Upcoming ACC women’s soccer season will be different

Atlantic Coast Conference, TheACC.com

Atlantic Coast Conference, TheACC.com

Kip Coons, TSN Correspondent

RALEIGH, N.C. – The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) championships in women’s soccer could be decided halfway around the world in Papua New Guinea this Fall.

How’s that?

No, the ACC hasn’t expanded into the southern hemisphere – not yet.

Nor has the NCAA.

But the presence of the Under-20 Women’s World Cup there in November will draw key underclasswomen from the U.S. college ranks.

In years past, when the tournament has been played in Europe or Asia, it’s been a late-summer event.

Any college players would be late in reporting for regular-season play at their respective schools, but they usually arrived in time for conference play.

That’s what happened four years ago, when Virginia coach Steve Swanson led an ACC-heavy U.S. team to the gold medal.

This year, U.S. coach Michelle French, perhaps mindful of the dismal showing in 2014 by her U.S. team when it didn’t get out of pool play, has decided that her players will train together all Fall season, taking the semester off from school.

That decision has forced players to decide whether to play for college or country.

Duke sophomore forward Taylor Racioppi opted for school because she didn’t want to fall behind in a demanding pre-med course of study.

Several Stanford players also decided to forgo the World Cup.

However, five players from reigning NCAA champion Penn State will play for the U.S.

From the ACC, two UNC players will suit up for the U.S., as well as two from Notre Dame and one from Virginia.

The absence of these players could tip the collegiate balance of power.

There are more changes in the offing for the ACC.

For the third time in four years, there will be a format change in the conference championship.

For the past two years, the tournament field comprised only four of the league’s 14 teams.

The thinking was that the middle tier of teams couldn’t afford a postseason loss that might damage their chances for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.

So why the change in philosophy this season?

Was it seeing the ACC’s eighth-place team, Duke, advance all the way to last year’s NCAA tournament championship game?

Or do teams just want another shot at an ACC title?

Whatever the reason, the top eight finishers in the 14-team standings will advance to the ACC tournament, which was the format three years ago.

Quarterfinal games will be held at campus sites, with the semifinals and final played at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary.

By happy coincidence, that’s also the site for this year’s NCAA tournament College Cup, the Final Four of college soccer.

That event was supposed to be held in Orlando, Fla., but was moved to Cary because Orlando’s new soccer-specific stadium isn’t ready.

It’s interesting to note that the NCAA moved the College Cup to Cary months before House Bill 2 was enacted by the N.C. General Assembly, so politics never entered the discussion to make that decision.

The ACC field figures to be a strong one again this year.

Seven teams are ranked in the NSCAA Coaches poll, led by No. 1 Florida State.

The others are Duke (3), Virginia (4), North Carolina (9), Notre Dame (13), Clemson 14), and Virginia Tech (17).

As has become commonplace in the ACC because of the unbalanced schedule, there are some scheduling anomalies.

The biggest: Duke and UNC won’t meet in an ACC regular-season match, but the two rivals will still play each other.

They are scheduled to meet in the Duke Nike Classic on Sept. 2.

Duke will make a return trip, and play the Tar Heels in next year’s Carolina Nike Classic when the teams again won’t be scheduled in the regular season.

All three Triangle-area ACC teams open the season Friday and Sunday in invitational tournaments.

Duke plays Wofford (5 p.m.) and UNC faces Central Florida (7 p.m.) on Friday in the Carolina Nike Classic, and on Sunday, Duke gets UCF (1 p.m.) before UNC takes on Charlotte (3 p.m.).

N.C. State plays in the Wake Forest Tournament against La Salle (5 p.m. Friday) and San Diego (11:30 a.m. Sunday).