As the Kentucky men's soccer team enters the 2014 season, one of its biggest unanswered questions is who will replace some of the team's departed scoring.
With the graduation of leading scorers Tyler Riggs and Brad Doliner, Kentucky must replace 64-percent of its goals from a year ago. One of the players tasked with picking up the scoring load is senior forward Justin Laird.
A native of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Laird is UK's leading returning scorer after pacing the team with six assists in his first season in Lexington.
The Wright State transfer played in 17 games and made seven starts, finishing with one goal on 22 shots, with his golden goal in overtime vs. Old Dominion in the C-USA Tournament Quarterfinals lifting UK to the semis.
Now entering his final season with the Wildcats, Laird will be counted on as a forward in UK head coach Johan Cedergren's attacking system, a role that requires a physical presence up top as a primary distributor.
"It has been difficult for me, especially since I am the type of player that just likes to run and not really body up guys," Laird said about adapting to the system. "I like to be facing goal, not getting the ball with my back to it, but it has been a change for me. At the same time, with the changes of the coaching staff, I have a lot more clarity of what needs to be done and I feel like I have been adapting to that role real well. I think they get more pleased with me in that role, day-by-day."
A star at Hartford Union High School in Hartford, Wisconsin, Laird began his collegiate career at Wright State.
During his debut season at Wright State, Laird totaled team-highs in points (15) and goals (seven), earning a spot on the Horizon League Newcomer Team.
"I learned that D1 soccer is going to be a lot of work," Laird said about lessons learned at Wright State. "It is going to be a complete grind. Coming to Lexington it really just shows me how blessed we are to have the things that we have and have the coaching staff that we have. It just helped my momentum going forward and helped me learn about what soccer can do for a campus, and we have big things in store here."
After earning a starting spot at forward in UK's first exhibition tune-up of the year at Northern Kentucky, Laird came off the bench to play the final 45 minutes in UK's final exhibition against Georgia State. Upon entering vs. GSU, Laird's impact was immediately felt, as UK picked up the offensive intensity and attacking mindset.
"I feel way more comfortable around campus," Laird said. "I need to be more of a leader out there. I hope that I am a guy that players can look to with questions, on and off the field. I feel like I have a good relationship with this campus right now."
One benefit to Laird and UK's offensive attack in the preseason has been the daily battles with UK's stout defensive unit. With junior Callum Irving, "one of the top three goalkeepers in the country," according to Cedergren, and three starters returning on the back four, UK's defense will be a strength in 2014.
"It is hard," Laird said about facing the UK defense in training. "It is the best four that I have ever played against. In practice it is really hard to get goals on them. Their formation is set and skill wise they are almost unbeatable. It is definitely a struggle when you have to face them up in practice."
Laird has learned a lot over his time at Kentucky and has been struck by the commitment from the UK support staff in building a first-class operation.
"It all starts with the department," Laird said. "UK facilities and everything we have, we are super spoiled and super blessed. I learned that this is a place with big goals and we have the facilities to reflect and reach those goals. We can go big places with this team."
The Wildcats will open their 2014 season against Laird's former squad, Wright State, on Friday at 7:30 p.m. in Dayton, Ohio. UK will then return home for its first game at the sparkling new Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex on Sunday, hosting Belmont at 5 p.m.
"Goals for the team are to get to a final four this year. We are going to have to have a lot of leadership and a lot of people step up. But at the same time, it is possible. Individually, my goal is to have 10 or more goals."