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Passion, work, belief have men's soccer on monumental ride

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First-year head coach Johan Cedergren has UK men's soccer on the rise. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics) First-year head coach Johan Cedergren has UK men's soccer on the rise. (Britney McIntosh, UK Athletics)

For the most part, first-year head coaches tend to struggle. Not necessarily because they were the wrong hire or they are unsuccessful coaches, but various factors play in when taking over a new team.

As a new coach, you inherit sophomores, juniors and seniors, you did not recruit, who have stuck around the program. With these players, you have to gain their trust and belief in your system to play in a way that fits your coaching philosophy, which could be completely different from what they have been used to playing in the past. First-year head coaches also come in without a full year of offseason recruiting to bring in the players they feel are right for their coaching style.

And while these are just a few factors that new coaches face when stepping into their inaugural seasons, the University of Kentucky can take a deep breath and throw all the doubts out the window when talking about men's soccer head coach Johan Cedergren.

When the 2012 season kicked off, it looked as though Cedergren would go through the bumps and bruises that are expected during the first campaign. The Wildcats didn't have an ideal start to the year, beginning 1-4. But a win over intrastate rival Louisville, kick started the Cats. UK is 8-2-1 since that slow start and in second place in the Conference USA at 4-1-1.

Of course as a coach you have to be positive, but who really could have seen this turnaround coming this quickly? This season has basically caught everyone off guard; even Cedergren is a little surprised.

"I would say I'm a little surprised," Cedergren said. "I think we were just looking to make the conference tournament but again I think we have developed a kind of competitive spirit and comaraderie. The best guy and the worst guy are working just as hard and they want to get to that next level. "

With Cedergren taking over the Wildcats this season, several players have shuffled through different positions in an attempt to find the right lineup. To name a few, freshman Isak Krogstad began the year at forward and is now playing right back, Charley Pettys was at right back and is now in the midfield, Matt Lodge began in the midfield and is now at forward and Dylan Asher has moved from centerback, to midfield, to right back and now to the forward position, where he has excelled.

Cedergren also changed formations midway through the year, switching from a 4-5-1 to a 4-4-2, which has paid major dividends for Kentucky.
The biggest areas where the Cats have improved since the beginning of the season is organization and communication. With two games left in the season, it is evident the team has really come together and accepted Cedergren's style.

"It took a while for me to make up my mind where our players fit in best for our system," Cedergren said. "We thought we had a good idea about the team after the spring but at the same time when you bring in so many freshmen that kind of changes the equation. It just took a while for us to really find the strengths of the team and how we could all gel together."

Last Saturday, UK defeated the 23rd-ranked Tulsa Golden Hurricane, 2-0, on the road to pick up its fourth consecutive conference victory. The win improved the Cats road record to 6-2 on the year, which is a welcome change after going winless away from Lexington in 2011. The game marked the third victory over a top-25 opponent this season, tying a program record.

What Cedergren likes most about this team the fact that his players have come to believe they can go anywhere and play with anyone in the country. This team is unique in that Cedergren doesn't think his squad has a so-called best player. The Wildcats are loaded with depth and a group of athletes that have formed a family bond.

"We have some special players but mostly we are a good team and everyone works for each other," Cedergren said. "There is a real camaraderie in the squad, everyone is working really hard, pushing each other and they have a sense of belief that we can play with anyone in the country."

Before the game at Tulsa, Cedergren challenged his team. Even though UK had seven returners coming back this season, coaches around the league picked the Cats to finish seventh in the league. With second place on the line, the match had huge implications. After an impressive 2-0 win, Kentucky has reeled off four C-USA wins in a row and has locked itself into the conference tournament, which was a team goal looking ahead to the season.

Now with two home games standing in front of them and the league tournament, the Cats have a chance to earn a bye with the No. 2 seed or win the regular season conference title with a little help from Memphis this week against first place SMU.

Cedergren's team has exceeded their expectations and goal of making the conference tournament, but why stop now? Coach has set new goals for the squad and isn't ready for this ride to be over yet.

"Hopefully we can win two at home, especially on Senior Night when all the parents are here and the big crowd," Cedergren said. "I think the goal for us is to get to the conference tournament final. If we get there with the belief that we can play with anyone in the country, then you never know what's going to happen."

This season has been one heck of a turnaround and it's hard to pinpoint one word or quality that describes this team.

Instead, Cedergren narrowed down three characteristics to summarize this year and his Wildcats: Passion, work and belief.

"Passion for the squad and for Kentucky; work rate because we basically go out and outwork every team that we play; belief as the results have gone our way after the 1-4 start, the guys realize we are just as good as the coaching staff is telling us," Cedergren said. "I think now we have gotten to the point where the guys believe in themselves without us having to tell them."

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