As the Fall sports of the West Coast Conference are wrapping up non-conference play and starting their WCC schedules, we will take a look at how the conference races are shaping up so far. Next up is men’s soccer, a competitive in sport in the conference with the soccer hotbeds of Southern California and the Pacific Northwest being home to many WCC schools.
THE FAVORITES: LOYOLA MARYMOUNT, SANTA CLARA
Loyola Marymount comes into 2014 as the defending WCC Champions as well as the only team from the conference to make last year’s NCAA Tournament. The Lions had a quiet start to their season last year but rattled off six straight WCC wins in the heart of their schedule to throw themselves into contention.
They would end up getting their key win late as a 1-0 victory at Santa Clara ended up helping them finish one win better than the second place Broncos. They went on suffer a very tough loss to Stanford in the first round of the NCAA Tournament falling on penalty kicks after battling to a 1-1 tie.
It was a surprising emergence for the Lions who had never before claimed an outright WCC Championship in men’s soccer. This year the Lions are back with a deep roster and are out to prove that 2013 was not a fluke. They were picked to win the WCC again on the strength of their conference-high five Preseason All-WCC selections.
Three of those players were First Team All-WCC selections a year ago, and the other two were named Secon Team All-WCC. What does that mean? It means the Lions are very stacked and return plenty of firepower from last year’s roster. In fact the Lions are losing just one All-WCC performer to graduation.
So far they haven’t really lived up to the hype with a pedestrian 4-3-3 record. All three of their non-conference wins came against average opponents, but they have had a strong start to conference play. They are coming off a solid 3-1 win over San Francisco, and they battled Santa Clara to a 1-1 tie. So the verdict is still very much out about how their season is going.
With a relatively weak schedule, they may need to get hot and claim another WCC title if they want to get back to the NCAA Tournament. They have some very touch upcoming games including must-win games against contenders San Diego and Saint Mary’s. They also get a tough non-conference game in the middle against UC Santa Barbara. The Gauchos are currently receiving Top 25 votes.
Speaking of Santa Clara, the Broncos will probably be happy to take away a tie from their first meeting with the Lions. The Broncos were dominated by a combined score of 5-0 in their two losses to LMU last year, and it was those losses that cost them the conference championship. But despite losing all of their All-WCC selections to graduation and garnering no Preseason All-WCC selections, they have been selected to finish second again behind LMU in the standings.
Like the Lions, the Broncos have not done much to match their preseason expectations. Other than a 0-0 tie against nationally ranked UCLA, the Broncos have not done much and sit at 4-4-2. The tie with LMU is big to keeping to door open, but an ensuing loss to contender San Diego has them on the ropes. They need a quick turnaround to have a decent shot, and their lack of star power might be catching up to them.
They need to pick up some wins before they hit a tough stretch to start November that features consecutive games against Saint Mary’s, San Diego, Loyola Marymount, and San Francisco.
IN THE HUNT: SAN DIEGO, SAINT MARY’S
The Toreros don’t get a spot in the favorites category because it’s too early to tell how conference play will shape up, but you could easily argue that they are the team to beat right now. Two years ago they had a banner year making a run to the Elite Eight in the NCAA Tournament. After losing a lot of talent, last year was a bit of a rebuilding season. But now with returning talent and the development of some top recruits who came to USD thanks to that Elite Eight run, the Toreros are gunning to take over the WCC once again.
They already boast the most impressive win by any WCC team with a 1-0 upset of then #1 ranked UCLA. It’s the second year in a row the Toreros have knocked off a #1 ranked team after beating Cal when they were top ranked last season. Their only two non-conference losses came against teams that were ranked in the top ten, so they have been very competitive and successful to date.
A loss to San Francisco to open WCC play was a small hiccup, but they bounced back with a win over Santa Clara. Their talent should take them very far, and they have the ability to beat every team in the conference handily. This Friday’s game against LMU will tell us a lot about how the Toreros will handle conference play. A win will put them in the driver’s seat.
Saint Mary’s meanwhile is making some noise as a surprise team after being picked to finish in the middle of the pack, the same area they finished last year. The Gaels have a big win at Washington then they were #4 in the country, and the Huskies have since ascended to #1 with their loss to the Gaels being their only blemish this season. The Gaels have also backed up that upset with wins over Seattle and Florida Gulf Coast, teams that have been nationally ranked this season. If San Diego has the most impressive win, the Gaels have the most impressive set of wins as a whole among WCC teams this year.
With a very young roster, it appears they are playing above their level currently. This could be a scary prospect for their opponents as they should only improve as the season continues. They were beat up by Portland to open WCC play, but they bounced back with a win over Gonzaga and should be in the running all season. A tough middle of their schedule is approaching fast with consecutive games against San Diego, Loyola Marymount, San Francisco, and Santa Clara.
THE DARK HORSES: SAN FRANCISCO, PORTLAND
San Francisco is silencing the doubters after being picked to finish near the bottom of the conference. The Dons came out blazing with wins over nationally ranked Cal and Wisconsin back-to-back to open their season. They also knocked off Florida Gulf Coast and have been very impressive against a non-conference slate that most people probably expected they would struggle with.
Their start to WCC play has been a mixed bag so far. A win over San Diego will go a long way, and the ensuing loss to LMU hurts but isn’t a huge concern. The Dons don’t boast any major star players, but they clearly have a great team as a whole and look very good. Like San Diego, they are a seasoned team that can hang with anyone and should be a serious threat.
However, it will be interesting to see if their record and play is an illusion more than reality. Of the three big teams they beat early, only Cal is still ranked and they have fallen to #22 in the country. They are good, but they may not be as talented as their record suggests. If they can stay near the top of the conference however, they may have a case for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. That’s what you’re playing for if you’re on the Dons, the WCC Championship will be a bonus as there may be too much competition to emerge in first.
Portland is here because they are Portland and are always a threat. Historically one of the best college programs on the West Coast, the Pilots are coming off a below average season where they finished at the bottom of the WCC just above last place San Diego. But like the Toreros, the Pilots are able to rebuild fast and are fully reloaded.
They are anchored by perhaps the best young player in the WCC in Eddie Sanchez. The reigning WCC Freshman of the Year, Sanchez burst onto the scene with 12 goals last year, good for the most in the WCC and tied for 13th in the nation. This year he is leading the Pilots in points after also leading the WCC in that category last year.
The Pilots don’t have a ton of impressive wins like San Francisco and San Diego. They tied the Dons for most non-conference wins with six, but their most impressive accomplishments were tying Florida Gulf Coast and losing in overtime to Washington. Considering that those teams have three combined losses against other WCC teams this year, that’s not saying much.
However, they do appear to be hitting their stride outscoring Pacific and Saint Mary’s by a combined score of 10-3 as they have jumped out to a 2-0 start to WCC play. Other teams might have more players with conference-wide recognition and more impressive wins, but Portland is in the mix and very good. It’s no surprise they were picked to finish third in the conference despite their down season last year.
Like the other teams listed here, the Pilots are approaching the middle of their WCC schedule where they will face a lot of tough opponents from late October through early November. We are going to learn a lot about how the conference will shake out during those weeks.
It’s gonna be a wild ride in men’s soccer for the WCC this season. Every one of the above teams is very good and very equally matched. This could come down to the wire with multiple teams in the running heading into the final games of the regular season.