*With just a few weeks remaining before Indiana kicks off its 2018 season at Wake Forest and North Carolina, The Hoosier Network will be releasing its position previews on a semi-weekly basis until the season begins.*
It was pretty safe to say fans would be able to go down to Bloomington Bagel Company after most home matches in 2017 and get themselves a free bagel when IU posted a shutout.
IU head coach Todd Yeagley would talk about it after matches all of the time. It was something the Hoosiers took pride in. They wanted the clean sheet and tallied 18 of them overall.
— Bloomington Bagel (@BBCBagel) October 11, 2017
The backline for the 2017 Hoosiers could go down as one of the best in program history because of that. Now that’s saying something. The .260 goals against average was more than 100 points better than second place.
It’s hard to break records in a program with a history as rich as IU. But what this team did during its shutout streak of 966 minutes was nothing short of impressive. It was the fourth longest in NCAA history and shattered the IU record as well.
Coming into the 2018 season, the expectations are once again very high for a backline returning all but one piece. That player not returning is All-American and current Chicago Fire defender Grant Lillard. While it will be a decent sized loss, there are worthy players ready to step in.
Whether it’s during the season due to injury or through players departing the program, Yeagley has instilled the ‘next man up’ philosophy into his program better than most teams. The depth this team has at its disposal is flat out impressive.
Besides the empty center back spot vacated by Lillard, there will be a lot of familiar faces from last year’s College Cup run. Let’s dive into what the 2018 IU backline looks like.
The center back position is one of the only spots where there will be a new face playing regular minutes. That new face will pair up with the incumbent, senior Timmy Mehl. The Manhattan Beach, California native is very experienced having started all 25 matches in 2017 and started for the latter half of the 2016 season as well.
Mehl not only helped the Hoosiers to 18 shutouts in 2017, but also has a dangerous right foot when it comes to set pieces around the box. The center back scored three goals and tallied one assist last season.
We’ll start with Timmy Mehl. https://t.co/QYSRIcMR5y
— Josh Eastern (@JoshEastern) December 5, 2017
The second team All-Big Ten defender will be one of the leaders of the backline in 2018. He has both experience and seniority on his side. But the senior will have to form a new relationship with his fellow center back partner.
There will be options for Yeagley when it comes to picking the second center back.
It could be sophomore AJ Palazzolo who is coming off a knee injury, which kept him sidelined for all of 2017. Junior Jordan Kleyn looked comfortable next to Mehl in IU’s annual game vs. the Mexico U20 team in April. Or it could be a new face such as redshirt freshman Jacob Meier or true freshman Jack Maher.
Palazzolo has spent time at forward and center back, but will slot in as a defender. The St. Louis native has played sparingly for the Hoosiers in his career, appearing in just 10 matches. 2018 could be a chance for the sophomore to breakout after being named the 2015 NSCAA National High School Player of the Year.
Kleyn’s 2017 season was also hampered by injury. He was the starting right back to begin the season, but battled a groin injury that lingered throughout and it never seemed like he got back to full fitness. Kleyn could be seen at right back again, but his performance against the Mexico U20’s in April was very promising. It gives Yeagley more flexibility in his lineups (more on that later).
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) April 29, 2018
Meier is a bit of an unknown. He came in as a three-star recruit out of Minnesota and took last season to redshirt. It will be interesting to see if he is able to make a name for himself this season. As it usually is with IU, there could be some rotation in the squad and he could get a chance at some point even if it isn’t from day one.
Maher is the new kid on the block. His resumé coming in, however, is quite impressive. The Caseyville, Illinois native was a four-star recruit and was ranked the No. 4 defender in the nation. He has played with the U.S. U18 National Team and made his debut for USL side Saint Louis FC in 2017. Don’t be surprised if Maher makes some sort of impact in 2018.
The left back spot is pretty straightforward again with Andrew Gutman returning for his senior season.
Gutman comes into 2018 after a stellar junior campaign, which saw him earn second team All-America and first team Big Ten honors. His seven goals and four assists led all IU defenders and ranked second on the team with midfielder Cory Thomas.
The Hinsdale, Illinois product is seemingly the perfect full back for the system IU wants to play. He has the freedom to join the attack throughout the 90 minutes and he supplements it so well with good crosses into the box and a dangerous left foot.
He is a stellar defender, but don’t be surprised to see him in an attacking position down the left flank throughout the match. When Yeagley overloads the left flank with midfielder Griffin Dorsey joining Gutman, it creates a lot of havoc for opposing teams.
The Chicago Fire homegrown product is poised for a big senior season coming on the heels of an already impressive junior campaign. Expect Gutman to be a big time contributor for the Hoosiers.
The right back position will be a battle between two players, if last year is any indication. Kleyn and Rece Buckmaster have plenty of experience at right back and there isn’t a drop off with either of them.
The day one starter in 2017 was Kleyn, but because of injury, Buckmaster was forced into duty. Right back could be one of the most interchangeable positions on the field for IU because of the quality both players provide.
There are a lot of variables that could come into play with right back, however. If Kleyn slides over to center back, Buckmaster seems like a logical replacement. But Buckmaster is very versatile.
Yeagley has said in the past he likes Buckmaster in the midfield, and he has played there plenty. But the decisions will all trickle down, which could narrow down the center back pool to three players if Kleyn is the right back.
After midfielder Jeremiah Gutjahr missed most of last season with a knee injury, he may not be back to full fitness from day one. That is yet to be determined and could mean Buckmaster slots into the midfield.
Right back looks to be a potential game-by-game revolving door, but unless a lesser known name impresses, it seems to be a two man battle between Buckmaster and Kleyn.