This season in women's college soccer promises to put a whole new spin on the old adage that championships are won and lost based on what players do during the summer.
As it now stands, the outcome of the College Cup might well hinge on what a select handful of players do during the first week of summer in the Southern Hemisphere.
The college championship will be decided on Dec. 7 at SAS Soccer Park in Cary, N.C. That same day, one continent and two seasons removed, the final match of the 2008 FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup takes place in Chile. And while there are no guarantees that the United States makes it to the latter final, it's a lock that 21 of the best American college players (not to mention some international players who have NCAA ties) will spend much of November trying to get to that game instead of the one in N.C.
Unlike two years ago, when the U-20 World Cup took place in Russia at the onset of the college season in the United States, the biggest tournament in international youth soccer in 2008 is on a direct collision course with the heart of the college postseason. And when it comes to the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play for your country -- especially as the United States looks to win the title for the first time since the inaugural tournament in 2002 -- it's not a collision between the irresistible force meeting an immoveable object.
"Every time I put on the [United States] jersey and I'm standing in line listening to the national anthem, I get the chills," said Portland sophomore Keelin Winters, who captained the Under-20 national team through qualification. "It's just such an honor to be able to play for your country, no matter if it's for the full team or the U-20 team or a youth team. Previously I had never been on the national team, and so all of a sudden I'm with the U-20's and I'm in qualifications, and putting on that jersey and listening to the national anthem in front of thousands of people is just an experience I can't describe."
All of which has college coaches across the country trying to figure out which of their players might go missing and what to do with those who might only be around for the first two months of the season. For the tournament in Russia, players like UCLA's Lauren Cheney and USC's Amy Rodriguez missed a handful of early games, but were back on campus well before conference or postseason play began. But four years ago, when the U-19 World Cup in Thailand fell late in the calendar year, most of the players on the national team either redshirted (like former Portland star Angie Woznuk) or delayed their college arrival for a year (like current Notre Dame star Kerri Hanks).
This time around, current U.S. U-20 coach Tony Dicicco is amenable to players participating in the college season until the national team leaves for Chile in November.
"For me, obviously my first priority is playing with the Under-20 team, and I think being able to play my college season is only going to benefit me, as well as the other girls on the team who are going to be playing their college season," Winters said. "Because it may not be the international level of play in college, but you're still getting games in all the time and having high-intensity practices all the time with your college team -- they're huge."
Speaking during the WPSL playoffs in which his SoccerPlus Connecticut team was competing this summer, Dicicco said the team he took to England during the first week of August for two exhibition matches would represent probably 90 percent of the final roster for Chile. The roster won't be finalized until later in the fall, allowing the staff to evaluate late bloomers who impress during the college season or assess injuries.
The following players traveled to England to play against the Everton and Arsenal Ladies' Teams and are in the running to be a part of the U-20 World Cup team that will travel to Chile.
"They've got to make decisions with classes," Dicicco said. "They're all going to play, for the most part [during the college season]; there's a couple that might redshirt."
One of those who will sit out the entire season is Georgetown's Ingrid Wells.
For a program like Georgetown, just coming into coach Dave Nolan's fifth season at the helm, losing a playmaking talent like Wells is a harsh blow. Three years ago, Georgetown won a Big East tournament game for the first time. Last season, with Wells earning All-America honors as a freshman, the Hoyas advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time.
With seven returning starters and an incoming class that includes Icelandic international Greta Samuelsdottir and several highly-rated domestic recruits, Georgetown fits the profile of a team ready to take the next step beyond the opening weekend of postseason play. Nolan's team might still have the talent on hand to do so, but it will have to do it without Wells. A key part of both the roster that went through World Cup qualification in Mexico this summer and the roster on the England trip, she is a lock to go to Chile.
"For us, right now, we're pretty certain that Ingrid will not be playing with us in the fall, and she also won't be enrolled in classes, either," Nolan said, noting that the academic schedule and demands at the school made it logistically impossible to miss a month of classes. "Talking to Ingrid and her parents, we all came to the conclusion that the best thing for her to do would be just to take a leave of absence, or a redshirt, this fall."
It's the same dilemma that coaches and players are addressing on a case-by-case basis across the country. No coach had more cases to examine than Portland's Garrett Smith, who will lose Winters, fellow sophomore Elli Reed and junior Michelle Enyeart (although it could be worse; Canadian Sophie Schmidt is still age-eligible for the U-20 World Cup, but will remain at Portland after playing for Canada's senior national team in the Olympics). Three Portland players redshirted while preparing for the U-19 World Cup in 2004, but with Women's Professional Soccer restoring a domestic professional league next year, Smith said there was more incentive this time around to minimize any delays in matriculation.
"My advice to the players was, 'Hey, every year we let this league go by and get more and more established, it's only going to be that much harder to get in.'" Smith said. "If you put it off from maybe two years in to three years in, for Elli and Keelin, that's a big difference. You've got that much more settle-in time for those players to establish their roles and another graduating class to get out there before you and what have you. And so knowing these are the top players in the country, we encourage them to play [the pre-Chile portion of the college season] if you can and get it done with in four years."
Of course, those opportunities are less a lottery ticket than a chance to prolong a passion, and, like at Georgetown, academics proved the biggest challenge at Portland, where the program posted a 3.51 GPA in 2006 and produced the women's representative as the West Coast Conference Scholar Athlete of the Year in three of the last five years. But as Winters described, the players have been able to work with professors to accelerate class work and hopefully complete much of their responsibilities before leaving for Chile.
"The biggest sticking point was would they be able to -- academically be able to do everything," Smith said. "With the amount of time they were going to be missing, with the preparations for the two camps, if they have one in September and one in October, plus basically you miss the last month of the semester for us, was the biggest obstacle. Could they be actively enrolled in classes and handle the workload? And I think we've worked something out at this point, and it looks like we're going to move forward with it."
Whether it's losing a program-changing player for an entire season or losing three key players in a program with championship aspirations every season, the U-20 World Cup casts an unavoidable shadow over the college season. But the truth of the matter is that if a program takes a hit in the short term, it also means the future looks bright in the long term.
"It's a big loss," Nolan conceded with a laugh. "But again, at a school like ours, and how we do things, we always talk about the big picture. It's a great honor for Ingrid. We've always encouraged her to take advantage of it. And it's a great honor for the school as well. And in a selfish way it helps us, too, because it now puts us on that map of having national team kids. That can only help when you're trying to increase the prestige and reputation of your soccer program."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.