By Andrew Melnykovych
What happened to the University of Louisville soccer team, everybody’s preseason No. 1 team?
The Cards were returning nine starters to a senior-laden lineup, including all-everything striker Colin Rolfe. They were expected to challenge for the national title that narrowly eluded them last year. A number of factors combined to produce a disappointing season:
- The loss of sophomore midfielder Dylan Mares for the season with a knee injury incurred during an exhibition game in August. Mares was a top scorer for the Cards last year and was Big East Rookie of the Year. More importantly, he was the creative engine in central midfield – the guy who made the offense go. His loss was huge.
- No Charlie Campbell. One of last year’s two senior starters, Campbell proved harder to replace than classmate J.T. Murray, an All-American defender. While Austin Berry capably filled in for Murray on the back line, nobody really assumed Campbell’s role as a flank player who not only was an excellent crosser of the ball but also had a knack for being in the right place to receive balls coming from the opposite side.
- Rolfe, while not missing any games, was hobbled all season by nagging injuries and, while still dangerous in front of goal, was not the 90-minute attacking threat of last year.
- Aaron Horton to the pros. Horton was instant offense off the bench, scoring memorable last-minute game-winners against UCLA and North Carolina in UofL’s run to the NCAA final last season. He went to the Columbus Crew as an undrafted player under an exemption that allows teams to sign players who came up through their youth systems.
- Inconsistent defense. The defense, while generally solid, has been prone to periodic lapses and breakdowns at key junctures in games. Berry, Andrew Farrell and Greg Cochrane have been steady, but the fourth spot on the backline has been inconsistent. Fortunately, goalkeeper Andre Boudreaux has had a great year.
- The Bust. While it occurred back in April, the Marijuana-related arrests of Nick DeLeon and Brock Granger (along with citations issued to Rolfe, Mark Knight and Mike Mauro) certainly didn’t help. All the players were able to get back in Coach Ken Lolla’s graces by the start of the season, but that kind of distraction is not what a team needs.
- Inability to finish. Time and again, a Louisville player would find himself open in front of the goal, only to put the ball high, wide or right at the ‘keeper. The numbers don’t lie. As a team, UofL placed a lower percentage of shots on goal, and scored on a lower proportion. Kenny Walker put well over half his shots on frame last year; this year, it was just over a third.
The worst thing about losing your finishing touch is that the problem seems to get worse the harder you try to fix it. It kills confidence, makes it impossible to play relaxed and eventually can infect an entire team, leading to results such as the 0-0 overtime game against a Syracuse squad that was out shot 31-7 by the Cards.
So where does that leave UofL heading into the NCAA tournament selection Monday? Although there has been some criticism of Lolla for playing an extremely difficult non-conference schedule, it will likely be a strength when the 48-team field is selected and seeded. That schedule gives the Cards a likely top-16 RPI and, with it, a first-round bye, the near-certainty of hosting their opening tournament game, and a good chance of hosting a round-of-16 game if they win the opener.