IU head coach Todd Yeagley made perhaps the most surprising adjustment in his Starting XI this season on Tuesday night in an away victory over Northwestern.
Through the first eight matches of the season, fifth-year senior goalkeeper Sean Caulfield had played over 791 minutes, every single second in a 5-1-2 start to the season for the defending Big Ten champions.
But on Tuesday, Yeagley opted for a new option in between the sticks. He turned to a freshman, another first-year player into a lineup heavily dominated by youth. Roman Celentano, an Illinois native, a four-star true freshman, got his first chance in net.
After last Friday’s 1-0 victory over Sacramento State, Yeagley reiterated the idea that the IU coaching staff was still evaluating Caulfield and the goalkeeper position.
“It’s not a huge body of work but it’s enough to see where [Sean] has tendencies,” Yeagley said. “It’s a constant assessment. That’s a bigger position to rotate, but we’re examining that role and sorting out if we need to continue to provide a new opportunity.”
Caulfield’s six-save performance against Sacramento State, a career high, was the peak performance for him on the season. Outside his performance against the Hornets and his Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week award after games against Denver and Seattle, Caulfield has strung together a handful of disappointing performances and timely mistakes.
He’s only allowed eight goals on the season, but nearly all of them came off mistakes by the defense or by Caulfield playing off his line.
Indiana started the season by playing overtime in its first five games of the season; IU didn’t hold a lead until freshman forward Victor Bezerra converted a penalty in the sixth game of the season.
The Hoosiers have struggled to execute offensive chances on the breakaway so far this season, but struggles at the goalkeeping position haven’t helped.
IU went down early on Labor Day against UCLA when Caulfield came off his line and got beat near post. Last week against Butler, the Hoosiers went down 2-0 after Caulfield came up 10 yards and got beat to his right off a strike from Alex Lehtinen.
The continued struggles forced Yeagley to shuffle the deck in his lineup, turning to Celentano on Tuesday night in the road conference opener.
Celentano faced some pressure early but settled into the role by the end of the first 45 minutes. He faced eight shots and made two saves, allowing just one goal on an absolute stunner from Northwestern’s Ugo Achara that found the top right corner of the net.
By no means was Celentano’s performance picture-perfect, but it offered Yeagley a different perspective of what he can have between the sticks.
The 6-foot-3 freshman came to IU from the U.S. Development Academy and Sockers F.C., the same team that produced his fellow freshman and teammate Josh Penn. His large frame allows him to dive both ways and stop balls within reach. He’s calm and collected, even for a young player, and communicated well with his defense in front of him.
During his time in the USDA, he started 68 of 69 games and helped Sockers FC win the Mid-America U-18/19 Conference championship.
Former IU goalkeeper coach Brad Swenby coached Celentano in his time with Sockers FC. There’s no shortage of confidence with this guy who made the start in front of friends and family on Tuesday night.
Yeagley was very excited about Celentano when he signed his letter of intent last year, but there was the assumption he was still a year or two away from playing. Now, he’s been thrown into the forefront.
IU easily defeated Northwestern 3-1 Tuesday night and didn’t need many heroics from Celentano in the second half. Still, Yeagley faces an important question going into Sunday’s match in Happy Valley against Penn State.
It’s the biggest question at this point of the season, halfway through the regular season.
On Sunday, Indiana and Penn State will play in a battle of the top two teams in the Big Ten standings. Penn State has been one of the surprise teams of the early season; the Nittany Lions were picked sixth in the preseason Big Ten poll but are currently undefeated in conference play. Their only loss came in the season opener against No. 5 Stanford.
Penn State is led by a heavy offensive attack including Christian Sload, Aaron Molloy and Liam Butts who’ve combined for eight goals this year and really stretch the open field.
It will be a step up in competition compared to Northwestern if Celentano starts. But it will be the same type of team that Caulfield has struggled with.
It poses the question: What next at the goalkeeper position?
On one hand, you’ve got the gritty veteran Caulfield who’s waited his time for the starting role and shown glimpses of success in net. To counter that, you have the young and talented freshman who proved in limited time that he’s the future and maybe the present keeper at Indiana.
If Caulfield starts, it’s a player who will be fighting to the end to earn his spot back. If it’s Celentano, it’s a player who has an abundance of confidence after playing the full 90 minutes and earning his first career win.
Going with Celentano seems like the ideal choice, giving the performance he turned in on Tuesday, but Yeagley knows how to handle the intricacies of conference play better than anyone.
And come Sunday afternoon, we’ll know who his first choice goalkeeper is.