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NWSL prospects to watch in NCAA Soccer Tournament

Forward Michelle Cooper is turning pro after just two college seasons at Duke. (Chris Leduc/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The quarterfinals of the NCAA college soccer tournament kick off on Friday, featuring some of the most consistent programs in the sport. Duke, Notre Dame, Florida State, Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Virginia and UCLA will battle it out for spots in the College Cup, and fans won’t want to miss the opportunity to see the stars of tomorrow.

While four-year seniors still have an extra year of NCAA availability available to them due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a few standouts are still worth watching for when they make the jump overseas or to the NWSL Draft in January. Likewise, we also listed a few underclassmen who look about ready to turn pro themselves.

Seniors to watch

Sophie Jones, senior, Duke

Jones joined the Blue Devils as a five-star recruit in 2019 and has been a remarkably consistent player in their midfield throughout her college career. Jones received All-ACC Second Team honors in 2021 and has become an even more composed distributor in her senior year, notching two goals and three assists. Jones is a tempo-setter, and her presence in the middle of the field causes problems for opponents.

Jenna Nighswonger, senior, Florida State

Nighswonger has been a player since joining FSU as a freshman. She’s played as both a starter and off the bench, contributing alongside former star teammates like Yujie Zhao and Jaelin Howell. More attacking-oriented in 2022, Nighswonger tallied 16 assists, won ACC tournament MVP and made the All-ACC First Team. Nighswonger has had the senior year everyone expected of her, providing stability for an FSU roster that made big changes in the offseason.

Alexa Spaanstra, fifth-year senior, Virginia

Becoming synonymous with this era of Virginia soccer, Spaanstra can shift roles based on the players she has around her. She’s played more pass-first soccer in previous years, but she helped carry the goal-scoring load in 2022, with eight goals and five assists. Another fifth-year senior to watch for the Hoos is Haley Hopkins, the team’s leading scorer in 2022 with 13 goals.

Sunshine Fontes, senior, UCLA

A resurgent contributor in 2022, Fontes is coming off a career-best season at UCLA. She leads the Bruins in scoring with 10 goals along with seven assists, making huge strides under new head coach Margueritte Aozasa. Fontes notched a goal in UCLA’s first-round win over Northern Arizona but has stayed relatively quiet in the second and third rounds. Asserting herself in later rounds could render the comeback complete.

Anna Podojil, senior, Arkansas

Podojil became Arkansas’s all-time points leader and leading scorer this season, registering eight goals and six assists to reach 45 goals for her career. She’s combined well with the program’s top scorer in 2022, Jessica de Filippo, and found herself (alongside a number of other names here) on the United Soccer Coaches Mac Hermann watch list this year. Arkansas made it to the Elite Eight in 2021 and will be looking to go even farther with their senior core in charge.

Reyna Reyes, senior, Alabama

With experience at both the collegiate and international level, Reyes has been a big part of Alabama’s impressive season. She’s made four appearances already with the Mexican women’s national team and has been rock solid in both the backline and defensive midfield for the Crimson Tide in 2022. She can also carry the scoring load, scoring a career-high seven goals this season along with one assist.

Underclassmen making waves

Michelle Cooper, sophomore, Duke

It’s Michelle’s Cooper’s world, and we’re all just living in it. The USWNT U-20 captain didn’t miss a beat rolling into her sophomore year with the Blue Devils, recording 17 goals and 11 assists as one of the top performers in the country. She most recently scored a brace against South Carolina to send Duke into the quarterfinals, and her performance this weekend could be the difference-maker against Alabama.

Korbin Albert, sophomore, Notre Dame

The sophomore midfielder has scored 16 goals this season with five assists, leading the Irish in scoring as the No. 1 seed has rolled through the tournament. Albert has been a remarkably consistent scorer in both of her college seasons, scoring 14 as a freshman in 2021. She scored a brace in Notre Dame’s second-round win over Santa Clara and will be difficult to stop as the Irish aim to return to the College Cup.

Avery Patterson, junior, North Carolina

Like Cooper, Patterson has had a year full of international competition and success at the college level. Patterson joined the USWNT U-20s for World Cup qualifying and has led the Tar Heels in scoring this season with 11 goals and eight assists — a huge step forward from her sophomore season. With a number of other top prospects dealing with injuries, Patterson has stepped up, notching three assists in the third round against BYU.

Lia Godfrey, junior, Virginia

There’s something about underclassmen scoring braces this year. Godfrey scored twice against Xavier in the second round to propel the Cavaliers into Round 3. Comfortable on the ball and not afraid to shoot, Godfrey has become an attacking generator in Virginia’s midfield, peaking at just the right time to help the team battle through a tough third-round matchup against Penn State.

Lilly Reale, sophomore, UCLA

Reale is an interesting player to watch not only because of her pro-level abilities, but also because of her position. Coming up through the college and U.S. youth-level ranks as an outside back makes her a positional expert to watch. She’s played almost every minute of the NCAA Tournament so far for the Bruins and was named Pac-12 Defender of the Year in 2022.

Reilyn Turner, junior, UCLA

Turner is perhaps best known for becoming Nike’s first-ever NIL signing, but her play on the field has backed up all of the hype. She’s scored nine goals on the season, good for second on the team only to Fontes, and she forced the game-opening goal against Northwestern with savvy defensive pressure. She also played her most minutes of the year (85) in the second round against UCF, finishing with three shots on target.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.