College Soccer Professor: NCAA tournament first-round matchups

J.R. Eskilson
College Soccer Professor: NCAA tournament first-round matchups

As I’ve written before, this year has been plagued by a lack of great teams and an abundance of just above average squads. And really that has made the field to College Cup pretty wide open since September.

Breaking down the first round is much of the same, as there are very few contests with clear favorites but the overall theme is two teams with obvious flaws locked in battle.

However, there is one thing that history has shown with the first round that clearly gives an edge to one side over the other: home-field advantage.

Through the last two years, only seven road teams have advanced from the 32 first-round clashes. I don’t expect this year to be any different with the slightest advantage providing a huge bonus with these teams.

To view the full bracket, go here.

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Games broken down by top seed in bracket. Home team listed first. All games on Thursday at 7 p.m. (local time) unless otherwise noted.

UNC’s bracket:

Coastal Carolina (17-3-0) vs. Elon (9-10-2)

The two sides met in the second week of the season, Coastal Carolina won 2-1, but there is not much to take away from that clash for this meeting. It came in the midst of a horrible run of form by Elon, which started the season with only two wins in its first nine games. However, the Phoenix finished with only one loss in the last six.

Coastal Carolina leads the nation in scoring with 60 goals in 20 games. Slowing down the Chanticleers’ offense is tough due to Ashton Bennett’s speed, but it is doable. Elon just doesn’t have the athletes to make it work. 

Prediction: 3-1 Coastal Carolina

Old Dominion (12-5-1) vs. Liberty (11-6-2)

The defeat in the CAA final cost Old Dominion a seed in the tournament and now it is forced to play on Thursday against a dangerous Liberty side. Dangerous, in the sense, Old Dominion’s defense does not look capable of stopping anything right now.

Liberty’s Darren Amoo will be a nightmare for Alan Dawson’s side, but ODU’s Yannick Smith could find space to operate. This could turn into a high-scoring affair.

Prediction: ODU 2-2 Liberty (ODU advances 5-4 on PKs)

Brown (10-4-3) vs. Fairfield (12-4-1)

It is a battle of two streaks in this clash. The Brown Bears are undefeated in their last eight games, while Fairfield is unbeaten in its last 13 games with only one draw over that span.

Brown has one of the worst offenses in the NCAA tournament with only 21 goals in 17 games. Fairfield has been significantly better with 30 goals, but it will be slowed by Brown’s control of the game. Still believe the road team has just enough to grab this win.

Prediction: 1-0 Fairfield

CSU Bakersfield (12-3-5) vs. St. Mary’s (8-6-5)

A rematch from earlier this year, as these two sides settled for a 0-0 draw. The sequel will boil down to Bakersfield’s Gyasi Zardes against St. Mary’s conservative approach.

Zardes, who has 18 goals on the season, was shut down in the first meeting, but he will be the man the Roadrunners will lean on in their first ever NCAA tournament appearance.  This will be a close contest, as opposing coaches swear to the Gaels' quality.

Prediction: 1-0 Bakersfield

Creighton’s bracket:

Northern Illinois (14-5-0) vs. Western Illinois (13-6-1), 1:00 p.m.

NIU’s last opponent, Western Michigan, is pretty similar to its next challenger. The Huskies showed in the MAC final that they can handle the physical play that is dictated by a system. 

Prediction: 1-0 NIU

Providence (10-7-1) vs. Dartmouth (8-5-4), 2:00 p.m.

The Friars enter the NCAA tourney after stewing for a week on a 5-0 trouncing by Louisville in the first round of the Big East tourney. That type of motivation will have Chaka Daley’s side fired up to reclaim the taste of victory. 

Prediction: 2-1 Providence

Duke (10-7-3) vs. Georgia State (13-7-1)

By all accounts, GSU is heading in the right direction under second-year head coach Brett Surrency. But handling Duke's Andrew Wenger is a difficult task for any team. The junior has 17 goals and eight assists on the year and is probably a bit too savvy for the emerging program. 

Prediction: 3-1 Duke

UCF (11-5-3) vs. Florida Gulf Coast (12-5-2)

FGCU won the first meeting between these sides 2-1 in late September to give UCF its first loss of the season. After that game, UCF lost four of its last 11 games and never quite looked the same.

Can UCF turn the ship around late in the year? Or is FGCU too technical to let the overpowering Knights into the flow of the contest? I’m leaning towards yes for the latter.

Prediction: 2-1 FGCU

Connecticut’s bracket:

Monmouth (14-5-1) vs. Stony Brook (10-6-3)

Monmouth was embarrassed last year in the tournament when Dartmouth came to town and thoroughly outclassed the home side. Stony Brook is not as dynamic as that Ivy League squad, but it will not be an easy contest for the New Jersey boys. 

Prediction. 2-1 Monmouth

South Carolina (9-7-2) vs. Wake Forest (8-7-4)

This is setting up for a game where the veteran squad pushes and shoves the young, talented bunch around for 90 minutes while Bradlee Baladez grabs an ugly game-winner somewhere in the second half.

Prediction: 1-0 South Carolina

Charlotte (13-4-2) vs. Furman (14-3-4)

Charlotte head coach Jeremy Gunn is one of the best in the business, but he has yet to win an NCAA tourney game. Furman is not an easy challenge, but the 49ers have been excellent at home this season.  

Prediction: Charlotte 2-1

Akron (13-3-4) vs. Northwestern (11-4-5), 7:30 p.m.

Akron’s name makes them the favorite in this clash, but its recent form [1-2-1 at home] should put the brakes on penciling the Zips into the next round. Northwestern, as any good Big Ten team, is predicated on defense. The Wildcats will not win the possession battle, but they will keep it closer than most imagine.

Prediction: Akron 1-1 Northwestern (Akron advances 4-3 on PKs)

Boston College’s bracket:

Rutgers (9-6-3) vs. Colgate (11-4-6)

This clash is a sneaky good matchup between two of the best freshmen in the country, Rutgers’ attacking midfielder Juan Pablo Correa against Colgate’s defensive midfielder Jimmy McLaughlin. Correa is the maestro of the Big East side and if McLaughlin can stop him, the Rutgers attack will struggle.

Prediction: 2-0 Rutgers

Virginia (12-7-1) vs. Delaware (12-5-4)

Delaware is a two-player team. If Virginia can stop Evans Frimpong and Roberto Gimenez, this should be a comfortable victory for the home team. Although, Virginia has struggled with controlling the midfield all season and continuously allows inferior teams back in the game.

Prediction: 3-2 Virginia

Bradley (14-5-2) vs. Loyola Chicago (7-11-2)

Bradley has one of the best keepers in the country, while Loyola Chicago has one of the worst offenses. It is only going to take one tally to settle this matchup and it is not coming from the visitors.

Prediction: 1-0 Bradley

West Virginia (10-7-1) vs. Xavier (12-4-4), 5:00 p.m.

This is a tough matchup for Xavier, which has been a solid side for the last month and deserved a more forgiving opponent than the side that knocked them out last year at this stage, 4-2.

West Virginia’s record is deceiving due to a tough schedule and insurmountable injuries at times, but it is a very good team when healthy. The main concern here is the Mountaineers’ rust [1 game in last 19 days] against Xavier’s fatigue [3 games in last 7 days].

Prediction: 3-2 West Virginia