Reports of men's college soccer's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Following the launch of Major League Soccer and its various youth initiatives, most of the top youth players were expected to bypass college altogether.
While some players have taken a direct path to the pros, few have succeeded.
Of the 23 players on the U.S. Confederations Cup roster - all players who finished high school after MLS's start in 1996 - 15 played college soccer for one or more seasons.
Much like the top college basketball programs, perennial men's soccer powers have had to adjust to the planned (usually entry into MLS draft) or sudden (summer moves abroad) departure of their best players before their eligibility expires. From its 2008 national championship team, Maryland lost five players - Omar Gonzalez, Jeremy Hall, Rodney Wallace, AJ DeLaGarza and Graham Zusi - who are starting or earning significant minutes in MLS, but the Terrapins should contend for the national title again.
The 10 starters from Wake Forest's 2007 championship team who are no longer with the team are all playing pro ball in MLS, the USL or Europe. That includes rising senior Cody Arnoux, who signed with English club Everton a month before the start of the 2009 season.
Despite Arnoux's departure, the Demon Deacons should also be in the running for the national title. About the time Everton inked Arnoux, Wake announced the signing of midfielder Andy Lubahn, who had spent time at Belgian club Cercle Brugge.
Flexibility is key for the big programs.
Maryland lost giant Canadian signing Olivier Lacoste-Lebuis with an ankle injury but recently confirmed the addition of Dominican Gonzalo Frechilla, who has spent time with teams in Argentina and Spain.
College programs are the beneficiaries of the experience players have gained at MLS clubs.
Maryland's 2009 roster is a who's who of standouts from MLS academies - sophomore Matt Kassel (Red Bull New York) is joined by Haitian youth international Widner Saint Cyr, another Red Bull product, London Woodberry from FC Dallas and Paul Torres of D.C. United.
Torres' teammates on the D.C. United U-17/18 team that finished second in the 2009 Development Academy included players headed to Virginia, West Virginia and George Mason.
Wake heads title contenders
Wake Forest and Maryland are among the 2009 title contenders.
Despite the late loss to Arnoux, the Deacons are the team to beat. They return a solid nucleus with Akira Fitzgerald in goal, Ike Opara, Danny Wenzel and Nick Millington in the back, Corben Bone and Austin da Luz in midfield, and Zack Schilawski up front.
Maryland is much younger. The Terrapins' top returnee is forward Casey Townsend, supported by fellow sophomores Kassel and Kaoru Forbes in midfield. Maryland is the thinnest on defense, so goalie Zac MacMath, another sophomore, should get plenty of work.
For four of the last five seasons, at least three ACC teams have reached the elite eight.
Other ACC contenders are 2008 runner-up North Carolina and Virginia. Sophomore Bill Schuler leads the Heels. The Cavs get back Chris Agorsor and Tony Tchani, who both suffered knee injuries last season.
The Big Ten ranks second behind the ACC with six quarterfinalists in the last five years.
Northwestern and Indiana, last year's representatives in the final eight, should be solid at the back with Mark Blades (only the Wildcats' second All-American) and Ofori Sarkodie (former U.S. U-17 and U-20 standout), respectively.
Other Midwest contenders include Akron, Creighton and UIC.
The Zips lost Hermann Trophy winner Steve Zakuani to the Seattle Sounders FC but may have this year's deepest team. They return seven other starters from last year's team, including junior midfielder Anthony Ampaipitakwong and sophomore Kofi Sarkodie, Ofori's brother, and feature the nation's top recruiting class as selected by Soccer America.
Experience is one thing Creighton won't be lacking. A trio of five-year seniors, Byron Dacy, Chris Schuler and Seth Sinovic, leads the Bluejays, who return nine starters from last year's team that lost to Maryland in the quarterfinals.
UIC features All-American goalie Jovan Bubonja, one of returning seven starters. Also back is senior back Mike Giffin, a crucial member of the Flames' 2007 quarterfinal team, after sitting out last season due to a foot injury.
The Big East has sent two different teams to the final eight the last two years - St. John's and South Florida in 2008 and Connecticut and Notre Dame in 2007.
St. John's, the defending Big East champion, should be the team to beat with a deep squad that includes midfielder Nelson Becerra and Swedish defender Joel Gustafsson. John Tardy - another MLS academy standout (Red Bull) - transferred from South Carolina.
The defending champions in the four Far West conferences are UC Irvine (Big West), Denver (MPSF), UCLA (Pac-10) and San Francisco (WCC), though the leading title contender could be California.
Despite the loss of goalie Stefan Frei, who left with a year's eligibility remaining to sign with MLS's Toronto FC, the Bears are talented. They return Andrew Wiedeman and Hector Jimenez and welcome talented John Fitzpatrick to their all-California roster.
Trouble in ACC country
Don't count Clemson and Virginia Tech among the 2009 title contenders.
Four seasons after Clemson's most recent appearance at the Men's College Cup and two seasons after Virginia Tech's first trip to the final four, the ACC schools were thrown into turmoil.
Within 16 days of each other in June, Virginia Tech's Oliver Weiss unexpectedly quit as the Hokies' head coach in an apparent dispute with his athletic department over the recruitment of foreign players, and Clemson coach Trevor Adair resigned - two months after his arrest for allegedly assaulting his two daughters and placement on leave of absence.
Adair, who led the Tigers to five appearances in the NCAA Division I quarterfinals, was replaced by Tiger assistant Phil Hindson, who took over as interim head coach for the 2009 season.
Mike Brizendine was promoted to Virginia Tech head coach following Weiss's resignation.
Both Hindson and Brizendine have their work cut out for them.
Clemson struggled in recent years. It hasn't had a winning record in ACC play since 2001 and is coming off its first back-to-back losing seasons ever.
Virginia Tech went from 3-1-4 in ACC play in 2007 to 0-8-0 in 2008.
Recruiting has been an issue for both programs.
In the last decade, Clemson attracted such future national team stars as Oguchi Onyewu and Stuart Holden but they headed abroad after short stays.
In recent years, the Tigers failed to keep up with its ACC rivals on the recruiting front and relied upon transfers such as Dane Richards and Frederico Moojen on the 2005 NCAA Division I semifinalist team.
Weiss recruited heavily in Europe and Africa and found a gem in Patrick Nyarko, who was drawn to Blacksburg by Tech's strong academic program.
But in 2007, he imported four foreign exchange students - three Germans ages 25, 23 and 23 and an Englishman, 6-foot-6 Robert Edmans - who spent one season in Blacksburg.
When a new crop of imports didn't produce the same results in 2008 as the previous group had in 2007, it marked the beginning of the end for Weiss, himself an exchange student when he arrived in the United States from Germany for high school.
(This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)