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Six NCAA teams to watch this season

The 2018 NCAA season is about to be upon us, so to preview the season, we brought you six teams—three that are highly touted and three that are maybe lesser known—to keep an eye on in 2018.

Stanford Cardinal

The reigning College Cup champions, Stanford, look to be a strong contender already for 2018. (photo courtesy NCAA Soccer)

The reigning College Cup Champions are almost always going to be a team to watch ahead of the following season, and this Stanford team is no exception. After dropping their 2017 season opener, 2-3, on the road to Florida, Stanford embarked upon a 23-game regular-season winning streak in which they outscored opponents 61-6. Thanks to a Top 5 defense in the country, they also earned 13 shutouts on the season. Andi Sullivan was by far the most important piece on the field for the Cardinal last season, and her senior campaign earned her the Hermann Trophy and No. 1 draft spot come January.

Stanford looks to once again be the team to beat, bringing back another stacked roster that boasts six players included on the Hermann Trophy Watch List, the most of any team. While they lost Sullivan to graduation and Kyra Carusa, whose 15 goals was second on the team and tied for ninth in the country in goals scored, to a transfer to Georgetown, they also gained U.S. youth team standout Sophia Smith, joining the Cardinal in 2018 for her freshman season. Also back is sophomore Catarina Macario, who wowed fans across the country with her goal-scoring prowess, especially on free kicks, last season. Macario and Smith will surely be two players featured heavily in Stanford’s attack, while U.S. national team center back Tierna Davidson’s recent experience at the senior international level will no doubt prove an asset as she returns to the Cardinal backline.

UCLA Bruins

UCLA spent most of 2017 in Stanford’s shadow. Same state, same conference, same loaded roster. The two even faced off in the College Cup Final, but UCLA was unable to pull off the come-from-behind win and fell, 3-2, to watch their rivals hoist the trophy. A 19-3-3 record and national championship runner-up status is a season most teams would be more than satisfied with, but a team like UCLA won’t be happy with being second best, last year or this year. That could make for a very fun 2018 season, especially since, like Stanford, most of their key starters are returning.

Back is Jessie Fleming, the Canadian international who has excelled at both the collegiate and international levels. Fleming’s poise and presence in the Bruin midfield changes the entire team’s performance, and she is undoubtedly a key piece in their attack. Also returning is senior Hailie Mace, who led the team in scoring with 15 goals, and sophomore Ashley Sanchez. Those three attackers on the field together can not only produce some thrilling offensive plays, but can also be a nightmare for opposing defenses.

North Carolina Tar Heels

Can you talk about collegiate teams to watch and not talk about the University of North Carolina? Like UCLA, the Tar Heels spent most of last season in the shadow of their rival, Duke, who won the ACC regular-season championship. However, unlike the Bruins, UNC got a bit of revenge last year, defeating Duke, 1-0, in the ACC tournament final to claim championship status of their own. UNC will look to return to the top of conference, and with less turnover than Duke, are poised to do just that. They have already been picked to finish first in the conference in a preseason coaches poll, and they’ve received the No. 6 ranking ahead of the 2018 season.

Alessia Russo, the English-international striker who led the Tar Heels in scoring last season with nine goals—six of which were game winners—and two assists, will no doubt feature heavily in the UNC attack, as will Bridgette Andrzejewski, the junior Maryland native. UNC has also landed Brianna Pinto, whose experience in the U.S. youth national system seems likely to make her another key player for Anson Dorrance’s side.

Butler Bulldogs

Last year the Butler Bulldogs made the NCAA tournament for only the second time in school history, thanks in large part to stout defense that had the third lowest goals against average in the nation. Intriguingly, the Bulldogs managed this feat while platooning in net. Sophomore Leonie Doege and Junior Hannah Luedtke each featured in goal for one half each game last season. This season, Butler returns nine of its starters from that stellar campaign and are picked to finish second in the Big East behind another group of bulldogs, those of Georgetown University.

Offensively, Butler will look to midfielder Paige Monaghan to find success once again on the flanks. Last season, the now senior was named the Big East Offensive Player of the Year on the strength of a ten goal and 6 assist campaign.

St. Louis Billikens

Another program outside the traditional power conferences of women’s soccer is the St. Louis Billikens. Picked to finished first in the Atlantic 10 this season, the Billikens are looking to rebound after a disappointing conference tournament saw them bounced in the quarterfinals despite finishing second during the regular season.

A key part of the equation for the Billikens this season will be centerback Alli Klug, the reigning A-10 Defensive Player of the Year. The junior anchored a backline that registered 13 shutouts while also notching five goals for Billikens offense.

Hofstra Pride

It’s shaping up to be an interesting year in the Colonial Athletic Association, with notable programs James Madison and William and Mary helmed by new head coaches for first time in decades. One thing is certain however, it’s that Hofstra is expected to take the conference title. In the league’s preseason coaches poll, the Pride cleared the next closest team by eleven points.

With a strong mix of New York talent interlaced with youngsters from foreign shores, the Pride should live up to its billing. Of concern to Hofstra’s championship bid is the loss of Kristin  Desmond, who paced the Pride with nine goals a season ago. Bella Richards and Jenn Buoncore will looked upon to help pick of the slack.

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