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Playing professionally in Europe is the dream of many soccer players. Kentucky men's soccer alumnus Justin Laird has traveled thousands of miles -- and to another continent -- in pursuit of that dream.
Sure, for an American the aspiration of playing in Europe seems farfetched, but considering Laird's development over the past two years, maybe it's not so far from the realm of possibility.
During his time at UK, Laird developed into one of the nation's most lethal strikers as a senior.
Laird's goal-scoring prowess could serve him well in the future as it's a well-known fact that just about any team is always in the market for a player who can put the ball in the back of the net.
Laird showed an uncanny ability to do just that in UK colors last year. And perhaps the greatest illustration of his ability to effectively lead an attacking line came more in the games he missed than the ones he played in.
Laird was a key component in the Wildcats' attack, which went undefeated in nine straight games between the end of September and early November, leading UK into the de facto Conference USA regular-season championship game.
And Laird was on the pitch when UK took a 1-0 lead in that game, only to go off injured with a season-ending MCL sprain, which significantly hindered UK's ability to threaten opposing defenses.
Laird scored a UK-leading six goals, including three game-winners -- many of them coming in spectacular fashion -- and led the team in shots with 47, which was the ninth most in UK single-season history.
Not coincidentally Kentucky scored just one goal -- off a penalty -- in the three games after he went out.
In short, Laird's absence in the stretch run of the season showed just how good he was. UK was a top-15 team when he was playing, but lost three straight matches after he went out.
So following his season and entering rehab, Laird was at a crossroads. To continue pursuing his love of soccer or to move on to the so-called real world?
He didn't take long to make a decision.
"Coach came up to me in the training room and asked if I was interested in playing after college," Laird said. "I told him 'for sure' and that's when things started to happen. That was when professional soccer became a possibility."
Upon deciding he would continue to pursue soccer and after returning to full fitness, Laird set about training for his next chance when he went home to Milwaukee, Wisc., after the semester ended.
In Milwaukee the European dream began to take shape.
Laird was training with the Premier Football International Academy, and options started to open.
"The academy assembles a team from the Milwaukee area to send them to Europe to play against some of Europe's top organizations," Laird said. "The academy's goal is to get these players exposure, in hopes of getting them signed to a professional team."
Laird's first trial in Europe, which began in January, went relatively well.
He wasted little time in living out the dream, as on the first day of his trial at Swiss club FC Lausanne Sport, he played 1v1 with former Italian International forward Marco Simone -- who in the 1990s scored 47 goals at Italy's famed AC Milan, before stints at multiple Ligue 1 clubs in France.
In the end, Lausanne Sport ended up bringing in a veteran striker for a quick-fix solution.
Currently, Laird is on trial with Servette FC in Geneva, Switzerland.
For now, Laird feels he has a lot left in the tank. He is excited for a chance at a professional career, and remains appreciative of all those who have played a part in getting him where he is.
"I'd like to give a big thank you to the Big Blue Nation," Laird said. "I wouldn't be in this situation if it weren't for this athletic program."
He isn't a professional yet, but Laird continues to fight in pursuit of something he never saw coming just a few months ago.
The frustration stemmed from the way Kentucky had finished. The Wildcats' regular season ended a lone result shy of a conference championship. More disappointment would follow in the postseason, with first-round defeats in both the Conference USA and NCAA tournaments.
The optimism was a result of what Cedergren sees ahead for UK. His developing program will return all but one regular contributor from a 2014 squad that had one of the best seasons in school history.
It was those two conflicting feelings that led Cedergren to declare his expectations for the future in no uncertain terms.
"As hard as it is to say right now, I think the future is bright and I will say as firmly as I can that this will not happen again," Cedergren said. "We are not going to go 0-3 for the games that matter."
A 2-0 defeat against Oakland on Thursday night capped that three-game skid to close a 10-6-3 season. Playing without top playmaker Napo Matsoso and leading goal scorer Justin Laird due to a mandatory card suspension and knee injury, respectively, the Wildcats were unable to overcome an experienced Oakland team.
"When it got tough, I thought that they excelled and maybe we have some work to do in terms in the mental toughness and especially when the games little tougher," Cedergren said. "I thought it was a very big stage for some of the younger guys that were asked to carry a bigger role because of injuries and suspensions and I don't think we were up for that."
Or perhaps more appropriately, they weren't up for it yet.
A year ago, the Cats, who fielded a roster featuring 20 freshmen and sophomores, called on the disappointment of missing the NCAA Tournament to fuel them through a grueling offseason. This time around, they reached the big stage, but will look to use the mistakes that caused them to come up short as fuel to win the next time they reach it.
"Anytime in your life, these are the type of games you want to play in," goalkeeper Callum Irving said. "When they don't live up to your expectations, you can go two ways with them. You can either sulk about it and not let it benefit you or you can use it as fuel"
Irving, who nearly swept end-of-season C-USA awards, will return and wear the captain's armband for UK again next season. Five all-conference honorees will rejoin him in 2015, which will be Cedergren's fourth year at the helm.
"Obviously this is not the way you want to end your season but again like Johan said we have a lot to look forward to in the future, as hard as it is to see right now," Irving said. "We have some great players returning, good recruiting class coming in so I mean right now it is just back to the drawing board, back to work but we will move on from here."
Though the Cats will move on when they reassemble for training in January, they don't plan to forget Thursday night altogether. There's still too much to be gained from it.
"For us it's time as a staff and as a squad to grow and develop and to learn from this," Cedergren said. "But we are not sitting here again next year in the NCAA Tournament."
When Kentucky men's soccer head coach Johan Cedergren and junior goalkeeper Callum Irving spoke during UK's Fall Sports Media Day in August, it was clear that UK's 2013 season fell short of Cedergren's expectations for the program.
The Wildcats finished 2013 with a 7-10-3 record, missing the NCAA Tournament after earning a hosting bid in the big dance in Cedergren's first season in 2012.
"When we were sitting on the team bus coming back from the conference tournament last year, being knocked out of the semifinal and that being the end of the season, we knew we had to go back to the drawing board and figure out a new teaching plan," Cedergren said.
Cedergren worked with his coaching staff and put together a plan. That direction has developed into one of the top seasons in program history in 2014, with the Wildcats riding the historic defensive unit, behind Conference USA Player of the Year Callum Irving, to its sixth all-time NCAA Tournament berth.
"It is really good," Cedergren said. "It is a step in the right direction for us. We talk a lot about our vision and our goals and where we want to be and the long-term vision for us is to be in a Final Four in the next four years or so. With that comes recruiting and developing players."
The Wildcats will host Oakland in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday at 7 p.m. ET at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Complex, with the game to be broadcast live on the SEC Network +. A win over Oakland would pit UK against national seed Michigan State on Sunday in East Lansing, Mich.
At the core of UK's turnaround has been the development of the sophomore class. With 19 of UK's 25-man roster underclassmen, the Wildcats would not be in the NCAA Tournament if not for the progress of their second-year standouts.
UK's regular starting 11 boasts a bevy of sophomores, including first-team all-league midfielder Napo Matsoso, back-four stalwarts Kaelon Fox, Charlie Reymann, Matt Quick and Jordan Wilson, and midfield threats Ryan Creel and Paul Sime.
Cedergren points directly to the commitment from the sophomore class as a reason for UK's campaign in 2014, along with the development of juniors Kristoffer Tollefsen (three goals) and Bryan Celis (two goals, six assists).
"All that matters to me is the team and if you are not buying in well then I am not interested," Cedergren said. "Those are the guys that are really buying into the system. But they have worked so hard. There was a whole complete mental shift that we had to do as a staff and as players."
Part of the development of its underclassmen came in the form of its leadership and emerging vocal presence on and off the pitch.
"There are a couple of guys that we asked to be leaders, and they were freshmen, it was only their second semester at Kentucky," Cedergren said. "You look at Charlie, Jordan, Kaelon, Quick, (Alex) Bumpus, Napo, I could go on and on but that was a class that we mostly signed three years ago. So we knew what kind of quality we had and it was just a matter of making them understand what it takes to win at the Division-I level, and win a lot. The success that we've had this fall, we started the process that goes back to January and February of this year."
Ranked 24th in the final National Soccer Coaches Association of America poll, Kentucky (10-4-5) has been paced by one of the best defenses in the history of the program, riding Irving and UK's dynamic back four to a league-best 0.70 goals-against average.
While Irving, a 6-foot-1 native of Vancouver, British Columbia, has turned in a record-breaking season in between the pipes, Cedergren points to his leadership as a key ingredient to UK's success.
"I just couldn't be more fortunate in terms of what kind of team captain you want to have on your team," Cedergren said. "We talk about being selfless, humble and having a team-first mentality. While all of those things are great, if you don't have the basic ability or talent then it doesn't matter. Cally is the perfect blend."
Irving has saved 63 shots on the year, his 0.70 goals-against average ranks fourth in UK history and his 10 clean sheets is the second most in school annals.
"He is one of the best goalkeepers in the country, but he is also one of the most selfless and humble people I have ever been around," Cedergren said. "For the rest of the guys, they look around at Cally because he is one of the best players we have, and they don't have an excuse because Cally never gives an excuse. Cally always gives 100 percent. When you are starting to look for what kind of captain you are looking for you are looking for someone who leads by example on and off the field. Cally hasn't missed a beat since he was given the captain's arm band."
Going into the season, a question mark was where the Wildcats would find scoring to replace four-year star forward Tyler Riggs, who netted 29 goals and had 10 assists in his career. UK's offense was led by Matsoso, Celis and Tollefsen but senior forward Justin Laird emerged as an athletic target forward at the top of UK's offensive attack.
Laird, a Wright State transfer for the 2013 season, owns six goals and four assists for the Wildcats in his senior season.
"Justin is very humble, very selfless and didn't mind doing the work," Cedergren said. "If you look at how far he has come from the guy who walked onto campus in January two years ago, to the guy who is now one of the best forwards in Conference USA, the evolution and the progress has been tremendous.
"If you look at all the clean sheets and the success that we've had this year, a lot of that has come from the work that Justin has done on defense. Not only is he a good goal scorer who is dangerous around the box, he is also someone who helps us out a lot defensively."
Kentucky will be faced with a stiff test on Thursday in the Horizon League Champion Oakland Golden Grizzlies, a team that has lost just once in its last 13 matches.
Napo Matsoso's 2014 season has firmly implanted him as one of the top young players in college soccer, with the Louisville, Ky., by way of Lesotho native owning five goals and four assists, including a natural hat trick at South Carolina.
"I have never worked with a better No. 10," Cedergren raved. "I have never worked with a better playmaker than Napo. That is a factual statement. Napo is a perfect blend between natural ability and drive and desire. I have had some really special players, the first-ever unanimous (2008) Ivy League Player of the Year in Craig Henderson, who now plays professionally in Norway, he played in the attacking midfield role and he has caps from this year and all that stuff, but Napo is better.
"Some of the things that Napo can do on the ball, very few people can do in college. But at the same time, as soon as we lose the ball and we need someone to track some guy, or make a run through them, Napo has no problem doing the work."
Kentucky's hosting berth is its second in three years under Cedergren, who has paced the Wildcats to a pair of NCAA Tournaments in quicker succession than any other coach in UK history.
"Like I said after the South Carolina (C-USA Tournament) game, hosting a first-round game is not the end all be all," Cedergren said. "It is a step in the right direction but we want to win the game tomorrow and keep playing."
After a season in which coaches and players agreed they fell short of their potential, the UK men's soccer team reconvened.
In returning from the holiday break, the Wildcats discovered their head coach was just a little different.
"I've been extremely demanding," Cedergren said. "I'm not a very nice guy. I'm very impatient and the guys have put up with me and now we're sitting here seeing the end result."
The end result has been a special 2014 season.
Riding a nine-match unbeaten streak, UK (10-3-4, 5-0-2 Conference USA) is set to host its regular-season finale on Friday against Charlotte at 7 p.m. at the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex. With the Wildcats sitting a point ahead of the No. 5 49ers, UK can clinch the C-USA regular-season championship with a win or draw.
Though it all comes down to 90 minutes on Senior Night, UK's path to a potential title started back in January with a meaner Cedergren. In spite of being picked sixth in the conference before the season and relying on a roster that features 20 freshmen or sophomores and only two seniors, the Cats have responded to Cedergren's tough coaching and embraced his high expectations.
"We worked a lot with the players becoming problem solvers, being disciplined, selfless, humble and having a UK attitude," Cedergren said. "That means focusing on all the little things, having belief no matter where we go, no matter who we play and whatever happens we do things together."
UK's togetherness has been tested repeatedly this season, first through a challenging early-season schedule that brought two losses in its first three games. The Cats then responded with a 1-0 win at Notre Dame, the defending national champion.
More recently, UK has played four of its last five matches on the road, the only home match coming against defending C-USA champion and ninth-ranked New Mexico. All the Cats have done is win four times and draw once.
Considering all that, playing in what amounts to a conference championship game shouldn't faze this team.
"We have a lot of experience to look back on to prepare us for Friday," Cedergren.
The fact that UK has a defense that's allowed a school-record and conference-best 0.55 goals per match doesn't hurt either.
Cedergren knew junior Callum Irving would be the anchor of the unit, calling his goalkeeper one of the best in the country in the preseason. Irving has been as advertised, but Kaelon Fox, Jordan Wilson, Charlie Reymann and Matt Quick have made the defense elite.
"He's been as good as I know he can be," Cedergren said. "I think what has been exceeding my expectations is the back four, the guys that are in front of Cally."
On offense, UK relies on sophomore Napo Matsoso, who is second on the team with 12 points and consistently leads the Cats in distance covered during games. Cedergren estimated that 80 percent of UK's attacks involve Matsoso in some way.
"As many games as I've watched, I can't say that I've had a better playmaker on a team," Cedergren said. "So Napo is huge for us."
The role of big crowds at the Bell Soccer Complex shouldn't be discounted either. The average home crowd this season is 1,199 and UK will eclipse the 10,000 mark in 2014 attendance on Friday. With free admission, a prize pack for the 10,000th fan and "Blue-vuzelas" for the first 500 fans, Cedergren expects to blow past that mark.
"Friday, we're hoping we can get north of 2,000 people to come out to the game and support us, which is I think very, very doable," Cedergren said.
With a loud crowd behind them, Cedergren and the Cats are out to make a special season historic.
"We've put ourselves in a place where we have everything to play for still," Cedergren said. "We need to finish strong. The Kentucky men's soccer program hasn't won a title since 2004, so it's about time for us to do it again."
As the lingering seconds began to vanish one by one from the clock overhead on Monday, Callum Irving had no idea he was about to take the biggest goal kick of his collegiate career.
"I looked at the clock as I was running over to grab the ball, and the ref had stopped it because he thought I was wasting time," Irving said. "So basically, I was like, 'I'm going to take my time, put the ball down, and make sure I use as much power that I have left in my leg to try to get the ball as far away from our net as possible.' "
Letting the clock strike zero with no goals on the board for either team was the last thing on the junior's mind. Like the rest of his Wildcat teammates, Kentucky's First-Team All-Conference USA goalkeeper was hungry for a marquee win.
Irving booted the goal kick well into opponent territory, finding freshman forward Stefan Stojkovic along the way. Stojkovic immediately passed the ball to freshman midfielder Hampus Agerstrom, who again found Stojkovic for a quick one-two at the edge of the box. Stojkovic fired away from 15 yards, scoring the game's first goal with only 25 ticks remaining.
Kentucky would hold on to win the game 1-0, knocking off defending national champion and top-ranked Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind. The result marked UK's first victory over a No. 1 team since 2007, and the Fighting Irish's first loss since October 26, 2013.
Needless to say, Kentucky's man in the net was pleased with how the evening ended.
"This is one of the more memorable games (of my career)," Irving said. "For me, this is what I came to college to do: go to places like Notre Dame and play against the No. 1 team in the nation and defending national champs, and beat them on their home turf. To have that goal coming into college, and then to be put in a scenario where we have the opportunity to do that, it's fantastic. It's definitely something I'm going to look back on with a lot of happiness."
Kentucky head coach Johan Cedergren echoed Irving's sentiments, though he was quick to point out that the Wildcats' latest milestone was merely another step forward in achieving the team's ultimate objective.
"It's a regular-season game, and you still have fourteen games to go," Cedergren said. "But, as young of a team as we have -- 21 of the 26 guys being underclassmen -- I think it's really important to talk a lot about confidence and belief. To be able to beat Notre Dame at Notre Dame should give both the staff and the players a lot of confidence."
The Cats will carry that confidence throughout the season.
"I think for the young guys, it's all about feeling like you belong, or feeling that you're good enough," Cedergren said. "We talk about making a run deep into the postseason. If you're going to do that, you're going have to believe that you belong. I think a win against Notre Dame would give you some belief and sense of belonging."
While Kentucky's 1-0 defeat of Notre Dame may qualify as an upset, the result came as no accident. Careful consideration and detailed planning before the season even began were factors that eventually led to the match even taking place.
"The way I schedule every year is to try to find a balance between not scheduling too tough, and scheduling hard enough so that if we do not win the (Conference USA Tournament), we can get an (NCAA Tournament) at-large bid," Cedergren said.
However, the third-year head coach refused to take all of the credit for the current direction of Kentucky's soccer season.
"I have a really good leadership council," Cedergren said. " ... The team basically got to vote for who they thought the leaders were on the team. So, we have five guys in that council: Callum Irving, (forward) Justin Laird -- who's our only senior - (sophomore defender) Charlie Reymann, (junior midfielder) Kristoffer Tollefsen, and (sophomore defender) Jordan Wilson. The six of us meet at least on a weekly basis, and I give them challenges they can carry on with the team."
Irving, who had a career-high seven saves in the upset at Notre Dame, offered further insight into the Cats' leadership council.
"Basically, it's just five guys selected by the team to look over the team and act as captains, being a buffer zone in between the coaches and the players," Irving said. "A lot of times, it's difficult for the players to come with their problems to the coaches; it's a bit intimidating. So, we act as someone who can talk to the coaches on behalf of the players and listen to the players' problems without them having to go to the coaches."
The next task for UK's leadership council is to make sure the Cats don't squander the opportunity created by their big win. That starts on Saturday at 7 p.m. with a home match against East Tennessee State.
"For us -- where we're the young team -- we're on top of the world right now," Cedergren said. "But we're playing again on Saturday. Every single game, play like you're going to play at Notre Dame. I think it's a step in the right direction with the win, but at the same time, it's game No. 4 out of 18 regular season games. So, we've just got to keep going."
For many freshmen, adjusting to the first semester of their collegiate careers, while also managing the strains of debuting on the soccer field, can be a difficult transition.
Kentucky sophomore midfielder Napo Matsoso managed that transition well as a freshman in 2013, immediately emerging as one of the top players in talent-laden Conference USA.
Matsoso hails from Maseru, the capital city of Lesotho, a landlocked country surrounded by South Africa. Matsoso's home country has a population of just over two million, with approximately 40 percent of the nation living below the international poverty line ($1.25 a day).
As a youth, Matsoso was adopted by Marc and Pam Maguire, a couple in Louisville, Kentucky. Matsoso joined his five brothers in Louisville, James (23), Lepe (22), Sunny (22), Marc (20) and Setho (19). During his high school career at Louisville's St. Francis, Matsoso totaled 72 goals in four years, earning all-state accolades.
Matsoso had four brothers playing collegiate soccer in 2013, with Lepe and Sunny completing their careers at Northwestern and Maryland, respectively, and Setho playing his debut season at Northern Kentucky University.
"It helps a lot because during the offseason, we get to hang out together and talk to each other about the experiences we all have through college," Matsoso said. "We all try to help each other as much as we can. My other brothers have a lot of experience and they share a lot with me about their college careers."
As far as his collegiate debut, Matsoso turned in a strong season as UK's lead attacking midfielder. Matsoso, a 5-foot-6, 138-pound speedster, started all 20 games for the Wildcats, one of only two players to start each game of UK's season.
"Being in Lexington has been really fun," Matsoso said. "Being around my teammates all the time has helped me a lot. We pretty much do everything together. One of my brothers goes to UK too (Marc), so it is like this is my third home. It has been good back home."
He ranked second on the team in minutes played, finishing with one goal and five assists, ranking second on the club. A member of the 2013 Conference USA All-Freshman Team, Matsoso finished with 32 shots fired.
"I learned it is all about the team," Matsoso said. "You have to put the team before yourself. If we work together as a team, then everything will work out how we want it to be."
Kentucky will need Matsoso's dynamic abilities as a scoring threat in 2014, as the Wildcats replace their top three scorers, including 11 goals between graduated seniors Brad Doliner and Tyler Riggs.
While UK must replace some goals, Matsoso and forward Justin Laird combined for 11 assists, and the Wildcats boast a bevy of talented midfield options alongside Matsoso.
"Our midfield has a lot of players that allow us to go forward and score goals," Matsoso said. "It will work out well this year because we have a lot of technical players that like to play and people that love to score goals and push forward more."
Matsoso appears to be an anchor in the midfield for the Wildcats, helping direct the UK attack from his attacking role.
"I like playing attacking mid because the ball basically has to find me," Matsoso said. "From there, I can help the team out a lot with playing with the forward and other players that play behind me. With the players we have, it will work out pretty well this year."
With Kentucky needing to supply some new faces to replace its goal-scoring punch, one question mark that doesn't need answering is UK's defensive unit. Returning preseason All-Conference USA goalkeeper Callum Irving, and three of four starters on the backline, UK is poised to have one of the best defenses in the league.
"It will help the team a lot," Matsoso said. "Those guys have been playing with each other for a while now. They understand each other well. (Head coach) Johan (Cedergren) talks to them a lot; they have a lot of individual meetings with Johan and talk about their roles. That will help the team a lot, and that they are only sophomores, they still have a lot of development to go."
Now, two games into his sophomore season, Matsoso's comfort level is drastically different than at this point in 2013.
"I am more comfortable this year," Matsoso said. "Last year, it was a lot of freshmen coming in and now the freshmen that were here last year are still coming back. Everyone tries to make everyone comfortable to be around and play with. It is getting a lot easier for me to get used to everyone and spend so much time with them."
Kentucky (1-1-0) returns to action on Friday with a grueling weekend in South Bend, Indiana, facing the last two national champions in two games over three days. UK will face 2012 national champion Indiana on Friday, before concluding the weekend with defending NCAA Champion Notre Dame on Sunday.
When coaches sit down and start conceptualizing their lineups, one of the key elements to a strong defensive unit is a set of vocal personalities.
Kentucky is blessed with a vocal center back to anchor the backline in sophomore Jordan Wilson.
"As a center back, being vocal is a part of the game," Wilson said. "You can see the whole game in front of you so it is your job to be able to call things out and let them know what you are seeing. Being a leader on the team, that is something that I have always been like. Even growing up in Scotland, I just liked to take on a leadership role, just try to get other players involved and get them moving forward. We are all in this together, we have the same common goal, and we are just keen to reach that."
A native of Auchterarder, Scotland, Wilson stepped right into the UK lineup as a true freshman in 2013, starting all 17 games he played in.
"Playing a lot as a freshman, I can just take a lot from that as confidence going into this season," Wilson said. "Having had that experience and that extra knowledge when seeing the field can be a big help."
A 6-foot-3, 173 pounder, Wilson helped anchor a strong backline in 2013 that allowed 20 goals in his games. Wilson logged the fourth-most minutes on the club (1,531), despite missing three games.
Wilson helped lead the Wildcats to the Conference USA Tournament Semifinals, earning a spot on the all-tournament team.
Entering his sophomore year, a strength of the UK roster could be the defense. Led by first-team All-Conference USA keeper Callum Irving and three returning starters on the backline, UK's defense will be stingy.
"We have a really strong back four," Wilson said. "We played together a lot in the spring. A lot of the focus in the preseason has been on defensive structure and making sure that everyone coming in as a good base knowledge of how we play. We are working on getting that down first and then focusing on the attacking side of it."
In UK's first win of the season over Belmont last Sunday, the Wildcats started Wilson and sophomore Kaelon Fox at center back, along with fellow returning starter Charlie Reymann at outside back. Sophomore Matt Quick has slid into the outside back role opposite Reymann.
Fox, a 6-2, 155 pounder, has joined forces with Wilson at center back, giving UK a pair of athletic, physically imposing defenders. As a freshman in 2013, Fox played in 19 of UK's 20 games, seeing time all over the field.
"Kaelon is doing fantastic," Wilson said. "I really enjoy working alongside Kaelon. We have a good understanding of each other on the field and we are really good friends off the field as well. We think that partnership is good for the team. I really enjoy playing with Kaelon, he is a great player."
The Wildcat's defense as a whole will be looked to as a team-strength as the 2014 continues. UK has allowed one goal over its two games, posting a clean sheet in its home-opening win over Belmont, a 2-0 result.
Going forward, the Wildcats will hope Wilson along with Fox will anchor the team.
"When you look at Kaelon and Jordan we feel they are a really good partnership at the back," UK head coach Johan Cedergren said. "You have Jordan who reads the game really well, and then Kaelon who likes to take chances and try to win balls. But he's fast so if he gets beat he can recover. Then with Jordan as that steady guy at the back, they play off each other well."
The Wildcats will return to action with a grueling weekend tournament in South, Bend, Indiana, facing the last two NCAA Champions, Indiana and Notre Dame. UK opens the weekend on Friday at 5 p.m. vs. Indiana, before concluding the tournament on Sunday at 2 p.m. at Notre Dame, a team that went 17-1-6 a season ago.
There were two he just kept noticing.
"We came here about 13 years ago as an administration and this couple kept walking around our program," Barnhart said. "And they kept showing up at events and we got to know them a little bit and spent a little time with us and they'd go on trips with us. Next thing I know, they're traveling with the rifle team, the volleyball team, the women's soccer team, showing up at softball."
The faces belonged to longtime UK supporters and K Fund members Wendell and Vickie Bell, and Barnhart couldn't help but build a relationship with them. It didn't take him long to understand why they were always around.
"What we began to realize is that they've invested in the lives of all these young people," Barnhart said.
On Sunday, UK Athletics recognized that investment with the grand opening of the Wendell & Vickie Bell Soccer Complex before a women's and men's soccer doubleheader.
"It's a really, really cool day," Barnhart said at a ceremony attended by President Eli Capilouto, coaches and players from both teams and fans. "We get to dedicate our soccer complex to Wendell and Vickie. After all the contributions they've made, we tried to find something that would give them the credit they deserve for all the things they've done."
The new $7.7 million complex houses separate facilities for both soccer programs, with team rooms, lounges, locker-room areas, coaching offices and new grandstand.
"You have no idea how much this means for us," women's soccer senior Arin Gilliland said. "Being here for the last four years, I've gotten to see a change from aluminum bleachers to this amazing facility. We have the best field in the SEC. Now we have the best facility."
The women's soccer team is in the midst of the best years in school history under Jon Lipsitz, while Johan Cedergren is building the men's program in his third season. Walking through a typical visit when he hosts a recruit, Cedergren talked about what the new facility means to that process.
"At the end, it's down to me and they're basically, 'Where can I sign?' " Cedergren said. "As a men's soccer program to have the stuff that we have here is absolutely mind-blowing."
The Bells enjoy being a part of it all.
"We've been very involved with the program for so many years and I was talking with Dr. Capilouto and Mary Lynn," Wendell Bell said. "Just the transformation academically and athletically that we have seen and the changes over those years are just amazing. And the vision going forward."
As meaningful as the new soccer facility made possible by the Bells is to that vision, their meaning to UK Athletics goes far deeper. That's why the two teams presented jerseys to the Bells and the ball used to score the first regular-season goal in the Bell Soccer Complex on Friday.
"Obviously something like this doesn't happen without the money," Lipsitz said. "It takes money to do these things and we know they've been incredibly generous. But I literally made a note and I wrote down a dollar sign and I crossed it out and I drew a heart. Because that is my first thought when I think about them."
That makes the tribute to the Bells unveiled on Sunday all the more fitting.
After the speeches were done, Barnhart led the Bells outside, where a new bell and plaque were unveiled next to the field as a surprise. The bell will ring after each UK goal, creating a new tradition that will be part of all game days to come.
"We talk about how important it is to leave a legacy," Lipsitz said. "This is the beginning of a new legacy for our players to leave and be able to come back years from now and say, 'Remember when? Remember when we started everything here with the new stadium?'
"It's just so special having Wendell and Vickie here and Mitch and the administration and Dr. Capilouto. You can't really ask more than for the environment we had here today."
In the nightcap, the men's soccer team leveled its record at 1-1 with a 2-0 win over Belmont. After dominating play in a scoreless first half, Kristoffer Tollefsen and Ryan Creel scored UK's first goals of the season and Callum Irving posted a shutout.
"It felt really good, the first home game of the season," Creel said. "Coach said, 'We gotta ring that bell today.' "
"I just think that with all the people here, opening weekend, you want to put on a good show," Cedergren said. "And I thought that the guys were really, really good today."
The Bells were there for all 180 minutes of action on a rainy day, cheering passionately, which is exactly what anyone who knows the Bells and what's important to them would expect.
"We've been blessed," Wendell Bell said, "but truly for us we're just appreciative that we have the opportunity to invest in this program and make an impact on these kids because, at the end of the day, that's what counts."