Through seven games of non-conference play, it would be difficult to call Notre Dame women’s soccer’s season anything but a roaring success. The team has notched a perfect 7-0-0 record, with every win coming by a multiple goal margin. The defense has allowed just three goals across 630 minutes of play. And with ACC play on the horizon, the Irish have risen to 6th in the Coaches Poll — their highest ranking in years.
But ACC play should provide the Irish with some of their hardest tests yet. As always, the ACC is tremendously deep, with a host of teams in contention for both the conference crown and the NCAA tournament. Here’s a look at where the best teams stand in the country’s strongest soccer conference.
TIER ONE: Title favorites, College Cup contenders
The teams: UNC, Virginia, Duke and Notre Dame
This group is led by North Carolina, who have looked near-unstoppable at times. Their handling of a pair of quality teams in Tennessee and Texas in the first weeks of the season were reminiscent of prior Tar Heel teams that would hardly look threatened until the College Cup. UNC came back down to earth with a loss to UCLA, but rebounded as well as one could have asked with a 3-0 dispatching of local rival, and fellow College Cup contender, Duke.
Virginia hasn’t played as intensive of a non-conference slate as UNC, but the Cavaliers passed their biggest test with a 1-0 win on the road against Georgetown. A home draw against Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) ended what had been a perfect run to start the season, but a trip to Chapel Hill this weekend could allow Virginia to respond with a major statement.
Duke has been the most inconsistent of any of the top tier. A furious comeback against Tennessee and an impressive road thumping of TCU give the Blue Devils a pair of ranked wins. But, in their most recent outing, they were outclassed in front of a home crowd against North Carolina. Led by one of the country’s best strikers in Michelle Cooper, the Blue Devils have the pieces. But, they’ll need to regain momentum after a big rivalry loss.
Rounding out the top tier is, perhaps, the most surprising addition: Notre Dame. There was a lot of hope for an experienced Irish team that has eight upperclassmen starters. But, I don’t think anyone expected Notre Dame to open the season a perfect 7-0-0 with dominant wins over ranked St. Louis and Wisconsin teams, and a total goal difference of +18 through seven games. If the Irish maintain their pace in conference play, they’ll be on a very short list of national title contenders.
TIER TWO: Title dark horses, NCAA tournament threats
The teams: Florida State, Clemson and Wake Forest
Florida State has been perhaps the most fascinating team in the ACC over the offseason and regular season. The 2021 national champions entered the season largely unknown, playing with a new coach and a largely changed roster, nobody was sure where the Seminoles floor and ceiling would be. Through six games, the question of floor has been answered. Florida State dispatched four of their weaker non-conference games with relative ease. But, the ceiling of the Seminoles is harder to determine. In their two games against ranked teams, Florida State has produced a solid but uninspiring two draws. Oct. 6 will likely be the first day anyone can make a serious guess as to the Seminoles’ odds of a College Cup comeback as this is when they start an absolutely brutal four game stretch against Virginia, Notre Dame, Duke and North Carolina.
Clemson is another strange read in trying to sort out the rest of the pack behind the obvious standouts from the first half of the season. Much like Florida State, the Tigers have handled their weaker non-conference games without issue. However, they hold an unimpressive 0-1-2 record against likely tournament teams. A visit from Notre Dame on Thursday should say a lot about the Tigers’ chances of putting together a dark horse ACC title charge.
Rounding out the second tier is a seemingly always underrated Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons have been far from flashy this season, winning just three of their eight games by more than one goal, but they’ve also been effective. They’re yet to lose, and have a credible draw against a very good Auburn team in their one test against ranked opposition. The Deacons surprised a lot of teams last year in an underdog run to the ACC semi-finals. So far this year they’ve shown a lot of promise that they could make a similar run.
TIER THREE: Possible NCAA tournament teams, but unlikely ACC contenders
The teams: North Carolina State, Pitt and Virginia Tech
North Carolina State has been another tough team to get a bead on over the first half of the season. They’re 1-1-2 in the month of September (as opposed to 3-0-1 in August), with a confusing pair of ties with both nationally ranked South Carolina as well as lowly unranked Nebraska. They don’t have a statement win on their resume yet, and will have as much of an incentive as anyone to bring their best in conference play to get into the tournament field.
Pitt looked like a potential tier 2 team for much of non-conference play, though a loss to VCU brought the Panthers back down to Earth. But with senior forward partnership Amanda West and Leah Pais combining for 28 points in just eight games, it would be unwise to count out Pitt as a serious threat in the ACC.
Finishing this final tier is Virginia Tech. After surviving a brutal opening day scare against William and Mary, the Hokies have straightened out and worked their way to a solid 6-1-1 record. Much like the other teams in this tier, however, their lack of a statement win means they have work to do in ACC play.