB tallied in 2017.  Michael's productivity in 2018 and the ability of others to add balance to the attack will be a key factor in whether or not the UCSB offense will have a little more bite. Defender Adrian Adames and goalkeeper Alan Carrillo who also had solid freshman seasons look to be among key factors on the defensive side of the ball.

Tim Vom Steeg knows what it takes to win at the highest level and has a track record of identifying gaps and successfully filling the voids that exist. Whether or not he can accomplish that in 2018 with returning players who now have a year of experience under their belts or through newcomers looks to be the key unanswered question. The 2018 season may be a tipping point of sorts for UCSB.  Can the the Gauchos regain the momentum they once had?

Western Michigan - Will the Broncos be able to sustain the level of success they enjoyed in 2017 which clearly was unprecedented and arguably the best season in program history?  Western Michigan's resume in 2017 included a top national ranking, a school record severnteen win season, the program's first ever regular season MAC championship, a top ten seed in the NCAA Tournament, and a trip to the Sweet Sixteen. 

Clearly no one will look past Western Michigan in 2018. Duplicating or even coming close to the success they enjoyed in 2018 will be a formidable accomplishment for a program that will be without the services due to graduation of All-American Brandon Bye (12g, 7a), the most decorated player in Bronco history, forward Jay McIntosh (6g, 10A), center back Zach Bock, and highly regarded goalkeeper Drew Sheppard. 

On the plus side of the ledger head coach Chad Wiseman returns the likes of midfielders Tommy Clark (1g, 8a), Kosti Moni (5g, 2a) and Jake Rofe (2g, 3a) as well as defender Ben Thorton (5g, 5a) who are all very solid players. Success breeds success which is always a plus on the recruting trail. In that regard, Wiseman has already announced the addition of sophomore transfer defender Brendan Skinner who was a starter last year for Marquette. 

North Carolina - There is a reason why the folks in Chapel Hill like to say "It's always a good day to be a Tar Heel."   Over the past ten years North Carolina has advanced to the Elite Eight eight times and to the College Cup six times including the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

Last year the Tar Heel attack was among the most productive in the country.  UNC found the back of the net a total of fifty-three times which equated to an average of 2.41 goals per contest. Carlos Somoano, the active leader in winning percentage among Division I head coaches, will enter his eighth season as the Tar Heel mentor in 2018 facing the challenge of replacing the firepower that has departed the building due to the graduation of forwards All-American Alan Winn (11g, 2a) and Zach Wright (4g, 11a) and All-American midfielder Cam Lindley (7g, 13a) who elected to take his game to the professional level at the conclusion of his sophomore season.

North Carolina is among the programs that reloads rather than rebuilds. Somoano will have plenty of talent to work including forward Jelani Pieters (9g, 7a), forward Nils Bruening who didn't play in 2017 due to injury, and midfielder Mauricio Pineda (3g, 1a). The Tar Heels will be very competitive in 2018. Just how competitive will depend in large part on their ability to fill the rather large void that exists on the offensive side of the ball.  

UCLA - Without a doubt, the Bruins were the most glaring omission from the 2017 NCAA Tournament field.  A  7-10-1 overall record with a 4-6-0 mark in Pac-12 play halted UCLA's consecutive steak of NCAA Tournament appearances last year at thirty-four.

The Bruins played a brutal schedule in 2017 that included contests on the road against Maryland, Georgetown, and Clemson in September which made it challenging for a team with a lot of newcomers to gel. It is also a fact that UCLA has had to deal with a lot of players leaving early over the past three seasons to enter the professional ranks which can impact team chemistry.  It is great to have a roster that includes the level of talent that the UCLA recrutis usually have. However, the flip side of that is that it increases the likelyhood that they will depart early to enter the professional ranks.  In addition, Bruin head coach Jorge Salcedo annually faces the daunting (while nice to have) challenge of merging the individual talents of a group of players with impressive resumes into a unified team.

The Bruins never came together as a team last year.  Instead of improving as the season progressed, UCLA lost five of their last six contests including a 3-1 loss on the road to San Diego, and Pac-12 losses to Stanford 5-1, California 3-1, and a season ending 4-0 loss to San Diego State. 

Salcedo pretty much summed things up after the loss to California when he stated, "We beat ourselves and that has been a theme throughout the season."  He added, "It is such a bitter taste we all have because this group deserved more, but it will force us to take a long, hard look at all facets of our program."

No matter how you spin it, UCLA's subpar record in 2017 raises questions about the heart of this group and whether they can gel and rebound as a team in 2018.  Was the 2017 campaign just a blimp on the radar screen for one of the premier programs in the country or the signal of a downward trend?

N.C. State - The Wolfpack exceeded expectations in 2017 under new head coach George Kiefer.  N.C. State had a 8-6-4 overall record and a 3-3-2 mark in Atlantic Coast Conference play last year that included banner wins over Clemson, Syracuse, and Louisville.  As a result the Wolfpack received an invite to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the 2009 campaign.

Kiefer's impact was seen before the season started when he added a recruiting class that was ranked by College Soccer News as among the top fifteen in the country.  The class led by forward Manny Perez (5g, 4a) who was named the ACC Freshman of the Year lived up to expectations. In addition to Perez, fellow freshmen midfielders David Loera (1g, 5a) and Brad Sweeney (0g, 2a), goalkeeper Leon Krapf, and defender David Norris were in the Wolfpack starting lineup. 

The big question heading into 2018 for the Wolfpack is the degree to which they will build on the success they enjoyed last year.  Chances for continued improvement appear to be good if the freshmen are able to get the bump in performance that normally occurs between the freshmen and sophomore seasons when players have the added advantage of a year of experience.  

The aphorism that "a rising tide lifts all boats" applys when a fellow conference member improves and increases its wins aginst non-conference opponents thus enhacing the RPI for all teams in the conference. On the other hand, teams in the ACC begin to bump each other off when they get into conference play.  Accordingly when one team enhances its competitiveness in conference play it is often at the expense of another conference member.  Stay tuned to see how all of this all plays out. 

Indiana - Nine starters are slated to return for the team that was 18-1-6 overall with a 5-0-3 mark in Big Ten play last year and advanced to the National Championship contest.  Therefore the prognosis for the Hoosiers in 2018 looks very good. However there remains one big unanswered question.

Heading into the 2017 season offensive productivity, or more specifically who was going to step forward to provide the big play ability that the Hoosiers would need to prevail in the close contests, was the key issue. Yeagley very successfuly addressed that need with an offense that featured a more balanced attack than Indiana had at times in past seasons. 

Nonetheless, the one player who gave the attack the additional punch required was freshman forward Mason Toye who contributed ten goals including five game-winners.  The departure of Toye, who elected to enter the professional ranks after a stellar freshman season, means that Indiana faces the same question heading into the 2018 season that they faced heading into the 2017 campaign. Who is going to provide the big play ability that the Hoosiers will need to prevail in the close contests against top level competition?  Solve that without a drop off in other areas and the sky is the limit for this team.

The Hoosiers also must replace All-American back Grant Lillard due to graduation. Lillard was a rock solid fixture in the Indiana defense ever since arriving on campus as a freshman.