The University of Louisville men’s soccer team that heads to Maryland for Saturday night’s NCAA quarterfinal is a very different outfit both from the one that beat the Terps 4-2 in last year’s NCAA round of 16 and the one that lost 3-0 to the Terps in College Park to open this season.
The Cards started the 2012 campaign trying to find the right mix of players to replace five senior starters, four of whom were drafted into Major League Soccer. Two of them – defender Austin Berry and Nick DeLeon – would go on to finish 1-2 in the voting for MLS rookie of the year. That’s a serious loss of talent.
While the Cards had a solid core of returning players – notably defenders Brock Granger, Greg Cochrane and Andrew Ferrell and midfielder Paaolo DelPiccolo – Coach Ken Lolla faced the task of integrating several transfers into the lineup and determining which of the incoming freshmen could contribute immediately and who should redshirt. Also a question mark was midfielder Dylan Mares and the extent of his recovery from a serious injury that caused him to miss all of the 2011 campaign.
Some of those answers came readily. Others did not. As it turned out, perhaps the biggest hole in the lineup was created by the one graduating senior started who did not go to the MLS, goalkeeper Andre Boudreaux.
Lolla started the season with German import Joachim Ball as the starting keeper. That did not go so well. It’s not that Ball couldn’t stop shots. Rather, he seemed indecisive and thus unable to control his area or organize his defenders effectively.
After Lolla made the switch to Mike Mauro, a transfer who brought a command presence with him from the Air Force Academy, things started to turn around. Once Mares returned to the effectiveness that earned him Big East Rookie of the Year honors in 2010, the Cards seemed to get fully back on track for national title contention.
Ferrel, who spent last season as a defensive midfielder, has been a force in the center of the back line and has likely earned himself All-American status. Cochrane, playing mostly as a wing midfielder, has terrorized opposing defenses with his speed and ability to work the ball in toward the goal. Granger has played well and redshirt sophomore Daniel Keller has capably stepped into a starting role in the back. DelPiccolo has been solid in central midfield and returnees Ryan Smith and Will Vitalis have been solid starters, while Alex Obbey and Buck Tufty have gotten good minutes mostly as subs.
(Vitalis did not play against Northwestern Sunday. No official word yet on his absence or return, but the fact that he was not on the bench could mean something other than an injury.)
Among the newcomers, Boston University transfer Ade Akinsanya has only gotten better as the season progressed and has played well in central midfield in both the NCAA tournament games thus far. Zack Foxhoven, who came over from UCLA, has shown the ability to provide an offensive spark off the bench.
Among the freshmen, only Marlon Hairston and Luis Ramirez have seen action, but both have become key players for the Cards. Ramirez has settled into a starting role in the back, which freed Cochrane to move up into a more attacking role. Hairston, another speed burner, has been a consistent offensive threat, although he is prone to both freshman mistakes and injuries.
Louisville goes into this game with a solidified lineup and some momentum after blowing out Winthrop in the round of 32 and taking down a very solid Northwestern team on Sunday night.
Number two seed Maryland poses a much tougher test, of course. The Terps are the top scoring team in the nation, averaging 2.59 goals per game, which is well ahead of UofL’s 1.9 tallies per contest. On defense, Maryland and Cards sport an identical .93 goals allowed per game. The Terps are 19-1-2 on the year and 6-1-1 in the ACC, the second-toughest conference behind the Big East.
Maryland is led by ACC PLayer of the Year Patrick Mullins, a junior who has 15 goals and 8 assists on the season. Trinity High School product Sunny Jane is a starter in midfield. If Maryland has a weakness, it may be in the net, where Keith Cardona has a save percentage of just .655. On the other hand, he has only faced about three shots on goal per game.
Louisville is going to have to challenge him at a greater pace than that to come away with a win and a trip to the College Cup. Based on the last two games, they certainly seem up to the task.