Five burning questions for 2011 season
1. How high can the Cardinals fly?
Louisville started the 2010 men's soccer season ranked No. 20 in the country. The thought at this time a year ago was that the Cardinals were a very good team on the rise, if not necessarily one that would be heavily in contention for the NCAA title.
However, it didn't take long for that perception to change, as Louisville progressed up the rankings to eventually take the No. 1 spot. The Cardinals advanced to the College Cup in Santa Barbara, Calif., having lost just one match all season.
That they came so close to a title but didn't get it -- falling 1-0 to Akron in the NCAA final -- could have been a deep wound for Louisville coach Ken Lolla.
After all, Akron was the program he'd overseen for 13 years before being lured away by Louisville in 2005. If Lolla had a different kind of personality or perspective, he might have looked at the loss to the Zips as exceedingly painful -- losing a championship to the program he'd worked so hard to build to that very goal.
But Lolla instead appreciated how much it meant to the Akron players and the soccer community there, and he praised the Zips and coach Caleb Porter.
"I will always feel a part of Akron's program," Lolla said. "But at the same time, what Caleb has done there has been tremendous. I have to give him credit for the success that they've had. He has done a great job with the program. What I did there is separate from what he's doing now."
But what Lolla did in Akron helped prepare him to establish what he has in Louisville.
"We took a program that hadn't had much success and developed it," Lolla said of his Cardinals staff. "Change can make you uncomfortable, but that's not bad. I feel like in my job I've grown tremendously since I came here."
Now can he and the Cardinals take the last step and finish 2011 with an NCAA title? Louisville starts this season as the top-ranked team in the nation, with seniors Colin Rolfe and Austin Berry on the Hermann Trophy watch list.
Rolfe is one of the premier forwards in the country, with nine goals and seven assists last year. Berry is one of the anchors defensively, along with another senior, goalkeeper Andre Boudreaux. He allowed just 19 goals in 24 matches last year.
"It's great to have the experience at all the spots that we do, but having it in goal is particularly helpful," Lolla said."Just because of how much guidance and direction comes out of your center backs and your keeper. Andre is very composed and experienced; because of that, he's a wonderful leader for us."
Lolla does not think about 2010 and dwell on it being a shame that Louisville came close to winning it all but fell short.
"When you reflect on the whole season and how much growth and progress we made, it was a very positive journey," he said.
"Certainly, we wanted the outcome to be different at the end. But there was so much to look back on and feel good about. We made progress and moved it along. The journey in itself was a wonderful experience just the same."
2. Another title for Zips?
The last school to repeat as men's soccer champion was Indiana in 2003-04. The Hoosiers also won back-to-back titles in 1998 and '99. So can Zips coach Porter do at Akron what his alma mater, Indiana, did twice? That's a high bar to set, but Porter has done just that since taking over the Akron program.
In 2009, Porter led the Zips to the NCAA title match, which they lost to Virginia on penalty kicks. Last season, they had just one defeat -- to Cleveland State -- going into the College Cup.
They fell behind 1-0 to Michigan in the semifinals, but came back confidently for a 2-1 victory. Against Louisville in the final, Scott Caldwell's unassisted goal on a rebound of his shot stood up for a 1-0 victory.
The junior Caldwell returns, as does sophomore Darren Mattocks, who led Akron with 18 goals last season. But several key players from the 2010 team have moved on to play professionally -- including forward Darlington Nagbe, the Hermann Trophy winner last season, and defender Kofie Sarkodie, Soccer America's 2010 Player of the Year.
The Zips have an outstanding recruiting class coming in, though, to help right away. Before taking over at Akron, Porter was an assistant at Indiana, first for his former coach there, the legendary Jerry Yeagley, then for ex-Hoosiers mentor Mike Freitag. The reputation Porter built for recruiting success at Indiana has continued in his head-coaching role with the Zips.
Porter could have parlayed his triumphs in Akron into another job, but he has stated repeatedly he's happy there. Last December after winning the NCAA title, he signed a contract extension to stay with the school through 2020.
3. Away they go?
Nagbe, Sarkodie and fellow 2010 senior Michael Nanchoff, as well as sophomore Zarek Valentin and freshman Perry Kitchen decided to forgo their remaining eligibility after winning the NCAA title with Akron last year and entered the MLS SuperDraft; all were taken among the first eight selections.
Meanwhile, Louisville's Aaron Horton -- whose late-game heroics in the NCAA tournament helped propel the Cardinals into the 2010 final -- decided to leave college after his freshman season. The Ohio native signed with the Columbus Crew as part of the "Home Grown Player" system that allows MLS teams to sign players from their region to pro contracts without exposing them to the draft, provided they've trained at least one year with the club's development program.
Certainly, it's a positive thing for college programs to be able to help their players advance to professional careers. But is early entry into the pro ranks, which has increased in the last decade, having an adverse effect on men's college soccer?
Not necessarily. Many coaches say it's likely one of the factors that has contributed to greater parity and more teams having a legitimate shot at making it to the College Cup. But whether it is always best for the players to leave college early that's a different question.
"Is it good?" Lolla said. "What it will depend on is how productive the development systems are in the MLS. We'll see how much someone like Aaron Horton will benefit from it and how effective it is for his development. I think time will tell."
4. How will Bolowich do with a new shade of blue?
If Hurricane Irene had been chugging up the Atlantic Coast at this time a year ago, Elmar Bolowich would have been as concerned as anyone else in North Carolina. But he's far from hurricane country now.
Bolowich, after 22 seasons and an NCAA title as head coach at North Carolina, opted for something completely different. He relocated from Chapel Hill to Omaha, Neb., where he has taken over at Creighton. His son, Alex, is a redshirt freshman goalkeeper for the Bluejays.
Creighton has put a lot of resources into the program and taken advantage of recruiting regional talent, as the Big 12 conference does not sponsor men's soccer. Hiring a top coach like Bolowich was further proof of how hard the Bluejays are working to win their first NCAA title.
Creighton has made it the NCAA title game once, falling to Connecticut in 2000, and to the national semifinal two other times (1996, 2002).
Forward Ethan Finlay and defender Tyler Polak are preseason All-Americans for Creighton, ranked No. 10 in the NSCAA poll.
5. Who are other contenders?
• Bolowich is gone, but expectations stay the same for the Tar Heels, who've advanced to the College Cup the last three seasons. Longtime UNC assistant Carlos Somoano has taken over as head coach, and the team is ranked No. 3.
Among the Tar Heels' standouts are explosive scorer Enzo Martinez, Butler transfer Matt Hedges and Billy Schuler, who redshirted last season with an injury.
• As always, it will be a battle in the ACC. Maryland is right behind UNC in the preseason rankings, at No. 4. They are followed by No. 22 Virginia, No. 23 Duke and No. 25 Boston College.
• Four-time NCAA champion UCLA is looking to win the Pac-12's first national championship in men's soccer since the Bruins did so in 2002. But so is Cal. The Bruins start the season ranked No. 6, and the Bears are No. 7.
• Michigan was a somewhat dark horse entry into the College Cup last year, advancing to the national semifinals as the No. 10 seed. The Wolverines beat No. 7 seed South Carolina and No. 2 Maryland to get there. Outstanding Wolverines freshman Soony Saad moved on to pro soccer, but Michigan is still talented and ranked No. 9.
• Connecticut won its last NCAA men's soccer title in 2000. Senior midfielder Tony Cascio would like to help the No. 8 Huskies to their third national championship overall this year.
Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.