Week 1 take-aways, week 2 anticipation
Opening Weekend Observations
For a sports junkie, early September is the best time of year. The Premier League is back, baseball reaches the point where the games matter, college football kicks off, the NFL opened last night with an exciting game, and—as relevant here—the Division III schedule is loaded with games every single day. My thoughts from the from the season’s opening stanza:
Moments of genius and madness. The college season is short, and teams only have a few weeks and a handful of practices before the games count. Add in graduation, and most teams feature players that have barely played together. That changes over the season, but early on teams are just figuring out how to play together and do not play their best soccer. As a result, games often turn on individual brilliance or individual mistakes. It could be a wonder goal, a free kick, a goalkeeper dropping a cross, or a bad back pass, but more often than not early season goals result from individual actions.
It should come as no surprise, then, that many early games are marred by choppy play. Don’t worry, things smooth out as the season drags on. Defenses get used to one another, eliminating mistakes and making it harder for any one player to win a game. Attacking players counter as they learn to work together, leading to an increase in team goals. Coaches find their best line-ups and style of play, and I guarantee the product on the field in late October will be much better than what you see this weekend. But that’s the excitement, isn’t it? You get to watch your team develop, go through growing pains, and (hopefully) reach its full potential.
Fitness (and depth) matters. Many teams play back-to-back days early in the season. This practice brings many benefits, including a format that mirrors the NCAA tournament. If you can play two days in a row in 90-degree weather in September, you can do it in the NCAA tournament in November. Still, many teams were unprepared for the rigors of a single game over the weekend, let alone two. I saw a number of teams run out gas and a number of players cramp up early, demonstrating the importance of offseason fitness. The demanding schedule also highlights the importance of depth. Teams like Loras simply wear you down, and that effect is magnified when you play on short rest or extreme heat.
Early polls are meaningless. We released the first edition of the D3soccer.com Top 25 this week, but here’s my annual reminder: don’t stress over it. The D3soccer and NSCAA polls have no impact on the postseason. (The rankings that matter are the NCAA regional rankings, which will debut in mid-October.) Still, polls provide value. They provide water cooler or message board fodder, they provide bulletin-board motivation, and they increase the stakes in every game. Polls also provide a great snapshot of the season. They gauge the strength of any given team, they give fans an idea of which games to watch, and they help coaches with recruiting. As a player, it’s also pretty cool to make the Top 25 and to see your team in the rankings. It generates buzz on campus and makes it much easier to get good crowds. If your team is satisfied with its ranking, congratulations. If not, the only solution is to keep winning games and change voters’ minds.
2016 looks wide open. It’s too early to tell, of course, but it looks like we could have another season chock full of parity. In years past we often began with a clear favorite (Messiah), but that doesn’t seem to be the case this year. Off the top of my head, I can think of 15 teams that I consider legitimate, championship-caliber squads. The herd might thin as the season goes on, but then again it might not. As a fan, I find it more fun when there are dozens of very good teams, rather than just a few elite ones—that’s why the Premier League is more popular than La Liga.
Games of the Week
This weekend is not loaded with great games—there are no matchups between ranked teams—but here are a few to check out. All games listed have streaming video available, with links on the D3soccer.com scores page.
Friday, September 9
7:00 p.m. CT: No. 9 Chicago (3-0-0) at North Park (2-0-0). No games between ranked teams today, but we still have a handful of good matchups. My pick is a cross-town rivalry as Chicago heads to North Park with both teams’ perfect records on the line. North Park was inconsistent last year but still posted a 12-4-2 record and I expect them to improve on that in 2016. Add extra motivation from Chicago’s 3-1 win last year, and I expect North Park to give the Maroons their toughest test to date.
Saturday, September 10
12:00 p.m. ET: No. 1 Amherst (1-0-0) at Bowdoin (1-0-0). The NESCAC schedule starts off with a bang as regular-season (and national) champ Amherst travels to Bowdoin, who won the NESCAC tournament after Amherst bowed out early. The Lord Jeffs looked ready to defend their title in midweek, but I have a feeling the Polar Bears can spring an upset here.
2:00 p.m. ET: Washington and Lee (2-1-0) at No. 8 Ohio Wesleyan (3-0-0). Washington and Lee continues its difficult start to the season by traveling to OWU Saturday afternoon. The Generals, who split the opening weekend with No. 6 Rowan (L, 0-2) and 2015 semifinalist Oneonta State (W, 3-2), have looked good and will push the Battling Bishops hard. Meanwhile, OWU notched three wins while adjusting to a dozen new faces and looks to take advantage of an eight-game home stand to open the season. W&L and OWU both reached the second round of the NCAAs last year, and this should be a matchup of 2016 tourney teams.
7:30 p.m. ET: No. 17 Thomas More (2-0-0) at Centre (2-0-0). Mark my words, Saturday’s nightcap will have fireworks, as Thomas More and Centre collide in a battle for Kentucky supremacy. I have watched these programs play numerous times over the last few years, and both teams bring an intensity and physicality to the game that toes the line between acceptable and extreme. Both teams have started well, but the real story here is animosity. Last year’s game had five yellow cards and three reds, with Thomas More’s 10 men holding off Centre’s 9. I don’t expect this game to be pretty, but if you’re looking for excitement, this is Saturday’s best offering.
Sunday, September 11
2:00 p.m. ET: Lycoming (1-2-0) at No. 12 Haverford (1-1-0). Both teams have started the season slower than they would have liked. Early losses are not fatal to a team’s NCAA hopes, but they shrink the margin of error, and tough schedules mean that Lycoming and Haverford will be desperate to win Saturday’s game. While the Fords looked fine against No. 2 Brandeis (L, 0-1), the Warriors must come to grips with massive expectations after dethroning Messiah in the Commonwealth last year. For such an early season game, the stakes could not be higher.
2:00 p.m. ET: DePauw (1-0-1) at Case Western (2-1-0). In a weekend with no games between ranked teams, the Great Lakes region offers up a nice matchup between DePauw and Case. Both teams are dark horse candidates in their conferences, and both play attacking soccer that should provide the platform for an entertaining game.
Ryan’s Boxscore Top 10
It’s still early, but a few teams have separated from the pack. Expect massive changes every week until we get midway through the season. After three or four weeks, we should know whether newcomers are for real and whether heavyweights are reloading or rebuilding.
1. Amherst (1-0-0, D3soccer.com No. 1) – After receiving the top spot last week because of 2015 success, the Lord Jeffs opened up 2016 with a dominant 4-1 win over Rhode Island College.
2. Rowan (3-0-0, No. 6) – Rowan has the best resume so far, and it’s not very close. A road win over Lycoming, a comfortable 2-0 win over Washington & Lee, and a 1-0 win over Oneonta State after playing 46 minutes down a man. Not a bad first week for the Profs.
3. Kenyon (2-0-0, No. 3) – The Lords have not played to their potential—yet—but the defense has yet to concede and Kenyon won’t complain about winning games while rounding into form.
4. Brandeis (3-0-0, No. 2) – The Judges beat John Carroll comfortably, made a statement by knocking off Haverford, and rolled to a 3-0 lead over Nichols before letting up and winning 4-2. The UAA will be a grind, but Brandeis looks ready to defend its title.
5. Trinity (Texas) (2-0-0, No. 5) – Solid wins over Mary-Hardin Baylor and Hardin-Simmons marked a great start to the Tigers’ campaign.
6. Loras (2-0-0, No. 4) – The Duhawks rolled to opening wins while bedding in a number of freshmen and new players. The schedule is not as strong as years’ past, but that should allow a young team to gel and pick up momentum as the season goes on.
7. Chicago (3-0-0, No. 9) – The Maroons signaled their intent nationally and within the UAA with three shutouts and three wins. Chicago’s next five games are rough, but I think Chicago has the talent of a deep NCAA team, and teams with that level of talent rise to the occasion. We’ll see if the Maroons are up for it.
8. Elizabethtown (3-0-0, No. 11) – The Blue Jays stormed out of the game, winning their first three games with a combined score of 10-1. Next Wednesday’s matchup with Franklin and Marshall should provide a nice litmus test for both teams, but right now E-town looks ready to earn the bid they just missed in 2015.
9. Thomas More (2-0-0, No. 17) – I have to confess that I thought graduation would knock the Saints down quite a bit. They’ve proved me wrong so far after beating Denison and Case Western, two teams that will make a run at NCAA bids.
10. Ohio Wesleyan (3-0-0, No. 8) – Three wins to open the season, including some revenge on nemesis Calvin, warrant the last spot. OWU is young and inconsistent, sometimes from half to half or even minute to minute. That’s to be expected—the Bishops often have seven freshmen on the field together—but the talent is there and already winning big games. A veteran Ohio Northern squad visits Roy Rike Field next Wednesday (9/14) for the Great Lakes region’s best early matchup.
Trending Up: Scranton, Rose-Hulman, Ohio Northern, Christopher Newport
Trending Down: Oneonta State, Lycoming, Calvin, Tufts
Comments or feedback for the author? E-mail Ryan Harmanis.