I've followed NCAA College Division 1 soccer closely for the last decade, primarily as a scouting service in evaluating the draft for future MLS, NASL, and USL Pro players. Each year the college soccer season is decided by a 48-school knockout tournament called the College Cup. If you follow soccer you would know a single player doesn't make a team, so the reality is a well-coached side can succeed in college soccer and make the tournament without having any future MLS players. However, that being said, almost 90% of the players invited to the MLS Combine have college soccer tournament experience and over 80% of the players who are eventually drafted as well.
In my prediction of the pre-tournament draw I mentioned that I developed my own RPI on which club should be in the tournament based on results of the current season. This year my picks were similar to the actual NCAA committee in terms of schools, although our seeding order was quite different. Which means, in my opinion, the regions are quite uneven in terms of quality. Especially with regards to the 2014 MLS draft, prospects and potentially some of the most interesting games will actually take place in the earlier rounds.
Here is a summary of all the first two rounds of games and my overall predictions for the tournament. If wish, you can download the complete bracket here.
Regional Group 1
1. UCLA (11-3-4 Pac-12 At-Large)
Plays winner of Clemson (11-7-2 ACC At-Large) at Elon (15-4-2 Southern Champion)
UCLA are always a strong University in terms of soccer and this year is no exception with the senior combination of Victor Chavez (6g/6a), Reed Williams, Joe Sofia and Patrick Matchett. However, the development of German junior Leo Stolz (9g/5a) helped UCLA secure the number one spot. The Bruins play the winners of Clemson led by Thomas McNamara (7g/7a) as they travel to face Daniel Lovitz (4g/6a) at Elon. UCLA should advance easily against Clemson or Elon, although they might have difficulty in Round 3 against UMBC or UCONN
16. UMBC (16-1-2 America East Champion)
Plays winner of Quinnipiac (9-4-7 Metro Atlantic Champion) at Connecticut (11-2-6 AAC At-Large)
UMBC were ranked much higher throughout the season, but because they play in a small conference they were given the 16th seed by the committee. Lead by senior striker Pete Caringi (12g/3a/34SOG), whose father coaches the school, they will play the winner of Quinnipiac at UCONN. UCONN are led by the top keeper in college, Andre Blake (0.54GAVG), and Canadian freshman Cyle Larin (11g/2a). If Mamadou Diouf can start scoring, UCONN could win the whole region unseeded, but first will have to get by MAAC champion.
8. Virginia (10-5-5 Atlantic Coast At-Large)
Plays winner of St. John's (10-6-2 Big East At-Large) at Delaware (14-4-1 Colonial At-Large)
All three teams in this grouping are very young with only St John's having potential seniors in the draft in Goalkeeper Rafeal Diaz (0.78 Gavg) and Jimmy Mulligan (4g/2a). The Storm will be an underdog against Delaware and their freshman striker Guillermo Delgado (14g/5a), with the winner playing Virginia. Virginia are led by US national youth players sophomore Todd Wharton and freshman Jordan Allen, who are both potential future high draft picks and core MLS players, and have been improving as the season has progressed.
9. Marquette (12-5-2 Big East Champion)
Plays winner of Indiana (8-11-2 Big Ten Champion) at Akron (16-3-1 Mid-American Champion)
Certainly the most intriguing first round game is Indiana at Akron with both teams having no less than five potential 2014 MLS draft prospects each. Last year’s Soccer Cup winners Indiana have reconciled a horrible 2013 season by winning the Big Ten Champion and making the tournament, while Akron is in this position by having a very weak strength of schedule. The winner will play Marquette who are led by 6'7 Swedish defender Axel Sjoberg (2g/2a). The sophomore is listed by many as a potential GA, although its unsure if he wishes to leave school and play in MLS.
I will go with the upset and think Akron can go against the odds and win the region over UCONN in the elite 8.
Regional Group 2
4. California (12-4-2 Pac-12 At-Large)
Plays winner of Bradley (13-6-2 Missouri Valley Champion) at Northwestern (10-7-3 Big Ten At-Large)
A couple of overrated teams here in my opinion. California are a strong side but have depended on both the offensive and defensive contributions of senior defender Steve Birnnaum (9g/1a), whose performances so far have seen him skyrocket up the draft board from a third round to a first round pick. Northwestern were a bubble team in my opinion, although they have good senior leadership in Chris Ritter (5g/4a) and the goals of sophomore Joey Calistri (12g/4a) and should get by Bradley and the match be fairly even against California.
13. Charlotte (12-5-3 Conference USA Champion)
Plays winner of East Tennessee St. (10-5-4 Atlantic Sun Champion) at Coastal Carolina (17-4-0 Big South Champion)
Another team who I thought were unfairly ranked was Costal Carolina, led by my personal favorite player in college this season Pedro Ribeiro. The Brazilian, who I talked about in my preseason article, has only improved, scoring 11 goals and six assists from the midfield. If they get by ETSU, the Chanticleers will play Charlotte who are led by junior striker Giuseppe Gentile (8g/3a) and seniors Tyler Gibson (3g/3a), Aidan Kirkbride and Thomas Allen. Charlotte did beat Coastal Carolina 2-1 during non-conference play.
5. Maryland (13-3-5 Atlantic Coast Champion)
Plays winner of Providence (12-5-3 Big East At-Large) at Penn (8-8-1 Ivy Champion)
Despite only having the 5th seed, Maryland should be strong favorites to win this region and shouldn't have much difficulties with either Providence or Penn. Maryland are led by Patrick Mullins and after winning to top soccer player the year before he's continued this season with 14 goals, 7 assists and 42 shots on target. Maryland also have draft prospect Sunny Jane (2g/6a) and one of the top underclassman Schillo Tshuma (6g/1a). Providence play very smart and cagey soccer, lead by senior Anthony Baumann (4g/2a), while Penn are the 2nd lowest ranked team in the tournament.
12. UC Irvine (14-4-3 Big West Champion)
Plays winner of South Florida (8-3-9 AAC Champion) at North Carolina (8-5-5 Atlantic Coast At-Large)
A tough group played by three schools who know how to grind out games if needed. Much talked about North Carolina were one of the preseason favorites, but lost both of their strikers, although they still have a trio of young prospects in Boyd Okwuonu, Jordan McCrary, and Omar Holness. South Florida are led by Senior defender Ben Sweat and had the most ties in college soccer. I wouldn't be surprised if all games go to PK, although UC Irvine does have some offensive class in senior Enrique Cardenas who scored eight goals and also had six assists.
I like Maryland in this region although Costal Carolina, North Carolina, and UC Irvine are also interesting teams to watch.
Regional Group 3
3. Notre Dame (12-1-6 Atlantic Coast At-Large)
Plays winner of Milwaukee (14-2-2 Horizon Champion) at Wisconsin (13-4-2 Big Ten At-Large)
After losing Dilon Powers and Ethan Finlay the season before many expected a rebuilding year for the Irish, but the leadership of senior keeper Patrick Wall, defender Grant Van de Casteele and forward Harrison Shipp (9g/8a) have not only made Notre Dame competitive but the top ranked school east of the Pacific Coast. Notre Dame will host the 1st round local derby tie of Wisconsin and Milwaukee. Milwaukee is led by junior Laurie Bell (13g/3a), while Wisconsin have a couple of draft prospects including Canadian Tomislav Zadro (4g/8a) who has been battling injuries, but a real leader on offense when healthy.
14. Wake Forest (9-5-5 Atlantic Coast At-Large)
Plays winner of Navy (15-3-2 Patriot Champion) at VCU (11-7-2 Atlantic 10 At-Large)
Wake Forest are one of the most gifted teams in college soccer this season. With potentially four seniors who might be picked in this season’s draft, lead by midfielder Jared Watts (2g/4a) and one of the top GA prospects in Sean Okoli (8g/2a). However, on the pitch the team won less than half their games and are major underdog in terms of advancing through the region. This being said, Wake Forest shouldn't be tested until the third round as neither Navy or VCU represent much of a threat.
6. Georgetown (13-4-2 Big East At-Large)
Plays winner of Drexel (8-7-3 Colonial Champion) at Old Dominion (10-5-1 Conference USA At-Large)
Georgetown have two of the most exciting players currently in college soccer. Midfielder/Winger Steve Neumann (10g/6a) is ranked as not only by me as the top senior in the draft, but in my opinion the 1st overall pick. Forward Brandon Allen (11g/3a) is a New York Red Bulls homegrown player and many are looking forward to see what he can do in the MLS. Drexel and Old Dominion are both lead by British forwards with ODU's Tim Hopkinson (10g/4a/40sht) moving up the draft board despite him counting as an international signing.
11. Michigan St. (12-5-3 Big Ten At-Large)
Plays winner of Denver (13-3-3 Summit Champion) at Louisville (11-4-3 AAC At-Large)
Like California, Michigan State’s success can be traced to the leadership of their team captain and central defender Kevin Cope (2g/1a). Cope has battled with injuries, but after missing a few games mid-season looks strong going into the tournament and if healthy will continue to move up the draft board. Louisville will provide the Spartans stiff competition as Sophomore Marlon Hairston (3g/2a) continues to impress and tries to follow fellow Cardinal Andrew Farrell as a top draft pick.
This is the most difficult region to pick especially taking draft prospects into account. Since Georgetown was there last season, I will have them repeating to the final four beating Notre Dame in the final 8.
Regional Group 4
2. Washington (14-1-4 Pac-12 Champion)
Plays winner of Seattle (10-8-4 Western Athletic Champion) at Creighton (9-8-2 Big East At-Large)
Washington’s success is a bit of a surprise after losing top goalkeeping prospect Spencer Richey, although steady midfield play from seniors Michael Harris (2g/8a), Taylor Peay (6g) and Brad Jacobson (1g/2a) has turned the Huskies into one of the top teams in the US. Washington plays the winner of a disappointing Creighton and Seattle who is led by striker Miguel Gonzalez (13g/3a/44SOG). Creighton does have talent in Zach Barnes, Bruno Castro and preseason GA pick Eric Miller, and if they can get by Seattle they could give Washington trouble.
15. CS-Northridge (15-6-1 Big West At-Large)
Plays winner of Loyola Marymount (13-4-2 West Coast Champion) at Stanford (9-6-3 Pac-12 At-Large)
This group includes three West Coast schools, however due to geographical scheduling which is prevalent in college soccer, they did not play each other this season. CS-Northridge are led by Israeli striker Sagi Lev-Ari (16g/6a/31SOG) who has shown an interest in playing in MLS and it will be interesting if and where a team gives him that opportunity. Stanford has a very young team led by Sophomore Aaron Kovar (2g/4a) well Loyola Marymount was a surprise winner of the WCC after going 6-10-4 in 2012.
7. New Mexico (11-5-2 Conference USA At-Large)
Plays winner of George Mason (12-2-5 Atlantic 10 Champion) at William & Mary (11-5-2 Colonial At-Large)
New Mexico is led by the senior combination of top draft prospect defender Kyle Venter (1g/1a) and Costa Rican attacking midfielder Michael Calderon (6g/3a). The Lobos are not as strong as the previous season, a team that included Blake Smith and Devon Sandoval who made an impact this MLS season. To many, Venter is the most ready for MLS of all prospects. The winner of George Mason and William & Mary will make the far trip out west with both teams playing steady soccer but neither teams are really a threat to the top schools.
10. UC Santa Barbara (12-5-3 Big West At-Large)
Plays winner of St. Francis NY (11-5-1 Northeast Champion) at Penn State (11-5-2 Big Ten At-Large)
Known as soccer haven, UC Santa Barbara averages the highest attendance of all schools in college soccer. They are also known for recruiting international players and this season is no exception as the club is led by the French combination up front of Achille Campion (7g/2a) and Goiffin Boyoko (8g/3a), as well as midfielder Fife Baiden from Ghana. All three are potential sleeper picks in the draft. St Francis NY are led by a strike partnership who combine for 21 goals, while Penn State are a hard-working club lead by senior Grant Warming.
For me this region is by far the weakest of the four, both for quality of team and MLS draft prospects. I feel the region is set up for UC Santa Barbara to advance unless Washington can succeed via a team performance, and if so, expect coach Jamie Clark to be on the top of people's list for the next MLS coach.
My personal final four pick is Akron, Maryland, Georgetown and UC Santa Barbara and Georgetown beating Maryland in the final. If my prediction is correct it would be great story for soccer in America since the Final Four are being held fairly close to both schools in Philadelphia. The Hoyas and Terps both include two of the top underclassman, as well as my number one prospect, Georgetown's Steve Neumann and number two Maryland's Patrick Mullins, in the 2014 MLS Draft.
The chances of my picks coming through are probably slim being this is a knock out tournament with PK's if games are tied, so upsets and surprises are bound to take place. However, no matter who wins, the NCAA Soccer Tournament, men's and women's, are great events on the soccer calendar and also have a huge impact on players you'll soon be watching in MLS.
Aaron Nielsen has worked within the soccer/sports industry for over 15 years. His statistical analysis brings the beautiful game in a whole new light. The detailed player data and prospect lists he produces are used by many scouts, agents, and football insiders around the world.You can find updating stats regularly at ENBSports.