Journey to PPL Park Begins This Weekend
The journey to PPL Park in Chester, site of the 2013 College Cup, officially begins this weekend as the college soccer regular season opens.
As is the case across the Division 1 college sports landscape, this season will see dozens of teams playing in new conferences, some new to Division 1 and others playing in leagues that make no geographical sense, a couple new soccer complexes, shiny new uniforms and more games broadcast on television and over the internet than ever before.
Defending champions Indiana go into the season as popular favorites, topping the coaches poll and many other preseason predictions, but their road to PPL will be anything but a cake walk as they kick off this weekend with match-ups against SMU and 9th-ranked UCLA. Their season schedule also features ranked teams in Louisville, VCU, Northwestern and Notre Dame.
Perennial powers like Maryland and North Carolina go into the season loaded with talent and Georgetown seems poised to make another deep run in November while Creighton look to stay relevant in the new era of the “Catholic 7” Big East. UCLA continues to be the team to beat in the west and Jared Embick, who has huge shoes to fill at Akron as Portland Timbers coach Caleb Porter’s successor, should have little trouble keeping the Zips in the national conversation with the collection of talent he has. You also don’t want to forget about schools like Notre Dame and Louisville or the knack their head coaches, Bobby Clark and Ken Lolla, have for developing talent.
Other teams to watch are a New Mexico team anchored by three pro prospects, a Marquette squad with depth and experience and a Tulsa team led by brothers both on the Hermann Trophy Watch List.
Marshall and Nebraska Omaha aren’t in the conversation for preseason favorites in either of their conferences, but both can boast new facilities. Marshall christened their new $8 million stadium with a win against a team of alumni on Friday night and UNO is expected to have construction completed on their converted football stadium some time this season. Construction will be ongoing this season on Kentucky’s home field, the UK Soccer Complex as part of a $7.7 million overhaul.
Between the Pac-12 Network, Big 10 Network, ESPNU and a new channel launched by the NSCAA, there will be 85-plus games available to watch live this season, lending more opportunities for soccer fans to embrace the sport at the collegiate level, particularly on Friday nights when there isn’t competition from MLS games.
The Hermann Trophy race, the award for the top college player, is Patrick Mullins’ to lose. The Maryland star is the favorite to receive top honors from the Missouri Athletic Club but he’ll have stiff competition that includes three semifinalists from 2012 in Georgetown’s Steve Neumann, UConn’s Mamadou Diouf and St. Louis forward Robbie Kristo among others.
As conferences go, effects of a massive conference shake-up have resulted in 29 Division 1 colleges changing leagues.
Much of the movement trickled down from the break-up of the Big East conference, which has reinvented itself as the American Athletic and the new “Catholic 7” Big East, which features teams nowhere near the east like Creighton, Butler and DePaul. Each will be major players come tournament time with schools like UConn and Louisville leading the charge in the American and Creighton and Georgetown anchoring the Big East. But neither conference will be able to claim top league status since the already wealthy ACC just got wealthier with the addition of Notre Dame, Syracuse and Pittsburgh.
Conference USA, meanwhile, increased its profile with the addition of New Mexico and Charlotte and the WAC joins the fray as a men’s soccer conference with many of the teams formerly in the Mountain Pacific. Sadly, fans in Richmond and Towson won’t have men’s teams to cheer on this fall as both programs were cut, but UMass Lowell and Grand Canyon will fill their shoes as new programs in Division 1.
The College Cup will cap the fall season on December 13 and 15 at PPL Park, but before that happens teams have to make it to their conference tournaments and perform well enough to earn an automatic or at-large berth into the NCAA tournament. It’s a long journey, one all 206 Division 1 teams have (unlike college football) an opportunity to take and one I’m looking forward to following week in and week out over the next three months.