The last time Yale men’s soccer started this strong, in 2002, the squad swept through the simply-named Yale Soccer Classic at Soccer-Lacrosse Stadium en route to a 5-0 early season mark.

Four years, two Fortune 1000 sponsors and a stadium rebranding later, the 2-0 Elis kick off the E-Trade Financial 2006 Yale Soccer Classic presented by Barnes and Noble tonight at Reese Stadium.

The billing on the marquee might be just a little bit wordier than in 2002, but the lofty implications for national recognition remain just as succinct.

“Pretty much all the major Division I programs host a tournament now,” Yale head coach Brian Tompkins said. “You play teams from outside your region, gain some experience for the players, and it’s so important to develop your strength of schedule.”

This year, Tompkins tapped two burgeoning programs in Colgate (2-0-1) and George Mason (1-2) to join perennial invitee Dartmouth (1-0-1), who will play both non-league teams, but not the Bulldogs, this weekend. Yale will have to wait until Oct. 8 to square off against their fellow 2005 Ancient Eight co-champion, but the home team may already have its hands full facing fast-rising Patriots and Raiders squads.

“Colgate and George Mason are both programs in transitional periods that have second year coaches,” Tompkins said. “I think they’re both going to be very good this year, and we view them [as] being up and coming programs and very strong challenges this weekend.”

The action gets underway with a doubleheader this evening. After the Big Green wraps up its 5:30 p.m. matchup with Colgate, the Elis will take the field against George Mason in the nightcap.

The Patriots, under the tutelage of 2004 Major League Soccer Coach of the Year Greg Andrulis, have hobbled a bit out of the gate in 2006, falling to both No. 3 Virginia and La Salle by identical 2-0 scores after an opening day win over Monmouth. Rookie goalie Sean Kelley has been impressive, racking up 15 saves in his first three games, but the offense has been sluggish at best. Still, Eli defenseman Evan Stone ’07 anticipates a spirited battle tonight.

“We’ve seen George Mason before and we know they are a really good team,” he said. “We’re expecting them to play really physical, but technically we’re going to be superior.”

After a Saturday break, the Bulldogs face a Colgate team Sunday afternoon that has been all but bulletproof in the backfield through its first three matches. The Raider defense will line up in front of the posts at Reese Stadium without having allowed a goal in its first 290 minutes of play.

But if their first two games are any indication, the Elis might just be the team to break Colgate’s shutout streak. Forward Gage Hills ’07 leads the team with three tallies, and fellow seniors Eric Munns ’07, Jordan Reiger ’07 and James Stewart ’07 rounded out the scoring in the first two campaigns. Tompkins said the leadership of the Class of 2007 through the opening-day victory over Marist and the historic triumph over Boston College — Yale’s first in 22 years — has been outstanding.

“The best way to describe the seniors is exemplary,” he said. “They lead by example, accounting for all the goals and all of the assists. Leadership is about the demonstration of qualities, character and lifestyle, and the seniors have done just that.”

The 2005 Bulldogs will be remembered by many as a team that, along with an exceptional women’s squad, brought Yalie fans down to Soccer-Lacrosse Stadium weekend after weekend. Midfielder Nick Franchot ’07 said he hopes this weekend will be the start of another autumn full of packed stadiums on frigid Friday nights.

“Not only does this put Yale on the map, every year bringing in the quality teams, but we get the word out on campus, we hand out shirts, and we show that we’re proud of this team and looking forward to showing it off,” he said.