The Wildcats dominated St. Joe's with a 20-2 shot advantage and freshman goal keeper Callum Irving posted the first shutout of his young career in a 2-0 victory, giving UK and first-year head coach Johan Cedergren their first win of the season.
Although Kentucky came up short in a 1-0 defeat against Charlotte, the defense looked very sharp in the match. The Wildcats limited the offensive attack of the 49ers to just one shot on goal, which happened to find the back of the net.
After allowing eight goals through the first three games, Cedergren is pleased with the strides the defense is making and feels the team is ready to breakout.
"This week in training we have focused again on how to defend better and how to work on the back four as a unit," Cedergren said. "Every training and game we want to get better, that's my number one goal. I think so far we are. It's unfortunate we are 1-4 but I think we are going in the right direction and I think we are going to pop real soon. They are working hard and that's all we can ask for."
UK has had a tough schedule to open the season to say the least. Through the first five games, the squad has faced three ranked foes and has a huge test on Friday against rival No. 22 Louisville.
The Wildcats allowed four goals against Dayton, and two to both Northwestern and St. John's, who are very good teams with good offenses. The Cats may have allowed a few goals this season that could have been prevented but the defense is not letting it get to them and they are working hard to get better every day.
"You can see the emphasis we put on that unit and how they are gelling and are really growing together," Cedergren said. "You have to give them some credit as well because it's easy for your head to go down when you are not having success and things are not going your way. They know that they have been at fault for some of the goals. They come and are very motivated in training and work really hard and don't shy away from knowing they have caused some goals."
Junior defender Steven Perinovic was named to the Kentucky Invitational All-Tournament team after an impressive display last weekend. The Delafield, Wisc., native was a big contributor to the shutout effort against St. Joe's and gave Charlotte all kinds of problems on their attacks. Perinovic's athleticism makes him a valuable asset to the team and Cedergren expects to see more out of him than just on defense.
Freshman Jacob Speed is another defender that has shown improvement over the last couple of weeks and he and Perinovic are starting to click.
"I think they are both very good center backs and they play well together," Cedergren said.
"Steven is a fantastic player in the air, there aren't a lot of headers he will lose and he loves to tackle. Jacob is really tall and I think he is still growing into his frame as a freshman. Together I think it's a very good pairing. Steven had two good games this weekend and we are hoping we can get some offensive production from him on set pieces because he is so good in the air. They are great kids, great leaders and want the team to do well."
UK plays with four defenders on the backline, which means two other Wildcats have had to step up this season on defense. Seniors Jacob Kemper and Charley Pettys have filled the roles and are getting better every time they see action, whether it be on the practice field or in games.
While Kemper and Pettys are primarily defenders, Cedergren brings an offense style that encourages outside backs to become attacking midfielders at times. This gives the offense another dynamic and allows Kemper and Pettys to play both sides of the ball.
Like the rest of the team, Cedergren sees positive signs they are making the turn and will play a vital role in the team's success the rest of the year.
"I think they are doing great, because in our system, the way we play, the fullbacks are our midfielders and we want to play out through them," Cedergren said. "The player with the most completed passes on Friday was Jacob Kemper. That shows you when you take an attack-minded player and you convert them to a defender and you can use his positive attributes to help you play out.
"I think Charlie is the same, where he is a good passer, he's good at dribbling so when we need to play through those two guys they are doing really well. They are seniors and they are both committed to Kentucky and really want to have one good year before they leave. Every day in practice they try to get better and they try to get the rest of the guys to get better as well."
Friday marks a huge game for the Cats as they travel to Louisville to face the nationally ranked Cardinals. U of L is one of seven teams on the Wildcats' grueling schedule ranked in the top 25.
Rivalry games always give players and coaches that extra motivation to get pumped up. A game like this might be just what Kentucky needs to turn the corner. If the Cats can pull off the upset, it would give the team a major boost and an extra sense of confidence.
Cedergren likes the opportunity to go to Louisville and see what his team is made of. This is a chance for his team to play in a big moment, in front of a large crowd and could help the Cats heading into conference play.
"With us being 1-4, them being in the top 25 and in front of 6,000 fans is a wonderful opportunity to make a statement," Cedergren said. "I think that's what we ask for. I don't see us at all being outmatched, or out powered or out fought. I think we are ready, we are organized and we have abilities on the ball so I think it's going to be a great game tomorrow."