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Clean sheets, Canadians, and conference play -- oh my!

Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Spor
The Iowa soccer program had steadily improved under the last several years under the tutelage of coach Ron Rainey, but there was some concern about what might happen to the program after Rainey departed for Dartmouth last spring and was replaced by Dave Dilanni.  Based on current results, those concerns seem unfounded -- Iowa's off to a flying start, sitting at 8-1 overall and 3-0 in Big Ten play.  Then again, perhaps we shouldn't be too surprised -- Iowa won 15 games last year (a school record), made it to the Big Ten Tournament championship game, and was selected to the NCAA Tournament (for the first time ever).  This year's team returned nine starters from that squad and is flush with talented, experienced upperclassmen.  Rainey left the program in good shape; the challenge for Dilanni will be sustaining that and (hopefully) building on that success.  Dilanni knows success, though: he was at Grand Valley State in Division II before taking the Iowa head job and all he did there was dominate: seven Final Four appearances, 3 NCAA championships.

Iowa's strong play has seen them earn some national recognition -- Top Drawer Soccer ranks Iowa #25 overall, while Soccer America is much more bullish on the Hawkeyes -- #13 overall.  Less bullish on Iowa?  The Coaches Poll (Iowa checks in at #32 after receiving six votes) and the NCAA RPI rankings(where Iowa sits at... #68).  So what gives?  Why the significant discrepancy in rankings?  It probably has something to do with Iowa's schedule, which has not been overly challenging, shall we say, to this point.  Iowa logged non-conference wins over UNI (3-5-2, 270 RPI), Illinois-Chicago (1-8, 288 RPI), Fresno State (1-8, 297 RPI), Butler (6-4, 145 RPI), and Colorado State (2-6, 233 RPI).  Their lost loss this year came at the hands... er, feet... of Iowa State, 2-1 in Ames.  The Cyclones are 6-4 overall, with an RPI ranking of 86.  As we know, who you play -- and how they perform in their games against teams other than you -- matters a lot to the RPI calculations and Iowa's non-conference opponents are doing them no favors this year.

The good (and bad) news for Iowa is that the Big Ten season offers far more challenging opponents.  That should be good for Iowa's RPI ranking... but it could also be bad for Iowa's overall record.  If nothing else, we'll definitely get a much firmer sense of how good this team is.  So far their three league wins have come against Illinois (8-2, 24 RPI), Northwestern (4-4-2, 88 RPI), and Minnesota (4-5, 89 RPI).  The Illinois win is certainly a very nice feather in their cap -- Illinois is a quality opponent and Iowa beat them 2-0.  That said, one win is an awful small sample size.

Big Ten play is in full swing, though, and Iowa's future opponents will certainly test Iowa's quality:

9/25/14 Maryland (3-3-2, 25 RPI)
9/28/14 Rutgers (6-1, 30 RPI)
10/2/14 at Michigan State (6-3-1, 55 RPI)
10/5/14 at Michigan (7-3, 57 RPI)
10/8/14 at Wisconsin (8-1, 11 RPI)
10/17/14 Indiana (5-5, 106 RPI)
10/19/14 Purdue (6-3-1, 46 RPI)
10/24/14 at Ohio State (4-5, 82 RPI)
10/26/14 at Penn State (7-1, 8 RPI)
10/31/14 at Nebraska (4-4-1, 75 RPI)

The strength of Iowa's team so far this year has been its defense (no matter the "football," some things stay the same...), as it was a year ago.  Iowa returns its entire starting back line from last season (a unit which led Iowa to 10 shutouts, 2nd best in the Big Ten).  So far this year Iowa has conceded just 4 goals all season and none since a 2-1 loss to Iowa State three weeks ago.  Junior goalkeeper Hannah Clark has recorded four straight clean sheets and hasn't allowed a goal in her last 363 minutes and 13 seconds on the field.  Not too shabby.

On offense, Iowa is lead by Canadian forward Cloe Lacasse, who has 7 goals and 4 assists, both team bests.  Forward/midfielder Bri Toelle has chipped in 3 goals and 4 assists of her own, while defender Melanie Pickert has tallied 4 goals.  (That's not a new development for Pickert, either -- she led Iowa with 7 goals last year.)  Lacasse has been Iowa's leading scorer every year she's been at Iowa and she's aiming to improve on second-team All-Big Ten honors a season ago.

Last season Iowa went 15-7-1, 5-5-1 in B1G play, 2-1 in B1G Tournament play, and made the NCAA Tournament as roughly a 10-seed, losing to Notre Dame in the first round, 4-1.  (The NCAA Soccer Tournament doesn't appear to seed all 64 teams, just the top 4 in each region, but based on the placement of the teams in the bracket Iowa-Notre Dame looked like a 7-10 matchup.)  The addition of Maryland Rutgers to the Big Ten this season means that Iowa will play 13 regular season conference games versus 11 a season ago.  If they go .500 in league play again, they'll likely need to put together another very strong run in the Big Ten Tournament to get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.  On the other hand, there doesn't appear to be any reason that this team can't win at least 8-9 games in league play, either -- they're already almost halfway to that total.  The schedule gets more difficult (and playing six of their final ten league games on the road will be tough), but this team is talented, experienced, and hungry to build on last year's success.  It will be fun to see how far they can go.

And speaking of seeing how far they can go... you can actually see them yourself this Thursday, September 25 (hey, that's today!) -- their game with Maryland is televised on BTN at 2:30 PM CT.