The 2010 national title contenders in college soccer start and stops in the major power conferences. Five of the last 10 champions have emerged from the ACC, and defending champion Virginia will be eager to defend its title.
It won't be an easy path for the Cavaliers, as 2009 runner-up Akron return will certainly be right near the top once again. The preseason No. 1 in several polls, Akron lost some significant talent, but should be well-stocked for another postseason run.
Last season's finalists will run into a tough and determined field, with schools like Maryland, Wake Forest and UCLA among those eager to scrap for a place in the upper echelons of men's college soccer. Almost every team in the country has had to endure some sort of changeover, and how each copes with that will factor into success this year.
Here is a look at ten top teams to keep an eye on in 2010:
Teal Bunbury, Ben Zemanski and Blair Gavin all played massive parts in the Zips' run to the 2009 College Cup final, and are now gone. But there are players eager and ready to step in and lift Akron back to a title game appearance. Coach Caleb Porter knows the game well, and he has a slew of talent to choose from — forward Darlington Nagbe will help the Zips forget about Bunbury, while 2009 All American Anthony Ampaipitakwong will once again be a force in the midfield.
Sprinkle in a couple of U.S. U-20 youth players like Zarek Valtentin and Kofi Sarkodie, and Akron could easily make another deep tournament run. The Zips will get an early chance to prove themselves, traveling and playing against North Carolina and Wake Forest.
NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS
With Wake Forest and Virginia sorting out their replacements from last year, the Tar Heels in North Carolina could be battling it out with Maryland for the top spot in the ACC and the nation.
Billy Schuler and Michael Farfan are three of the reasons why this could be a very good year for the Tar Heels, though losing Cameron Brown to a torn ACL will definitely hurt. An early test against No. 1 Akron this Friday will be a strong indicator of whether this team can live up to the preseason expectations.
Two years removed from a national championship, this year's version of the Maryland Terrapins is as strong as ever. One of the first players to garner mention is goalie Zac MacMath, a U.S. U-20 player who trained with Tim Howard at Everton this year.
While he may not even be the best goalie in the ACC, MacMath provides a solid foundation that is augmented by Ethan White, an intriguing defensive prospect who started 23 games as a freshman. Jason Herrick will be the man to drive the attack, partnering with the oft-injured Casey Townsend.
The defending champions have their work cut out for them right from day one, losing almost their entire starting midfield from 2009. Only one senior is on the preseason roster, and the task is going to be a tough one for the Cavaliers.
Diego Restrepo returns in goal, and UVA will hope to call on the attacking tandem of Will Bates and Brian Ownby. Still, their midfield needs to be rebuilt from scratch, though there are certainly a number of younger players eager to please.
A Pac-10 battle is brewing out west, with Stanford looking to keep pace with the UCLA Bruins this year. There's not as much glamor, at least in terms of individual accolades, but the Bruins should be a fun team to watch down the stretch. Chandler Hoffman will be relied upon for goal scoring for a team which has endured a fair share of turnover.
WAKE FOREST DEMON DEACONS
Another ACC team with some moving parts to replace. Gone are Ike Opara, Austin da Luz, Corben Bone and Zach Schilawski to MLS. Big seasons will be needed from Andy Lubahn and to alleviate those losses, and it's a reason why the Demon Deacons were voted to finish fourth in the ACC. By the same token, they were No. 3 in the preseason poll by NCAA.
Jay Vidovich can only hope that he's recruited well and brought in the right players to step into some of these gaps.
The Gauchos have perfect motivation prior to the start of the regular season — the 2010 College Cup final will be hosted out West, and it would be a perfect time to reprise their championship winning season of 2006. To get to that point, they'll have to emerge on top of the Big West behind goalie Sam Hayden. The attack will be led by midfielder and preseason All-American selection Daniel Barrera, as the Gauchos aim to play in the championship they get to host.
DUKE BLUE DEVILS
Can Duke hang with the rest of the ACC? Most preseason voting has them in fifth place, but with a strong roster of returnees, led by Andrew Wenger. The sophomore central defender has earned a number of preseason accolades, including the Hermann Trophy watch list. However, he can't be relived on for offense, which is why Cole Grossman and Ryan Finley need to have big years to shake things up in the ACC.
Out West, UCLA's biggest threat to Pac-10 supremacy is the Standford Cardinal. Defender Bobby Warshaw is the big name for Stanford, winner of a number of accolades last year, including a Semifinalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy and a selection to the All America team.
He'll need help if Stanford is to exceed expectations and contend for a title. Sophomore forward Adam Jahn is more than capable of stepping up, as is defender Ryan Thomas.
SOUTH FLORIDA BULLS
While a top level professional franchise eludes the Southern tip of Florida, the collegiate program in place could be an exciting one to watch this year. Look no further than a preseason win over Akron to show what this team is capable up.
Returning All American goalie Jeff Attinella leads from the back, but USF needs to improve in the final third to reach their potential. Co-scoring leaders last year Bernardo Amor and Sebastien Thuriere will have to pick up where they left off, and then some, to push the Bulls to new heights.
OTHER SCHOOLS TO WATCH
Monmouth, Harvard, Boston College, Dartmouth, Tulsa, Northwestern, UC Irvine, Indiana, Portland, Drake
Who do you see lifting the NCAA trophy this year? What team is missing from this list that you could see making a strong run?
Share your thoughts below.