Teams, players and matchups to watch in 2007

With the women's soccer season quickly approaching, Graham Hays answers five burning questions about what we'll see in 2007.

1. Is North Carolina the favorite to win it all?
Sorry, the glare off of those 18 national championship trophies momentarily blinded me; could you repeat the question?

No matter the sport, the defending national champion always gets the benefit of the doubt when it returns a large number of key players. And no matter the number of returning players, North Carolina always gets the benefit of the doubt when it sets foot on the soccer field. Considering the Tar Heels are both the defending national champions and return nine starters from the team that defeated Notre Dame the to won that title … well, you get the picture.

The landscape in women's soccer has changed enough that it's certainly not a foregone conclusion that Anson Dorrance's latest band of bling-bearing youngsters will come out on top when the College Cup convenes in College Station, Texas, this December. The depth of talent across the country may even mean the Tar Heels aren't even consensus favorites to win it all again, but it's nearly impossible to say any team has a more legitimate claim to the mostly meaningless title of preseason favorite.

Sure, the Tar Heels lose Heather O'Reilly, one of true greats of a program littered with legends. O'Reilly will be off trying to win another kind of title in China this fall (more on that later) and North Carolina will have to replace her leadership, her goals and the freedom she created for others by occasionally drawing the equivalent of a basketball box-and-one defense. But anyone who saw Casey Nogueira ease past defenders in the College Cup or Whitney Engen run through proverbial walls all season knows Dorrance has plenty of options to complement All-American midfielder Yael Averbuch.

And with star-in-waiting Ashlyn Harris healthy in goal, Jessica Maxwell healthy in the middle of the defense and surprising freshman standout Kristi Eveland now an experienced sophomore, the Tar Heels may not need to score much in the first place.

2. Will China help determine college soccer's national champion?
All right, maybe China's growing role in the world isn't quite that pervasive.

The Women's World Cup in China ultimately may not play a major role in determining which college team wins the NCAA Tournament, but the event halfway around the world will have a significant impact on at least the opening month of the college season.

University of Portland senior defender Stephanie Lopez is the only active college player on the final roster for the United States, but four teams in the Soccer Buzz preseason top 10 will be without key players in September.

No. 1 North Carolina opens the season without defender Robyn Gayle, who could have a long stay in China with a Canadian team that has the potential to repeat its semifinal run of four years ago. Anson Dorrance's Tar Heels have depth, as always, and should be able to manage without Gayle for a bit, especially with Maxwell in the middle of the back line. But without Gayle, they can't afford too many more injuries like the lingering hamstring issue that has kept Ariel Harris out of preseason training. Gayle will presumably miss big nonconference tilts with Texas A&M and William and Mary, and could miss the opening ACC game against rival Florida State on Sept. 27.

Kara Lang will miss the start of No. 2 UCLA's season to play alongside Gayle for Canada, although the Bruins are used to playing without the gifted midfielder after she sat out last season while rehabbing a knee injury. If coach Jillian Ellis is every able to get Lang, fellow midfielder Christina DiMartino and forwards Danesha Adams and Lauren Cheney on the field together for a consistent period of time, the results could be dazzling.

No. 4 Portland takes perhaps the biggest hit among the championship contenders, losing both Lopez and Canadian midfielder Sophie Schmidt. Lopez's value is obvious given her ability to win a starting spot on the world's top-ranked national side. The Pilots have the depth to hold down the fort on the back line without her, but nobody in the college game can generate offense out of the back as well as Lopez. Schmidt has yet to play for the Pilots after redshirting last season to compete for Canada in the U-20 World Championships, so it's hard to assess exactly how much she'll be missed, but adding another potent player to the attack alongside a healthy Megan Rapinoe certainly will make them that much more dangerous when she returns.

Unfortunate as it may be for fans of New Zealand, Ali Riley's stay in China is unlikely to extend beyond the opening round. And New Zealand's loss is No. 6 Stanford's gain. The Kiwis, who qualified for the World Cup in part because regional power Australia moved from the Oceania qualifying group to the Asian qualifying group, are longshots to escape a group that includes Brazil, China and Denmark. Even so, Riley will likely miss most of Stanford's brutal nonconference schedule, including games against Notre Dame, Connecticut, Rutgers, Colorado, Boston University and Virginia. An All-Pac-10 selection as a freshman, Riley scored four goals and will be a key part of the Cardinal's offense.

3. Which team is most likely to crash the College Cup?

It's not string theory, but this is still something of a mind-bender. Not only are there at least a dozen teams entirely capable of making up for last season's postseason disappointment by earning a trip to the College Cup, but all four participants from last year's semifinals appear to have the necessary pieces to get to College Station.

But if forced to narrow it down to one trade, look for Portland to snag the spot Florida State claimed last season.

As mentioned above, the Pilots start the season with two of their players competing against each other for World Cup honors in a time zone nine hours ahead of the Rose City. But aside from the season opener at home against Florida State, Portland's toughest nonconference games come during the final weekend of September and first weekend of October during road trips to UCLA, USC and Oregon, at a time when they may have at least Schmidt back in the mix. That should enable them to stay in the mix for NCAA Tournament seeding and avoid a repeat of last season's "Harold and Kumar" trek that sent them from Utah to Texas to UCLA for the first three weekends of the postseason.

The Pilots have nine starters returning from last season, a group that includes Megan Rapinoe, healthy and back in action after tearing her ACL last season. If not for that injury, it's entirely possible that Rapinoe, and not Natasha Kai, might have been the fifth forward on coach Greg Ryan's final World Cup roster for the United States.

Likely to play in an attacking midfield role for Portland this season, Rapinoe was a leading candidate for national player of the year honors before the injury, scoring 10 goals in 11 games. Even if it takes some time for her to regain peak form, she's likely to be among the most dangerous players in the country by the time the postseason rolls around. The Pilots can afford to be cautious with Rapinoe, given the way the offense stepped up in her absence last fall. Rachael Rapinoe, Megan's sister, will remain up front after breaking out following a move from defense after her sister's injury and sophomores Michelle Enyeart and Kendra Chandhoke combined to score 26 goals as freshmen.

And we haven't even gotten to senior midfielder Angie Woznuk, a second-team Soccer Buzz All-American last season and decorated member of the U.S. youth national scene.

4. How about five other teams to watch?

Penn State (preseason rank: 12)
New coach Erica Walsh takes over the perennial Big Ten power and has plenty of talent on hand to make a run at the College Cup in her first season. Leading scorer Aubrey Aden-Buie returns for her senior season and is joined in a dangerous partnership up front by sophomore Katie Schoepfer. Walsh, a veteran of the youth national-team system, also gets to work with two of the nation's top 25 freshmen (according to Soccer Buzz recruiting rankings), in midfielders Bianca D'Agostino and Danielle Toney.

Oregon (preseason rank: 19)
If karma has any place in soccer, Oregon will catch every break possible this season. And the Ducks may need them. Inexplicably snubbed during the NCAA Tournament selection process, Oregon faces something of an uphill battle to earn another shot at the postseason. Picked to finish fifth in the Pac-10 this season, the Ducks must replace Nicole Garber, who accounted for 12 of the team's 24 goals in 2006. Freshman midfielder Kirstie Kuhns arrives with a strong résumé and could help bolster the attack immediately playing alongside Allison Newton, who scored six times last season. For now, the strength of the team is on defense, where the core of a group that allowed just 17 goals returns, including defenders Dylann Tharp, Nicole Dobrzynski and Darcie Gardner and goalkeeper Jessie Chatfield.

Tennessee (preseason rank: 24)
The Lady Vols don't do many things halfway, and the new 3,000-seat Regal Soccer Stadium in Knoxville is just one more indication the women's soccer program is ready to take its place alongside the basketball and softball programs on the national stage. Another indicator is the return of three of the team's four leading scorers from last season, including the tandem of Kylee Rossi and Mick Ingram, who combined for 17 goals. As much as the new digs will make home (the team went 9-1-1 in Knoxville last season) even more pleasant, the next step for this group of Lady Vols will be improving on last season's 3-6-3 road/neutral field record. Key games away from home include Wake Forest, USC and Nebraska.

Texas A&M (preseason rank: 5)
The only team that beat North Carolina last season, and one of only three teams to score multiple goals against the eventual champs (although the two feats didn't happen in the same game), Texas A&M is capable of producing some equally impressive moments this fall after losing just two starters from a group that reached the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament. Senior Ashlee Pistorius provides plenty of glitz up top as one of the nation's best goal scorers, but the Aggies are also deep, disciplined and athletic across the midfield and back line. They'll get another shot at the Tar Heels, who were responsible for the Aggies' postseason exit, in Chapel Hill. The team's tough nonconference slate also includes Duke, West Virginia and Penn State.

Yale (unranked)
Coach Rudy Meredith is certainly going to provide curious fans with plenty of opportunities to watch his Bulldogs, scheduling nonconference games against ranked opponents North Carolina, Portland, Duke and Boston University, as well as an encounter with Washington. Battling injuries and working in a deep freshman class, Yale struggled to a disappointing 8-7-2 record last season, a year after advancing to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. But that didn't dissuade a top-50 recruiting class from signing on in New Haven, Conn., adding another layer of talent to a roster that returns seven starters. Junior Emma Whitfield, who led the team in goals last season while playing through an ankle injury, could be the best goal scorer in the Ivy League.

5. How about five players to watch?

Deana Everrett, West Virginia
Pat White and Steve Slaton aren't the only athletes in Morgantown who are hoping to make use of their blazing speed to lead a team to postseason glory. After scoring four goals in a successful but quiet freshman campaign, Everett grabbed national attention last season by racing past opponents to score 18 goals and assist on seven others. Along with UCLA's Danesha Adams, Everett is one of the most exciting players in the nation to watch when the offside flag stays down and she bears down on a helpless goalie.

Lauren Fowlkes, Notre Dame
It was just a preseason scrimmage, but it's not every day Anson Dorrance stops a freshman as she walks off the field to tell her she was awesome. Fowlkes earned that praise after a stellar performance in her first taste of college action, unofficial or not, playing close to a full 90 minutes as Notre Dame's new holding midfielder. Fighting Irish coach Randy Waldrum admitted he hadn't planned to leave her out on the field for so long going into the scrimmage against North Carolina, but he just liked what he saw. Big, strong and entirely fearless in tackles, Fowlkes also has a nice offensive touch.

Yolanda Odenyo, Oklahoma State
Soccer must be the world's game, because it's difficult to come up with too many other ways for a person to go from Uppsala, Sweden, to Stillwater, Okla., and the Oklahoma State Cowgirls. Odenyo, a senior midfielder, enters her final college season as one of the best players in the nation and with hopes of leading Oklahoma State deeper into the NCAA Tournament than last season's second-round exit against Clemson.

Amy Rodriguez, USC
Rodriguez didn't exactly struggle after returning from the U-20 World Championships in mid-September a year ago, tying for second on the team with four goals in just 16 appearances, but it was a line from the 2005 Pac-10 Freshman of the Year that was emblematic of a program that most felt had the potential for even more. Organizing that improvement will be up to new coach Ali Khosroshahin, but Rodriguez cementing her place as one of the truly elite talents in the country could make any coach look like a genius. An unselfish playmaker who has almost as many assists (10) as goals (13) in two years at USC and draws constant heavy attention from opponents, Rodriguez, and the Women of Troy, could be on the brink of something special.

Brittany Taylor, Connecticut
With an eye toward her future at the national-team level and an eye toward the needs of a Connecticut team hurting on defense -- and yet somehow mysteriously able to keep yet another eye on the ball -- Taylor shifted to the back line for coach Len Tsantiris last season and was an immediate success. Taylor, now a junior, tied for the team lead with seven goals despite the midseason shift, a testament to attacking skills that will certainly enhance as she grows more comfortable on defense.

Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's soccer coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.