Crunch time: Next generation of women’s soccer stars head into the NCAA playoffs

By James Nalton, Football Whispers

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) DI playoffs kick off on Friday when the best sides from across the conferences come head-to-head in a 64-team tournament.

The NCAA has played a big part in the historic success of women’s professional soccer in North America and the unprecedented success of the USWNT.

It has expanded to serve as a development platform for some of the best international players in women’s professional soccer. 

The NCAA has also played a big part in the growth and development of the sport for women worldwide.

The college system plays a huge role in developing the world’s future stars. Some of the best international players have played NCAA DI. In fact, three of 15 nominees for the inaugural Women's Ballon d’Or have played for some of the top NCAA DI women’s programs.

  • Lucy Bronze (England/Olympique Lyonnais) - University of North Carolina
  • Megan Rapinoe (USA/Seattle Reign) - University of Portland
  • Christine Sinclair (Canada/Portland Thorns) - University of Portland

Other players who have played in for these sides include former Arsenal and England forward Kelly Smith (Seton Hall), Charlyn Corral (Mexico, University of Louisville, Levante), and Diana Matheson (Canada, Princeton University, Utah Royals).

Only a minority group of elite players have skipped college and turn professional at a young age and that has only started to happened in recent years. Lindsey Horan was the first to do so, seven years ago.

The NCAA is a competitive platform that allows the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) to evaluate and assess talent prior to their draft in January every year, as well as for professional women’s leagues worldwide. 

The college route helps players develop, get an education, and showcase their talent for an opportunity to play professional soccer and represent. 

The USWNT is the most successful women's side in history, having won three World Cups and four Olympic Gold Medals while dominating CONCACAF’s regional tournaments. 

Greats such as Mia Hamm and Kristine Lilly (both North Carolina Tar Heels), Michelle Akers (University of Central Florida Knights), Abby Wambach (Florida Gators) and Joy Fawcett (California Golden Bears) all began their careers in the college system.

All but two of the current US Women’s National Team squad started out in NCAA, with this recent article outlining which colleges each member of the squad attended.

The Tar Heels remain an important producer of soccer talent. Six players on the national team squad — Crystal Dunn, Emily Fox, Ashlyn Harris, Tobin Heath, Jessica Macdonald and Allie Long  — hail from that particular college, as Hamm, Lilly and numerous others have before them. Four more players from the ACC made that the most represented conference.

The current NCAA season is approaching the playoffs, when sides across the country will go head to head on a national scale following their short but intense conference seasons.

Stanford are currently first in the overall rankings with an unbeaten record consisting of 17 wins and two draws. 

Florida State sit second having lost only four times, winning on 15 occasions and drawing twice. Their squad currently boasts a number of current international players, including Deyna Castellanos (Colombia), Gloriana Villalobos (Costa Rica), Gabby Carle (Canada), and Natalia Kuikka (Finland). 

Alumnae include former Japan international Mami Yamaguchi, Iceland midfielder Dagný Brynjarsdóttir who now plays for the Portland Thorns, and Manchester City’s Republic of Ireland international left-back Megan Campbell.

North Carolina are third and their squad boasts England youth internationals Alessia Russo and Lotte Wubben-Moy.

Georgetown, from the Big East conference, are the NCAA’s other unbeaten side this season, with a record of 17 wins, and three ties from their 20 games to date.

But it is 106th-ranked Boise State who have the top scorer among their ranks, in the shape of Raimee Sherle who has 20 for the campaign, and has scored the game-winner in ten of her side’s 13 victories this season.

The 64 teams who will compete in the 37th NCAA Division I Women's Soccer Championship were announced this week, with the games beginning on Friday.

Stanford, Florida State, North Carolina and Georgetown are the four top seeds. The No.2 seeds include West Virginia, Baylor, UCLA and Tennessee.

Texas A&M, Santa Clara, Virginia and South Carolina secured the No.3 seeds and Southern California, Duke, Texas and Boston College are No.4 seeds, completing the top 16-seeded teams. 

The goal is to secure a place in the national championship match on December 2 at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary, North Carolina. The teams that will be there are obviously yet unknown but one thing is for sure: the final will be the showcase for some of the most exciting talent in women's soccer and some of the future stars of the game.

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