U of L soccer may be peaking at right time in NCAA tourney

By Andrew Melnykovych

A few thoughts while awaiting the University of  Louisville men’s soccer NCAA quarterfinal match up with UCLA at Cardinal Park on Saturday – a rematch of the Cards’ 2-0 win in their season opener, which was itself a rematch of the epic 5-4 UofL win in the Snow Bowl quarterfinal a year ago, (and which could lead to further rematches):

  • High national rankings and conference championships are nice, but the most important thing is using the season to get into and ready for the NCAA tournament, and then making a run to the College Cup. The W-L may not be as impressive this year, but Cards Coach Ken Lolla has this team playing at its peak at precisely the right time.
  • That is exemplified in the play of senior striker Colin Rolfe, who seems to be back at full strength and is again a dominant offensive force. With a goal and three assists, he had a hand in every tally in UofL’s 4-2 defeat of fifth seed Maryland, which was surprisong only that it occurred on the Terps’ home field.
  • As the Maryland game showed, seedings mean little in the men’s tourney. Sure, the 1, 2 and 3 seeds are in the quarterfinals, but then it’s 7, 12 (UofL) and 13 (UCLA), along with two unseeded teams. (In contrast, the women’s semis include the top four seeds.)
  • On the other hand, conference affiliation is telling. With three of the eight teams in the quarters (No. 1 UConn, No. 7 South Florida and the Cards), the Big East has cemented its spot as the toughest conference in the land. No other conference has more than one team left in the mix.
  • Louisville gets to play this game at home only because Rutgers (there’s the Big East again) knocked off No. 4 Boston College before losing to UCLA in the round of 16, leaving the Cards as the highest remaining seed in their quarter of the bracket.
  • With a win Saturday, the Cards could set up a rematch of another rematch in the semis. They are on the same side of the bracket as top-seeded North Carolina, a team they defeated in the semis last year and lost to early this season. Two other teams that defeated the Cards earlier this season, UConn and USF, are on the opposite side, so any possible rematch with one of those two would come only in the final.

Finally, about that weather…low 40s or high 30s at game time. But no snow in the forecast. Yet.

What went wrong for UofL soccer

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.

U of L Foundation buys land for soccer stadium

The Estopinal Group photo

Coming soon.

The University of Louisville Foundation agreed Wednesday to buy property at Byrne Avenue., across Floyd Street from Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium, for a proposed soccer stadium. The three plots at 331, 333 and 337 Byrne were purchased from Marco Inc., for $1,050,000. Tom Jurich has said he wants the stadium to include 5,500 seats, including a berm.

Meanwhile, Ken Lolla’s team is preparing to square off against Providence in the existing stadium Thursday at 7 p.m. in the first round of the Big East Soccer Championship tournament.

Epic soccer rematch
Louisville vs. UCLA

No. 1 vs. No. 2 coming soon

A match pitting two of the best college soccer teams in America will quickly test the resolve of the “I hate soccer” contingent of the University of Louisville fan base when the season begins Aug. 27 at Cardinal Park.

U of L and UCLA, ranked first and second respectively by College Soccer News, will meet a rematch of a thriller in which the Cards defeated the Bruins 5-4 in the closing seconds of NCAA action last December. These are substantially the same teams that faced off in that game. U of L has nine starters returning while the Bruins returns its entire first 11.

College Soccer News is enthusiastic about Ken Lolla’s team:

 Ken Lolla knows how to build winners.  He has worked wonders at Louisville in a short period of time. Nine starters return from the 2010 squad that was 20-1-3 with their lone loss at the hands of Akron 1-0 in the National Championship game.  Junior All-American forward Colin Rolfe (9g, 7a) will power the attack up-top.  Senior Nick DeLeon (8g, 3a) and sophomore Dylan Mares (8g, 4a) are talented midfielders who add another element to the attack.  Senior All-American Austin Berry anchors the backline and senior Andre Boudreaux returns in goal. 

We’ll discuss the conference opponents in a later post, focusing on the out-of-conference schedule for now.

The University of Kentucky is conspicuously absent from the out-of-conference schedule. The Wildcats have been on an opposite trajectory in recent years ... Maybe skipping it was a good idea for the Wildcats.

The schedule is a challenging one, including road trips against two other NCAA opponents from last season — North Carolina, Sept. 4 and Ohio State, Sept. 21. The match against the Buckeyes could be brutal, based on the bad blood evidenced last year.

The non-conference matchup at home that comes closest to the intensity of the opener is the Sept. 17 game against Butler, a perennially solid team that reached the second round of the NCAA tourney.

The University of Kentucky is conspicuously absent from the out-of-conference schedule. The Wildcats have been on an opposite trajectory in recent years. This has always been an intense rivalry, producing foul-filled, ill-tempered and generally nasty games, largely thanks to Ian Collins, UK’s foul-mouthed, foul-tempered and generally nasty coach. Maybe skipping it was a good idea was a good idea for the Wildcats.

On the road, the Cards will face a number of tough non-conference opponents, including Indiana. It’s worth a midweek trip to Bloomington on October 5. Armstrong Stadium is one of the storied venues in NCAA soccer and the Hoosier crowds are among the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable in the game.

Andrew Melnykovych

Quiet intensity at U of L

Things have all but come to a standstill in the athletic department on Belknap Campus as best we can tell.

  • Rick Pitino probably in Florida sipping martinis beside an exotic patio pool when he’s not attending basketball camps. Reflecting on the year that was, from ridding himself the Karen Sypher mess to developing a University of Louisville basketball team that became an all-time favorite. The same look in his eyes in July as was there in March.
  • Charlie Strong keeping one eye on the weight room, the other on the telephone awaiting more telephone calls with good news from Clint Hurtt. Confident his team can continue to show improvement, but all too aware of the challenges that come with inexperienced offensive lines, quarterbacks, and wide receivers.
  • Dan McDonnell recovering from a disappointing baseball season, but not losing 10 players in the Major League Baseball draft this time around. Not accustomed to mediocre baseball or slow bats, determined that the magic will return to Jim Patterson Stadium. Making occasional calls to Ken Lolla.
  • Ken Lolla out making motivational speeches, sending inspirational tweets, wearing the Observer out with his eternal optimism. Hawking season tickets with that eternal scarf. Knowing it works, driving him and those around him. Enjoying a nice recruiting class, maintaining an iron-clad focus on a national soccer championship. Knowing how to get there.
  • Jeff Walz crisscrossing the country for recruits, taking his kids to Walt Disney World, meeting himself coming and going, getting the women ready for exhibition games in Canada.
  • Tom Jurich shaking the money trees for a 5,000-seat soccer stadium, expanded seating for baseball and women’s softball, occasionally pulling out plans for another expansion of Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. Enjoying a second summer without all the Kragthorpe sniping. Life is good.

An all-too-brief reprieve from the spotlight for them. But the pressure is always there, eating at them, haunting them, motivating them, propelling them forward. A break from the fans, the fanaticism, the nuts, the analysts, the ups and downs. A time to recharge. The dog days will be gone soon enough.