By A.J. Barnold (@ajbarnold)
The MLS Conference Finals are done, and only MLS Cup remains on the American soccer schedule for 2017. The MLS fans' offseason depression is starting to kick in for the long, dreary (read: short and really not that bad) offseason. Not so fast, my friend… continue the fun with the NCAA quarterfinals this weekend!
Between Homegrown Players, Generation Adidas contracts, and January’s SuperDraft, it’s a fair bet that over the next two months you’ll hear many of the big names still playing in the Elite Eight (especially if you’re a Chicago Fire supporter). Satiate your need for statistics and learn who leads the high-flying Demon Deacon and Tar Heel attacks, the backbone of the Hoosiers’ defensive fortress, and how to tell the Cardinals from the Cardinal (that one’s tough for all of us).
Friday, December 1
#5 Akron at #4 Louisville | 7pm | ACC Network Extra / WatchESPN
Louisville’s Hermann Trophy semifinalist Tim Kubel has been a rumored Generation Adidas target since his first year with the Cardinals. An attacking output of six goals and seven assists from a right back is always nice, with many of those points coming from his talented right foot. Kubel’s set pieces and cutting balls from the run of play often find Mo Thiaw and Tate Schmitt, who both offer athleticism and improvisational finishing in the box. Thiaw has scored 20 goals in two seasons at Lynn Stadium, while Schmitt may draw Homegrown interest from Real Salt Lake after leading the team with nine goals and three assists. While none of the three top the ACC in terms of advanced metrics, they’ve combined to put Louisville back into the last eight once again.
Akron have their own Hermann Trophy semifinalist in Joao Moutinho (no, not that one). Though only a freshman, he’s had a very strong first season and may garner Generation Adidas interest as a center back who is capable of contributing on the attacking end (three goals, five assists). Stuart Holthusen (12 goals, three assists) and Sam Gainford (10 goals, five assists) could both be interesting attacking options for the combine based on their size and scoring ability. International status may come into play for each of them – Holthusen was a New Zealand U20 and Gainford came from the Liverpool academy.
#7 Michigan State at #2 Indiana | 7pm | BTN2Go
Goals may be hard to come by in this Big Ten rematch, as both teams are top 10 in the nation in goals against average. Both goals in their previous 1-1 draw came via penalty. Indiana’s Hermann Trophy semifinalist Grant Lillard teams with Andrew Gutman to anchor a back line that has conceded a ridiculous five goals in 22 matches. They represent two of Chicago Fire’s glut of Homegrown prospects in the college ranks. Behind them, Seattle Sounders prospect Trey Muse leads the nation in shutouts and goals against average, though he is only a freshman.
Michigan State junior Ryan Sierakowski will look to score on his Chicago academy-mates and continue his point-per-game production (eight goals, three assists in 19 matches). He co-led the Big Ten with five game-winning goals (along with Indiana’s Mason Toye). Center back Jimmy Fiscus marshals a defense that conceded only 10 goals from the run of play. He would be a strong candidate if Columbus looks to add another defender, as he played for Crew Wolves academy in Michigan and would be considered a Homegrown.
Saturday, December 2
Fordham at #3 North Carolina | 6pm | ACC Network Extra / WatchESPN
It’s a battle of ram mascots as Fordham look to continue their run through a 3rd ACC team in UNC. The Rams are led by a pair of German brothers – the elder, Jannik Loebe, may have earned himself a combine invitation with his slick dribbling and work rate. His style and importance to Fordham’s attack (eight goals and four assists) may remind viewers of Joe Holland (Houston Dynamo / Hofstra) from last year’s combine. In the back, Matthew Lewis once captained the Sporting KC U18s, and the Rams’ run may have his stock on the rise.
The Tar Heels boast the 3rd highest scoring offense in the country, bagging 2.55 goals per game. Much of this danger starts with their two Hermann Trophy semifinalists – Alan Winn and Cam Lindley. Winn ranked 4th in the ACC with 0.79 goals per 90 minutes, collecting 10 goals and two assists despite missing time early in the year with an injury. Lindley’s vision, pure ball-striking, and set piece prowess have resulted in 12 assists (5th in the nation), and he completed 65.7 passes per 90, 4th best in the ACC. Many feel he will sign as a Homegrown with… you guessed it, Chicago. Mauricio Pineda is yet another Chicago academy product with flexibility to play either holding midfield or center back. Finally, Zach Wright serves as another set up man, garnering three goals and 10 assists. He attempts (11.2) and completes (5.6) the 2nd most dribbles per 90 in the ACC, drawing defenders before finding wide open teammates. Wright came through the Sporting KC academy.
#9 Stanford at #1 Wake Forest | 7pm | ACC Network Extra / WatchESPN
Two years ago at this stage, Jordan Morris and Foster Langsdorf scored to take down the Demon Deacons on the way to Stanford’s first national championship. In last season’s College Cup, Wake Forest could not get revenge, losing in penalties in the final. They’ll hope the nation’s 2nd highest scoring attack (2.64 goals per game) can finally break that Stanford hoodoo this year, led by the nation’s points leader Jon Bakero (16 goals, 14 assists). The Spaniard appears to be the complete package, providing instinctive finishing (0.97 goals per 90), passing ability between lines (0.85 assists per 90), and an aerial threat. He gives Wake a legitimate chance at having back-to-back Hermann Trophy winners (DC United’s Ian Harkes won last season). Ema Twumasi is considered a potential Generation Adidas target after contributing 10 goals and seven assists in his sophomore season. His pace and 1v1 ability make him dangerous on the run, ranking 5th in the ACC with 5.0 successful dribbles per 90. Brad Dunwell is the metronome that makes everything work behind the attackers. He completes 71.9 passes per 90, at a rate of 92.7% - both best in the ACC. Though his passes are not as cutting as those played by UNC’s Lindley, Dunwell sets the passing rhythm that allows Wake to dominate possession. He is yet another Homegrown central midfield prospect for Chicago – the Fire could have top college players all the way up the spine if they so desire.
Stanford are another team with two Hermann Trophy semifinalists – the aforementioned Portland Timbers prospect Langsdorf, and center back Tomas Hilliard-Arce. Langsdorf (9th in the nation in total points) will look to add to his 13 goals and six assists in leading a veteran Stanford group back into Spry Stadium. Hilliard-Arce was expected by many to enter the draft last year, but returned for his senior season and will be one of the top center backs to watch at the combine. Corey Baird complements Langsdorf up front and can come back centrally to create chances. His six goals and six assists should have him on Real Salt Lake’s radar as a Homegrown option. Captain Drew Skundrich has the combination of work rate and savviness on the ball to contribute in the attack (five goals, five assists).
Watch for these players to take their teams to next weekend’s College Cup, then impress your friends when you know them during the MLS Combine and SuperDraft! Follow along with me on Twitter @ajbarnold.
A.J. works as the Performance Analyst for the men’s program at the University of Virginia.