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Indiana Soccer 2019 Preview: Forwards

Indiana head coach Todd Yeagley has admitted that he doesn’t know where the goals are going to come from this year. 

There isn’t a single returning forward from IU’s roster that recorded a goal last year, yet the forward position presents an intriguing challenge to Yeagley. A talented recruiting class, an experienced transfer and returning rotation players eager to cement their names in the Starting XI give IU a wealth of options for three frontline positions. 

Promising Returners

Even though IU’s frontline was heavily dominated by Griffin Dorsey (Toronto FC) and Justin Rennicks (New England Revolution) last year, returning players like redshirt junior Ian Black and junior Thomas Warr carved out a significant role, each featuring in 10-plus matches last season. 

Black backed up a stellar sophomore season with a tremendous spring, where he scored both goals in the team’s trip to Mexico and dominated the exhibition schedule. 

“He was a 15-20 minute player and got his fair share of minutes until he couldn’t handle it,” Yeagley said. “He got a lot of minutes and scored a lot of goals and there’s no doubt that he’ll have a big impact on our team this year.”

Black could feature as both an outside winger or as a striker at the top of the formation. He’s got a natural gift for finding the back of the net, but has shown he can stay back and play balls for other attackers or midfielders as well. In the opening exhibition of the 2019 season against Bowling Green, Black was calling out movements and made tremendous passes and runs into the box to set up scoring chances. 

Warr is another attacking player who could be in store for a breakout season if he puts all the pieces together. He’s featured sparingly in his first two seasons in Bloomington, but has never quite had the coming out moment. He netted a hat-trick in the spring season against Lipscomb and scored a goal against Bowling Green in the Aug. 19 exhibition at Grand Park.

He’s an extremely fast player with a knack for finding the ball in the middle of the field or in the box. His finishing skills are tremendous and has a powerful foot to along with it. Along with it, he’s expected to be a locker room leader, as one of the veterans on a team with so many newcomers. This is a deep position but there’s potentially a place in the Starting XI or as one of the first players off the bench.

The only other returning forward is redshirt freshman Ryan Wittenbrink. Wittenbrink had a phenomenal high school career but took a redshirt season last year with a wealth of talent at his natural position. He’s got a natural build for a No. 9 striker in a 4-3-3 formation at 6’1”. With his size and speed, he’s the ideal candidate for a striker both on the ground and in the air off of set pieces. 

Wittenbrink got lost in the shuffle last season but had a solid spring on the frontline. If he can get back into the form he had in high school and in the spring season, there could be a spot as a striker in Yeagley’s squad this season. 

The New Faces

IU struck gold late in the recruiting cycle when Yeagley went to the transfer portal to sign Florida International transfer Joris Ahlivni. During his time at FIU, he was named First Team All-Conference USA two times and netted 16 goals and nine assists. 

Ahlinvi was the second transfer that IU signed after the end of last season. He and Evansville transfer Simon Waever, who will look to help lead the backline, figure to be two key components of this Indiana team. While he’s listed as a midfielder, and has experience at that position, Ahlinvi is too athletic and quick to not have a role on either the left or right flank this fall with his new group.

Wherever he plays, Ahlinvi is bound to make an immediate impact. He makes everyone better on the field and has experience playing in the biggest moments. He’s got valuable experience under his belt in both the conference tournament and NCAA Tournament, and scored four game-winning goals last season. 

Indiana has four freshman forwards that could all figure into the rotation at some point this season, but none has been more anticipated than Josh Penn.

Penn, a four-star recruit, was ranked No. 12 in the Top Drawer Soccer Top 150 rankings. He scored 57 goals and 40 assists in 63 matchers with Sockers FC, his U.S. Development Academy team. Although he’s only a freshman in college, he’s already featured in the United States Men’s National Team U-19 and U-20 squads while also spending time with United States Soccer League Championship team Indy Eleven.

The Naperville, Illinois native will likely fit as an outside forward if given the starting role out of the gate. Penn is a gifted scorer and one of the top young talents to come through Bloomington in the past handful of years. 

“My speed is probably my best skillset,” Penn said in an interview last winter. “But my knowledge of the game is very high. I’m not a guy that’s just going to sprint at people. I know how to make my opportunities well and I can finish. I think from the wing I can score a lot of goals.”

Penn maintained his amateur status albeit playing a portion of the spring with the Indy Eleven through a partnership with Sockers FC. There is a lot of buzz around Penn and the potential impact he could have on the program. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him as a regular member of the first team squad for Yeagley and Indiana this year. 

IU has a handful of other freshmen at its disposal that could absolutely figure into the rotation at some point this year. In the opening exhibition against Bowling Green, Victor Bezerra, Maouloune Goumballe and Herbert Endeley all started alongside some first team members. 

Goumballe scored the opening goal of the season for the Hoosiers and all three had their ups and downs, but showed some bright moments in their time on the pitch in Westfield.

Still, there will be a transition period for all of the freshmen on IU’s team. 

“I can’t ask a freshman to know all of our front four roles in a week,” Yeagley said. “We might single in on the No. 9 or No. 10 position for a player because that can help us in this first phase of preseason. If they’re not doing what we need or we need a different look, it may not be them moving but a different player coming into a role they can change the game with.”

There’s a lot of talent available to play on IU’s front line and Yeagley certainly doesn’t know how he’ll use it just yet. It’s likely that he starts with one lineup and continues to rotate it until he finds the run with it. But as it is, especially with strikers and wingers, you roll with the “hot hand.” Not unlike other position groups for Indiana this fall, only time will give us a more clear picture of how things will look from match to match.

The lineups early in the season may not replicate what it will look like late in the year. But it does show one thing. Yeagley is confident in upwards of eight different players ready to play meaningful minutes as a first team forward.

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