Forget the play-in games. The true first round of the NCAA Tournament began today with 64 teams all chasing the opportunity to play for a national championship in San Antonio.
You’ve probably familiarized yourself with a lot of these teams already trying to fill out a bracket but rather than join the annual office water cooler craze I found myself doing a different and more complicated kind of research of my own inspired by fellow SB Nation site Bleed Cubbie Blue, which took a look at the best Major Leaguers over the years to have spent time at the various schools in the tournament field.
Since several of the teams in the field don’t even field men’s soccer, I decided to take a different approach and compile a “starting five” for each of the schools in tournament and re-seed them that way.
No. 1 Seeds
University of Virginia
For good reason, the Hoos are favorites to win the basketball crown this year and in men’s soccer there are few programs who have contributed the type of top-level talent that has come out of Charlottesville. Right off the top you have former USMNT stars and hall of famers Jeff Agoos, John Harkes, Tony Meola and Claudio Reyna leading the way. There are plenty of candidates to consider for the fifth spot (including Philadelphia Union technical director Chris Albright) but I’m sticking with Central Pennsylvania’s sort of favorite son Ben Olsen for that spot.
Okay, so maybe don’t forget about the play-in games for a second. UCLA lost their play-in game so no matter what the NCAA says they aren’t in the field of 64 but their illustrious group of soccer alums wouldn’t be in position to have to play a Tuesday night “tournament” game in Dayton, Ohio either so I’m going to include them. This list pretty much picks itself. Cobi Jones, Joe-Max Moore and Paul Caligiuri are all hall of famers and Carlos Bocanegra and Brad Friedel also had successful club careers abroad and runs of their own with the USMNT.
If we were talking about women’s soccer, this list would be loaded with USWNT stars, but sticking to the men there’s no better place to start than a guy who made 254 appearances in MLS from 1996-2007 and earned 82 caps for the USMNT. I’m talking of course of defender Eddie Pope. Another current MLS coach makes an appearance here too with Columbus Crew head coach Gregg Berhalter another legendary Tar Heel with USMNT experience. Reading United alum Matt Hedges, the 2016 MLS Defender of the Year, counts for two in this exercise since he also attended Butler University before transferring to Chapel Hill. Kerry Savagnin might not be as recognizable of a name but the midfielder made 205 appearances for the Kansas City Wizards and earned 21 USMNT caps in the early 2000s. Logan Pause is still another long-time, one-team player in MLS who made 286 appearances for Chicago Fire from 2003-2014.
Oguchi Onyewu (who by the way wouldn’t look out of place on a basketball court) and Stu Holden lead the way for their success in Europe and with the USMNT, but Canadian international Paul Stalteri has an even more impressive European resume. The Ontario native made more than 225 total appearances in Europe with stops at Werder Bremen, Tottenham Hotspur, Fulham and Borussia Monchengladbach. Bruce Murray had a shorter-lived career in Europe with stints at FC Luzern, Millwall, Stockport County and Ayr United but had 21 goals in 85 caps for the USMNT and is in the National Soccer Hall of Fame. Another player with European experience, Jamaica international winger Dane Richards, rounds out my five.
No. 2 Seeds
San Diego State
The Aztecs are this high mainly on the backs of USMNT legends Eric Wynalda and Marcello Balboa. But the rest of the starting five does fill out pretty nicely with the likes of long-time Liga Mx midfielder Joe Corona, retired goalkeeper-turned-cop Tally Hall and Iran international right back Steven Beitashour.
If this ranking were based on coaching, Duke would be guaranteed a top spot. Jay Heaps, Jason Kreis and John Kerr (not to mention UofL head coach Ken Lolla) were all once Blue Devils. Long-time New England Revolution defender Darrius Barnes also deserves a mention and (with apologies to Jeremy Ebobisse) New York Red Bulls midfielder Sean Davis rounds out my five.
Jay Chapman has an MLS Cup to his credit and two Canadian national team caps while Reading United alum Fatai Alashe has had moderate success with the San Jose Earthquakes. Turning back the clock is an impressive trio of Spartans. Buzz Demling made 97 appearances for the old San Jose Earthquakes in the 1970s and had four USMNT caps while Nick Krat had 14 caps in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s and Alex Skotarek 10 caps in the 1970s.
Another Canadian international leads the way for the Orange in recently retired Montreal Impact captain Patrice Bernier. Bernier amassed 436 appearances during his long career in Canada, Germany and northern Europe. Reading United alum and MLS Cup winner Alex Bono also deserves a mention as does Jamaican international Paul Young, who had 28 goals in 86 caps for the Reggae Boyz. Emil Ekblom played two seasons with the Orange before going pro in his native Norway and is currently playing for a second division team that sounds like the call letters for a college radio station (KFUM). The final spot is a tough choice since several recent Orange alums have failed to make an impact in MLS, but Atlanta United defender Miles Robinson is still young enough to develop into a future starter.
No. 3 Seeds
MetroStars and USMNT legend Tab Ramos leads the way for the Wolfpack, followed by former USMNT defender Pablo Mastroeni and Scottish forward Craig Sutherland. The other two spots are a little tricky to fill but I’ll dip into the current crop of USL players to enlist Charlotte Independence midfielder Alex Martinez and FC Cincinnati midfielder Nazmi Albadawi.
Minnesota United star Ethan Finley leads the way here, but hopefully in a few years Philadelphia Union fans will be able to make a case for Fabian Herbers. Colombian-born midfielder Johnny Torres deserves a mention for winning the Hermann Trophy but his MLS career sputtered after four seasons with New England Revolution, something that never happened to Brian Mullan in his long MLS career (sorry, still can’t forget that terrible challenge though, Brian). Defender Chris Schuler has also gone from the Blue Jays to a decade-plus career in the league.
Reigning MLS Rookie of the Year Julian Gressel leads the way for the Friars, followed by former Philadelphia Union reserve goalkeeper Chris Konopka, Barbados international goalkeeper and Delaware native Keasel Broome, Houston Dynamo rookie forward Mac Steeves and short-lived New England Revolution player and current University of Michigan head coach Chaka Daley.
Philadelphia Union defenders Jack Elliott and Raymon Gaddis lead the Mountaineers. The other three players aren’t quite so obvious, but former New Zealand international forward Jarrod Smith, long-time Harrisburg City Islanders goalkeeper Nick Noble and Aaron Pitchkolan (most recently of Jacksonville Armada) isn’t a bad group (former Dallas Cowboys placekicker Joe Okhakhu is worth an honorable mention).
No. 4 Seeds
Sacha Kljestan leads the way among former Pirates and Google searches checking the spelling of both his first and last name but beyond Toronto FC defender Jason Hernandez the choices aren’t super obvious. Edwin J. Collins, who played for the Pirates in the late ‘70s, probably deserves to be chosen because he earned a varsity letter “despite losing part of his lower leg” and Delaware head coach Ian Hennessy made eight appearances for the MetroStars in the mid-’90s. Sacha’s older brother Gordon Kljestan also played at Seton Hall and spent a season with the New York Red Bulls.
Long-time Chicago Fire and DC United winger Patrick Nyarko is an obvious first choice and recent Columbus Crew signing and Greenville, Delaware native Ben Lundgaard also deserves a mention. Former Philadelphia Union backup goalkeeper Chase Harrison, who also played for the Harrisburg City Islanders is a former Hokie, and Ray Crittenden is in the Virginia Tech Hall of Fame for soccer even though he played 46 games in the NFL with the New England Patriots and San Diego Chargers in the ‘90s. Eric McClellan, who won two indoor national titles during an eight-year pro career, is also in the Hokies Hall of Fame.
Philadelphia Union head coach and former Chivas USA and Chicago Fire center back Jim Curtin was recently inducted into Hall of Fame at his alma mater. Also a defender, Kevin Garcia has been with Houston Dynamo for the past few seasons after heading to Sweden and Ireland after college. Aaron Dennis is back in the area with Penn FC after a couple seasons with Miami FC, where he’s a teammate of fellow Nova alum Chris Hill. Mike Seamon, who had a short career with Seattle Sounders and Pittsburgh Riverhounds rounds out my five.
Defender Nick Hagglund, another Toronto FC player with an MLS Cup leads the way for the Musketeers. Luke Spencer won USL Cup with Louisville City last year. Terrence “Mac” Garrigan played two seasons in the American Soccer League after starring at Xavier in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Doug Tegge is another former Xavier player who had a brief stint in pro soccer as the third pick by the Dayton Dynamo/Cincinnati Silverbacks in the National Professional Soccer League draft in 1994. Rounding out the list we’ll go local with Lancaster native Todd Pratzner, who recently signed with Pittsburgh Riverhounds after a season with the Rochester Rhinos.
Since compiling a “sweet 16” was difficult enough, I’ll quit while I’m ahead but leave you with a few other players from tournament schools worth mentioning like Brian Dunseth (Cal State Fullerton), Hall of Famer from the 1920s James Gentle (UPenn), Geoff Cameron (Rhode Island), Robert Ukrop (Davidson), Omar Cummings (Cincinnati), Roger Espinoza (Ohio State), Brian Ching (Gonzaga) and Justin Meram (Michigan).
Who am I missing? Who would you take as your “all-tournament” team? Let me know in the comments.