Soccer Looks to Return to Form in 2006
Since its inception in 1991, the Kentucky soccer program has been a winning one. The Wildcats quickly rose from infancy into a program of national significance with four NCAA Tournament berths and eight consecutive 10-win seasons.
Kentucky became known for its toughness, both mental and physical, on the field and as one of the hardest working teams in the nation. After dominating the Mid-American Conference to the tune of four regular-season championships and three tournament titles from 1999-2004, UK made the jump to Conference USA, one of the toughest leagues in the nation.
It wasn’t an easy move as an inexperienced UK squad finished seventh in a league stacked with perennial NCAA Tournament participants. The team’s growing pains were evident by five losses by one goal, including two in overtime, and six ties. The team, which started as many as seven freshman and sophomores in some games, was frustratingly close to pushing towards the top of the conference and contending for an NCAA Tournament berth.
“Last year was an aberation,” Kentucky coach Ian Collins said. “We played nine freshman against a very tough schedule. But to be fair, we were in every game and beat a couple decent teams. But we’re certainly using it as motivation this season. I’m excited about getting going with this group.”
Often the Wildcats actually led before settling for a tie or losing. From 2003-04, UK was an incredible 21-1-1 when scoring first. Five times last season Kentucky scored first but did not score the victory.
“Last year we gave up the lead five times,” Collins said. “That tells you maybe we weren’t experienced enough and tough to hold a lead and build on a lead. This year’s team won’t have that happen. I love the make up of the team and all the parts.”
Enter 2006. The coaching staff is motivated. The team returns a talented nucleus led by seniors Riley O’Neill and Nathan Li. The newcomers make up what is arguably the best recruiting class in school history. All the ingredients are in place for a special year of UK soccer.
“Last year was draining for everyone, but this year everybody is ready to get going. The players have been training hard all summer and have had great attitudes. We have players here who want to represent Kentucky.”
“Riley being healthy is huge,” Collins said. “It’s really the first time in three years he hasn’t had an injury and I’m really looking forward to seeing him play healthy again.”
In the offseason O’Neill, who has been a constant in Canada’s national team program, spent his time healing and is ready to go after rebuffing offers from pro teams overseas.
In terms of true strikers, Kentucky signed high school All-American Mark Halma to help fortify the position.
“Mark is a big, strong guy who was an All-American in high school,” Collins said. “He’s going to be tremendous and we see him being able to fill the void when Riley leaves.”
D’Agostino has been Kentucky’s best attacking midfielder over the past two seasons. A year ago, he managed a pair of goals while doling out a team-high six assists. Expect him to move out wide this year to take advantage of his pace and serving ability.
Turnbull made a splash in his UK debut by scoring on his first career touch. The left-footer rounded out his freshman campaign with 14 starts and provided stability in the middle.
Both Turnbull and D’Agostino spent the offseason representing the Canadian U-20 National team while earning caps against teams such as Brazil and the United States.
“Dags and Masumi should be our anchors in the middle,” Collins said. “They have experience playing against some of the best players in the world on an international level and have held their own. They are the type of players who lead by example.”
Michael Strong has shown flashes of brilliance in his first two years with seven goals. Despite standing only 5-7, he has tremendous speed that pressures a defense.
Conyea, Fredericks and Lara all stepped up at times as freshman and, with a year under their belts, should be ready to contribute even more this season.
“You look at some of our freshman from last year and now they are a year better,” Collins said. “They all have more experience and will give us great depth, something we didn’t always have last year.”
Also strengthenening the midfield will be a slew of talented newcomers, led by English native Jase Griffiths.
“Jase is a tremendous player,” Collins said. “He’s a player who really understands the game and I think can come in and be a tremendous college player right away.”
Jon Townsend and Karl Waasdrop will add additional experience and depth as each join the squad as transfers after playing at Illinois-Chicago and Richmond, respectively.
However, UK, which has always been known for defense under Collins, is not worried. Waiting in the wings, is a talented group ready to step up and form the brick-wall defense that UK is known for.
“We’re going to be able to defend,” Collins said. “Our players take pride in knowing that it is our trademark. Other people may be interested in how well they can attack, but if you look at the best teams in the world, they all pay great attention to defending.”
In between the pipes Kentucky has a pair of capable replacements Sophomore transfer Matt Troop was a freshman All-American at Dayton before moving to the Bluegrass. Freshman Dan Williams has been one of the top prep goalkeepers in the country for the past few years.
“We’re in a little bit of a new situation this year,” Collins said. “We’ve always had great goalkeepers here, but going into the season we don’t have one who has played in goal for us at all. I don’t know how it’s going to shake out, but I’m confident whoever we go with will get in there and play well.”
Bolstering the keepers will be a back line led by returning starters Li and Matt Baum. Late in the 2005 season, Andrew Alexander and Nathan Marks also moved to the back row and the trio formed a formidable group.
Li has been a mainstay on the back line since he arrived in the Commonwealth. The Canadian has shown the ability to lockdown the left side of the field.
Baum came on in the second half of the season to start in the back and showed some offense with a pair of goals as well.
Alexander, a junior, is a big, physical player who took over at centerback late in the year last season with great success. In his first two years, Marks has started nearly every game at either midfield or defender. He has tremendous athletic ability and brings a tenacity to the pitch.
“In the back, we actually have a lot of experience in Andrew Alexander, Nathan Li, Matt Baum and Nathan Marks,” Collins said. “Those guys all have experience and have the right mentality.”
In addition, the Wildcats welcome a pair of defenders with tremendous credentials in Barry Rice, Matt Weiler and Keegan Nash. Rice was a high school All-American a year ago after helping his high school squad to a perfect 23-0 record while allowing just eight goals.
Weiler was an All-American as a junior and was named the Virginia State Player of the Year in his senior campaign.
Nash, a native Australian, has international experience after playing with the U-17 national team before battling through injuries much of the past two years.
“The addition of these new defenders also adds experience to our back line,” Collins said. “All three of those guys have experience playing in big games whether it was on the international or club level. They understand what is going on.”
“There’s no easy games,” Collins said. “We have Indiana back on the schedule after year break. We still have Akron, who we used to battle for the MAC championship year after year. You don’t have to say anything more about the Louisville game.”
The Wildcats also must contend with a brutal Conference USA schedule that features a trip to College Cup participant SMU and a home date against defending C-USA Tournament champion South Carolina.
“I think the biggest thing for us this year is the travel,” Collins. “Last year, we went out to the west coast for a couple games. We went to Miami and Central Florida. There was a lot of travel.
“The other thing that was difficult was playing Friday and Sunday every week. This year the schedule has been changed to a Wednesday game and a weekend game, so that should give guys a few days to recover."