- Graham Hays covers college sports for espnW, including softball and soccer. Hays began with ESPN in 1999.
The world’s reigning player of the year, Megan Rapinoe, won it before she ever won a World Cup. So did Crystal Dunn, Tobin Heath and Sam Mewis. But being special isn’t enough — most of the players on the best team in the world never lifted this trophy.
We’re talking about the College Cup, the biggest prize available to women’s college soccer players on their way to greater fame and glory in the professional and international games.
A year after Florida State beat North Carolina to win it all, what does the bracket look like on the road to the College Cup in San Jose, California?
The tournament is Catarina Macario’s to own
College soccer fans need no introduction to Macario, the Stanford junior who is a lock to win her second consecutive Hermann Trophy as the NCAA’s best player. That will make her the first woman since Morgan Brian to win the award twice and the first to do so before her senior year (she was also the espnW player of the year in each of her first two years with the Cardinal).
Macario is playing a different game than any other college player at the moment. She leads the nation in assists (18) and has seven more goals (23) than anyone else in a major conference.
That sets up the rare instance of one player, rather than any team, being the dominant story in the tournament. To be sure, Stanford as a whole is a compelling story. With Madison Haley, Sophia Smith, Naomi Girma and others enjoying outstanding seasons by regular standards, the Cardinal have won 13 games in a row by a 46-6 margin. Injuries left them spent by the time the College Cup arrived a season ago. They might only now be hitting their stride this season.
But even the Cardinal are the opening act for their own star, an unmatched, all-around offensive talent who proves that playing with flair is perfectly compatible with competing at full throttle. Will she eventually choose the NWSL or Europe? How soon will she gain her citizenship and FIFA approval to play for the U.S.? The NCAA tournament is her chance to show why all of it matters.
The ACC doesn’t have it easy
It’s all good news on the surface for the ACC, college soccer’s superpower. The league received three No. 1 seeds for the first time since 2013, when it took all four of the top seeds.
Once North Carolina and Virginia reached the ACC tournament final, on the heels of a regular season in which neither lost a conference game, the only seeding question involved Florida State. UCLA and USC can wonder what they have to do to get the benefit of the doubt after each beat the Seminoles earlier this season, but their subsequent slip-ups opened the door. Florida State went 15-0-0 against all but the Los Angeles schools, UNC and Virginia.
So far, so good. Here’s the catch. Chasing its first national title after going until overtime of the ACC tournament final without a loss, Virginia could end up playing Memphis, the eighth-ranked team in the country, in the second round. Florida State’s reward for that prize seed could be a second-round game against Brown, the 17th-ranked team in the country.
Much like last season, when USC’s seeding was an inexplicable head-scratcher, the selection committee differed wildly from those who vote all season in the United Soccer Coaches Top 25 poll. The fate of Memphis is doubly confounding because the Tigers don’t get a home game in the first round. Instead, they’re sent to Washington State, which was one spot behind the Tigers in the RPI. A Memphis spokesperson confirmed it bid to host in the opening round.
None of this is fair to the No. 1 seeds. None of it is fair to Memphis or Brown.
North Carolina has that look again
It has been seven long years since North Carolina won a national championship. Yes, that’s written with tongue firmly in cheek, but Anson Dorrance’s program is one of the few in college sports about which that can be said with an almost straight face. This is, after all, the longest title drought in program history.
Dorrance has kept a pretty good poker face with regard to this group. After the Tar Heels tied mighty Olympique Lyon’s reserves in a preseason scrimmage, he said Lyon outplayed his team. Surrounded by a completely refurbished soccer facility named in his honor, he talks about how it will let him back in the recruiting game with the likes of UCLA and Stanford — in the future.
But fresh off sweeping the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, the Tar Heels are as impressive a collection of talent as there is anywhere. In Emily Fox, Taylor Otto, Brianna Pinto, sensational freshman Maycee Bell and others, the Tar Heels have players who should keep the program well represented in the NWSL and perhaps the U.S. national team, not to mention the futures Lois Joel, Alessia Russo and Lotte Wubben-Moy have in their native England.
The Tar Heels should be able to get to a quarterfinal at home. If seeding holds, they will face a USC team that was decidedly off its stride in the final weeks of the regular season.
The Big 12 is on the clock
The Big 12 has as many seeded teams as the ACC — and one of the former isn’t even West Virginia. The recent history of women’s college soccer has increasingly become a battle for supremacy between the two coasts, with the SEC trying somewhat in vain to muscle its way into the debate on the sheer strength of resources.
The Big 12 has been an afterthought in all of that, a conference dominated by West Virginia since its move from the Big East. Even with West Virginia unseeded and staring down a familiarly difficult first-round matchup with Georgetown, No. 3 Kansas, No. 3 Oklahoma State and No. 4 Texas Tech are all expected by seed to reach the Sweet 16.
TCU and Texas made it six invitees for the league.
Among the seeded teams, only Oklahoma State owns a win this season against another seeded team that isn’t in the Big 12 (a win at Penn State). But in Texas Tech’s Kirsten Davis, the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, Kansas’ Addisyn Merrick, the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, and six other all-conference first-team selections, the three seeded teams have talent.
Maybe inflated RPI numbers are setting up the league for a letdown, but it would only help the sport if the middle of the country is ready to hold its own.
Three more teams everyone needs to know
No. 2 BYU: The nation’s only unbeaten team, BYU rolled through the West Coast Conference. Mikayla Colohan, Elise Flake and Cameron Tucker are as good as just about any trio in the bracket. Potential matchups with Louisville and No. 3 Arkansas would be tests.
No. 2 UCLA: Potential rematches with Wisconsin and Florida State make for a difficult path (and a potential rematch against Stanford in a semifinal). But the Bruins closed well after a fall funk, hammered USC in the regular-season finale and still have Jessie Fleming and Ashley Sanchez.
No. 3 Wisconsin: This is Rose Lavelle’s year; therefore, her alma mater has to be included. The Badgers took Florida State to overtime and lost 1-0 at UCLA. They have the Big Ten’s forward, defender and goalkeeper of the year in, respectively, Dani Rhodes (she of four goals in a second-round game last season), Camryn Biegalski and Jordyn Bloomer.