The Kentucky men's soccer team was going through its typical walkthrough in Norfolk, Va., before a game with Old Dominion when dynamic freshman midfielder Napo Matsoso went down with a turned ankle.
While limping through the rest of the night and into the next day, it seemed unlikely that UK would have its star freshman on the field.
|NAPO'S COLLEGE SOCCER FAMILY|
Come kickoff that night and after giving it a test run during warm ups, Matsoso was in the starting 11 for UK's crucial conference clash with ODU. He played every second of UK's overtime victory over the league-leading Monarchs, with the Wildcats winning it in the 98th minute on Brad Doliner's golden goal.
Matsoso, a native of Louisville, Ky., who originally hails from Lesotho, a small landlocked country in the middle of South Africa, attended St. Francis High School in Louisville, where he earned first-team all-state honors, amassing a total of 72 goals in four years.
He has been a sparkplug for the Wildcats as a freshman, starting all 13 games in the midfield and leading the team in minutes played. He is one of only three players to start each game, joining fifth-year seniors Doliner and Steven Perinovic.
"Everything is going well, even though we haven't had the best results, we're having fun and we just have to keep it up," Matsoso said. "Coming from a different country, this is my second home. Everyone on the team is there for me whenever I get homesick. They are always there to pick me up and tell me to keep my head up."
After coming to the United States from Lesotho, Matsoso was adopted by Marc and Pam Maguire and he quickly joined a family legacy of soccer stars. He has five brothers, James Maguire (22), Setho Moshoeshoe (18), Lepe Seetane (21), Sunny Jane (21) and Marc.
Like one would imagine, there was an adjustment period when he first arrived in the United States.
"At first I was scared because I didn't know how to speak English but I adjusted a little quicker because I have four brothers that were also adopted in my family," Matsoso said. "They were always there to help teach me English and get me used to the environment."
James played at Mt. St. Joseph's College in Ohio, Setho is in his first year with Northern Kentucky, Lepe stars for Northwestern, Sunny is one of the nation's top talents at Maryland and Marc is currently working on his undergraduate degree at UK.
With three brothers also playing Division I soccer, it might be a tough task to find out who is the best among them.
"Obviously, me," Matsoso said without hesitation. "I'm the best; there are no worries about that."
But with less than a full season of collegiate soccer under his belt, Matsoso realizes there are still areas of his game that he needs to improve.
"I need to work on my strength and be more involved with the ball. So far I have only one goal and that's not the way I want it to be," Matsoso said. "That is something I'm working on, as well as shooting. I haven't had a lot of shots on goal and that's something I need to improve."
Kentucky head coach Johan Cedergren echoed his young star's assessment of what he still needs to improve in order for him to become a complete player.
"We need to work a little bit on his finishing," Cedergren said. "He gets in good spots and sometimes we could ask a little more there, but his strengths outweigh his weaknesses. He just reads the game so well and his touch and his control for the ball is fantastic."
When Cedergren took the job at UK in December of 2011, he immediately started hearing things about this 5-foot-6 inch, 138-pound kid from nearby Louisville.
"I thought there was talent there but I thought his size might hinder him a little bit in college," Cedergren said. "As I kept watching him, he kept growing on me. He's always been small and I think he can handle it because he's pretty physical himself. He was someone that initially I didn't know if he was going to be able to handle Division-I soccer but the more I looked at him the more convinced I became that he would be a good fit for us."
For freshman to step in and contribute right away on the field is not common in Division I soccer. Cedergren said that it's hard to expect freshmen to have an impact immediately because there is a sizable adjustment period.
Even Matsoso said he didn't foresee himself starting instantly because of the physical nature of the college game compared to high school. But there's something special about Matsoso that is hard to ignore.
"We were looking for someone in the midfield that can have that creative role," Cedergren said about Matsoso's impact. "He battles. He is good on the ball. We knew he was definitely one of the two or three guys that would be able to start immediately for us. I knew he would have a good chance to play a lot but I didn't know he would be able to step up this quickly. Clearly, he's done a great job."
When you watch Matsoso play, it's easy to see why his head coach has such high regard for him. He is one of those players that just seem to constantly be around the ball. The ball finds him. He runs with ease and he looks like he could go for days.
He has played every minute in 11 of the 13 games this season, including two double-overtime games that ended in ties. Players like Matsoso don't come around all the time.
"It's called reading the game," Cedergren explained. "Can you be a little quicker? Can you think on your feet? He's really, really smart. He's a very intelligent player and he's really good when he starts playing with (Bryan) Celis and some of the other guys we have.
"His ability to turn a bigger defender and use the mass that he has to his advantage is great. There isn't a tight space that he can't get out of. He's someone that we aren't afraid to play the ball to in a tight space because we know he's going to get out of it. That's really important, someone that retains possession and creates attack for us."
If this season is any indication of what the next three years hold for Matsoso at Kentucky, then it looks bright.
"Gritty," Cedergren said when asked to describe Matsoso. "Because he does get kicked a lot and by now when we're 13 games into the season, every team we play from this point forward, they are more or less man-marking him, so he's got to battle with a much bigger guy for 90 minutes. Every time he's trying to get on the ball, he has a guy trying to get him off the ball and he just does not stop. He keeps going. Grit and determination are two words that are definitely on the top of my list for Napo."
Sounds like a pretty good description for a player who has only just begun to scratch the surface of his full potential.