Former champions UConn and Indiana return to title hunt

[MEN'S TOP 25 PREVIEWS: 11-20] Connecticut (winner of two national titles) and Indiana (which captured the last of its seven national championships in 2004) are both looking to return to the Men's College Cup after exiting prematurely during the 2006 postseason.

11. CONNECTICUT. On paper, the Huskies have as much talent as any team in the country, beginning with an experienced senior class, led by All-American Julius James and fellow captains Ryan Cordeiro and Karl Schilling.

Nine starters remain from a year ago, with five of them having experience in at least one of UConn's back-to-back Big East championship runs in 2004 and 2005.

That group doesn't include Jamaica international Akeem Priestley, who transferred to UConn last year and finished with four goals and five assists, and Finn Toni Stahl, the 2006 Big East Rookie of the Year and the anchor of the midfield.

A big problem for Ray Reid's team last year was its inability to win at home. Despite leading the nation in average attendance, the Huskies were only 5-6-0.

Preseason Notebook: For the first time in Reid's 10 years at UConn, the starting job in goal was completely wide open. In the 1-0 win over Boston University, redshirt Josh Ford and junior transfer Martin Nieuwoudt from Pretoria, South Africa, split time. Against Duke, Ford played the entire game. (Sophomore Matt Sangeloty played every minute of the 2006 season.)

12. INDIANA. The winners of their sixth and seventh national titles in 2003 and 2004, the Hoosiers have failed to make the final eight of the last two NCAA Tournaments, falling to Notre Dame, 2-0, in 2005 and losing in a shootout to Santa Clara in 2006.

IU returns 18 letterwinners, including U.S. U-20 defender Ofori Sarkodie, who returned for his sophomore year, second-team all-Big Ten pick Greg Stevning and leading scorer Brian Ackley.

After battling injuries in his first season, Kevin Alston played this summer with the USA at the Pan Am Games and looks to be healthy. Red-shirt freshman Danny Kelly was part of the 2005 U.S. U-17 national team with Sarkodie and Alston.

Sophomore Darren Yeagle is recovering from a knee injury but could be cleared soon to begin light workouts.

Preseason Notebook: A first half-goal from Kevin Noschang gave IU a 1-0 win over New Mexico on Saturday night at the National Soccer Festival in Ft. Wayne, Ind.

13. WEST VIRGINIA. The Mountaineers were last year's surprise under first-year coach Marlon LeBlanc, the Soccer America Coach of the Year.

Last year, WVU set as its goal to make the Big East Tournament. It won the 2006 Big East regular-season title. This year, LeBlanc has raised the bar. The Mountaineers are shooting for a national championship.

WVU certainly be prepared for post-season play. It opens against tough Big ten teams Ohio State and Penn State and later faces ACC powers Duke and Maryland in other non-conference action.

LeBlanc's veteran team will return all of the starting midfielders, including Dan Stratford, who led the Big East in assists a year ago. Gift Maworere started 20 games in midfield as a freshman in 2006.

The two other returning starters in the midfield -- Mike Anoia and all-Big East pick Andy Wright -- could very well find themselves playing up top.

Preseason Notebook: Wright scored a pair of goals and Anoia netted a third to lead WVU to a 3-0 win over Marshall.

14. WASHINGTON. UW returns nine starters from last year's group that started the season with an eight-game unbeaten streak. Veteran coach Dean Wurzberger wants more from his squad in 2007, beginning with improved play in the Pac-10, where the Huskies have finished higher than third just once since winning the inaugural league crown in 2000.

The Huskies' strength this year will undoubtedly be their offensive firepower, featuring the senior strike force of Kevin Forrest (the 2006 Pac-10 Player of the Year with a conference-leading 16 goals) and Ely Allen. Incoming recruits led by U-17 U.S. forward Ellis McLoughlin.

Ty Harden left UW for MLS, where he has started for the Los Angeles Galaxy. Wurzberger will also be replacing the other center back, Matt Fischer.

Preseason Notebook: Last year, Raphael Cox led the Pac-10 with nine assists for 0.43 assists per game. In the 4-1 friendly win over neighbor Seattle Pacific, Cox went from playmaker to play-maker, scoring on a chip from the left side of the field.

15. CALIFORNIA. The Golden Bears won their first-ever Pac-10 title in 2006 but lost nine players from last year's squad.

But senior forward Javier Ayala-Hil, who led Cal in goals (12) and points (26) last year and was an All-Pac-10 first-team selection, is back, along with senior midfielder Andrew Jacobson, a two-time first-team All-Pac-10 choice.

Senior defender Luke Sassano, sophomore midfielder Imaan Kerchgani and junior midfielder Jacob Wilson were 2006 honorable mention All-Pac-10 picks.

Preseason Notebook: Cal coach Kevin Grimes says Cal's goalkeeping position is the most competition of any position on the field. Sophomore Stefan Frei, Cal's lone returning goalkeeper, was facing competition from Patrick Fry, who joins the Bears after transferring from Cal State Los Angeles, and freshman Jordan Bethke.

16. NORTHWESTERN. The Wildcats enjoyed their most memorable postseason run in history last fall, reaching the quarterfinals, where they fell to eventual champion UCSB.

Over the past four seasons, the Wildcats have amassed 45 victories, which included 15- and 14-win seasons in 2004 and 2006. The one thing missing: a Big Ten title.

"We know that it is important for us this year to have a good Big Ten campaign," Coach Tim Lenahan said.

Leading the way for the Wildcats this season will be senior David Roth, a Soccer America MVP in 2006 who Lenahan says "leads the nation in high-fives." Complementing Roth in the midfield is redshirt sophomore Carl Pett.

Preseason Notebook: One concern for Northwestern is scoring. After Roth, no returning Wildcat scored more than two goals last season. In preseason action against Saint Louis (1-1 tie) and Notre Dame (3-0 loss), only Roth scored.

17. CREIGHTON. The Bluejays advanced to their 15th straight NCAA Tournament last year and captured as record 10th MVC tournament title.

They return five starters (at least 13 starts), while four other returnees earned at least eight starts last fall. Senior Matt Allen, junior Byron Dacy and sophomore Chris Schuler were each tabbed to the preseason all-Missouri Valley team, while seniors Tim Bohnenkamp and Tony Schmitz should be important contributors.

Allen was the 2006 MVC Defensive Player of the Year, while Dacy was named the 2006 MVC Tournament MVP.

Preseason Notebook: Dacy, who led the Bluejays in scoring in each of his first two seasons at Creighton, will miss at least three weeks after suffering a torn left ACL in a non-contact injury Saturday night in the Bluejays' exhibition match with Ohio State. An MRI on Monday revealed that the knee suffered no damage beyond the torn ACL.

18. NEW MEXICO. The Lobos lead the nation with a .828 winning percentage the last three years -- by far the highest in the nation.

What does that statistic mean to Coach Jeremy Fishbein, who led UNM to a second-place finish nationally in 2005?

"We are not there yet," stated Fishbein. "We are certainly in the conversation when you talk about the top programs in the country, but we need to make deep runs in the NCAA Tournament on a consistent basis to be considered among the elite."

With nine returning starters -- led by five seniors -- New Mexico certainly has the experience to be a contender on the national scene this season.

Senior Mike Graczyk set a school record with 13 shutouts in 2005 and added 11 last season. Despite the loss of New Zealand international Andrew Boyens to MLS's Toronto FC, the Lobos will have a deep backline in 2007, featuring sophomores Simon Ejdemyr in the middle, Zach Tierney and Justin Davis on the outside, and junior Mike Porter, who likely move back from the midfield to take the other central position.

Preseason Notebook: Even though UNM was held scoreless in losses to Notre Dame (3-0) and Indiana (1-0), Fishbein said the team improved over the weekend. "We played a lot better on Saturday compared to Thursday," he said of the IU game.

19. HARVARD. Don't be put off by the Crimson's relative youth -- 15 underclassmen and just two seniors. John Kerr Jr. has assembled a talented team favored to repeat as Ivy League champion.

Last year's 1-2-3 combination of U.S. U-20 Andre Akpan, Charles Altchek and Michael Fucito tormented Ivy opponents. Akpan and Fucito are back, while Altchek, only the third player in Ivy history to collect back-to-back Player of the Year honors, has graduated.
Altchek finished second in the league in scoring only to Akpan, the Ivy Rookie of the Year who led all Division I freshmen in scoring with 11 goals and 12 assists.

Fucito made a clean Harvard scoring sweep finishing third in the league in scoring with nine goals and nine assists.

Preseason Notebook: Akpan shed his No. 13 jersey in favor of No. 10, formerly worn by Altchek.

20. OLD DOMINION. The Monarchs are picked to win the always-tough CAA in 2007. Last year ODU made its fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the round of 16 for the first time in school history.

Leading the Monarchs this season will be 6-4 senior defender and captain, David Horst, the 2006 CAA Defender of the Year and a standout in the PDL this past summer.

Also named to the preseason all-CAA team for Old Dominion was junior Trevor Banks.

Back in goal is former U-17 resident Evan Newton, another summer standout in the PDL.

Preseason Notebook: Banks scored twice on Saturday in a 3-1 win over American. Freshman T.J. Beaulieu added the third goal.

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