Last fall, the O'Connell High School soccer team had one of those almost perfect seasons, finishing 20-2 with a group of talented, experienced players.

Coach Kelvin Joseph said it was one of the best teams he's ever coached. And when he speaks of this year's squad, which is much younger and relatively untested, he maintains a positive outlook.

"I don't underestimate my offensive line," said Joseph, who will miss all-Met forward Chris Foster, who graduated. "They get better and better all the time."

Joseph is counting on his defense to win games. Whereas the front line has five sophomores, the back line includes senior stopper Eric Van Ballen, whom Joseph thinks may be one of the best in the area. He also expects his goalkeeper, Alvaro Omiste, to do well.

"I'm still optimistic because if you have a good defense, it's left up to the front line, where you can improvise a lot," said Joseph.

Ireton, which has seven starters returning, is chosen by many coaches as having the best chance to overtake O'Connell in the Independent League, which includes some teams from the Metro Conference (St. John's, DeMatha, O'Connell, Gonzaga and Ireton). Bilingual, French International, Paul VI and Wilson are also in the league, which has its own playoffs following the regular season.

Ireton, a member of the Metro Conference for the first time, may have to drop out of the Independent League this season because of an overload of games scheduled, according to Coach Pete Johnson.

Two reasons Ireton is picked so high are midfielders David Damiani, an all-Met selection last year, and Bruce Ensley. "We have two of the most outstanding soccer players in the area," said Johnson.

Johnson, who is also counting on striker Kasey Carver and sweeper Paul Bjarnason, jokes that he has "too many" starters. "We had so many kids trying out," he said. "We have two or three freshmen and sophomores who were good but don't have room for them."

Elsewhere in the Metro Conference, St. John's (17-8 last year) is set offensively with all-Met Paul Castro, a 47-goal scorer, at forward. The Cadets have 16 experienced players, including midfielders Mike and Chris Jones.

In addition, Coach Rudy Beckman picked up wing Chad Innis, who transferred from Indiana. "He has good skills," said Beckman. "He's real aggressive, very fast and an explosive player. He should take some pressure off of Castro."

Opponents may have a tough time putting the ball past Good Counsel goalkeeper Dave Baruetta, who had a 1.4 goals-against average last year. They also may have trouble stopping Falcons forward Mark Gardner from scoring. Gardner, a three-year starter, had 17 goals last year. Defensively, Mark Peck, also a three-year starter, should keep the opposition covered.

"If we can get the ball to Gardner, that's our main objective," said Coach Arthur Iwanicki. "He can outrun anybody."

What worries Iwanicki, however, is depth and possible injuries. He said only 11 to 12 players should see playing time.

Last year, DeMatha was in transition between coaches and it finished 6-12. But this year, Coach Frank Ferrugia, in his sophomore season, has reason to be optimistic.

The Stags return seven starters. Among those are 17-goal scorer Jody Danek, midfielder Robbie White, and defensemen Gabi Luka and Jimmy McManus.

"We finished last year saying that a realistic goal this year was doing better than .500," said Ferrugia. "It's all going to depend on progress. We don't have great talent, so we have to play well as 11 players."

At Gonzaga, the Eagles could "surprise a few people," said first-year Coach Chris Ayers. The team may have to rely on one scorer, Scott Gilly, but the midfield is strong, led by Eric Stokesbury.

In the Interstate Athletic Conference, Bullis, Georgetown Prep and Sidwell Friends, which tied for first place last year, should be near the top again this season.

Perhaps the team to keep a close eye on is Bullis, which was 15-3 last year and lost only three starters. "We are well-balanced," said Coach Doug London. "We have almost the same players, so it depends on what other teams have."

Midfielder Jason Pensky will try to surpass the 46 goals he had last year, and midfielder Mario Del Cid will attempt to make all-league for the third consecutive year.

St. Albans was 8-2 last year before injuries helped drop the team to 10-8. With 13 players gone from that team, St. Albans turns to sophomore midfielder Christian Powers and seniors Sebastian Apucha and Brent Edwards.

St. Stephen's, 11-6-1 last year, will be better prepared this season, "mentally and physically," said Coach Bob Lamond. Returning is the team's leading scorer, forward Rad Yates, along with fullbacks Tommy Archer and Derek Peterson. Wayne Kelley, a senior, and Paul Kopp, a junior, are two competent goalkeepers "dead even" in the battle over a starting position.

"In many ways, we're further along than in the past -- in terms of practice," said Lamond. "I have been real pleased with the way our short passing game has developed. We have good control from top of box to top of box. But I think we need to finish better."

Defense, which may have been Landon's strength in the past, could pose a problem this season. But overall, Coach Ed Sundt feels experience should help improve last year's 7-9 record. The offense is capable with forwards Steve Pokorny and Mark Knebeo, and midfielders Matt McKee and Jason Ledbetter.

Wilson, of the defunct Interhigh soccer league, will play in the Independent League for the first time. It brings a formidable team that is aggressive defensively and skillful offensively.

Coach Ed Del Rio plays a two-stopper defense with Paul Wilbur ("the best I've ever coached") and Adam Messersmith ("tall and wins a lot of balls"). Sweeper Scott Cartland is "very quick, aggressive and smart on the off-side trap."

Wilson should score often with three-year starter Mark Litton and Brett Mingo at the forward position.

With Paul VI, the Independent B champion last year, moving up to Independent A, George Mason (14-4) could come out on top this season.

The Mustangs, second-place finishers the last three years, have 14-goal scorer Mark Sullivan returning for his sophomore year. At fullback is junior Eryck Van Ryn, whom Coach Mark Wallace calls "one of my best players. He's tough." Senior Leo Villasmil provides experience at goalkeeper.

"I want to say defense" is a strength, says Wallace, who probably will start four freshman. "It's a big question mark. In the past, it's always been our scoring."

Of the other teams in the league, Wallace thinks Maret is the "team to beat." Maret Coach Tim Emerson says, "I think we're not going to have easy games. We have a small team and not a lot of depth. But I think we will be in every game."

The defense is stable with Barton Clark, a senior, but the rest is young. However, Emerson thinks freshman Andrew Schiff could mature into a key player on defense. "In the last six years, I have started seven freshman," says Emerson. "And four have been honorable mention in the league (as freshman)."

Offensively, John Drysdale is "an excellent playmaker," who is "small but has tremendously quick feet." Midfielder Andrew Levy and forward Richard Berlin are leaders around the opponent's goal.

St. Anselm's Coach Bert Cooper is "hoping we'll be strong defensively," since most of his offensive players have graduated. Key players for St. Anselm's: midfielder Bruce Zalencia and fullback Brian Parker.