The start of the 2020-21 men’s soccer season required more patience than the typical year. Four-hundred and fifty days separated IU’s NCAA tournament loss to UC Santa Barbara in 2019 and a 3-0 win against Wisconsin in Feb. 2021.
But this season has been almost the exact opposite. Only 102 days will separate the National Championship defeat to Marshall and Friday’s season-opener at Notre Dame.
This is the Q49 Journal, a weekly series where I’ll offer an inside perspective on the journey of Indiana men’s soccer as they fight for a ninth star. On the cards for today: a recap of IU’s pre-season, a look at roster changes, and a preview of the trip to South Bend. Let’s get into it.
PRESEASON THOUGHTS AND ROSTER CHANGES
Indiana opened the fall with a scoreless draw against DePaul, failing to create a great chance in 110 minutes of action. The Hoosiers responded with nine goals scored in their next 180 minutes against Wright State and Louisville, but also let in six into their own net.
On paper, Indiana’s pre-season defensive numbers might be alarming. In the spring, IU conceded just six goals in 14 matches (a nation-best 0.42 goals-per-game). In the last two exhibition matches, IU matched that total.
Is this a worry? Probably not.
The first three goals against Louisville came from slow closing down of shots around the edge of the 18-yard box, two whizzing past goal-keeper Roman Celentano’s hands and another finding the hand of Joey Maher. That is solved with experience and communication.
“I’d say it’s just really small defensive moments of detail, whether it’s communication or one-twos, that we could have been a bit more locked in on,” IU head coach Todd Yeagley said in the buildup to the season-opener against Notre Dame.
One of the players usually preventing chances at the edge of the box last season, A.J. Palazzolo, moved on after graduation. He excelled at winning the ball back and preventing teams who may have outnumbered IU in the midfield from creating through the middle. Brett Bebej, Emerson Nieto, Quinten Helmer and Ben Yeagley have all featured in preseason as options to step up next to senior captain Joe Schmidt in the engine room.
The midfield under Yeagley in recent years has largely served as the fulcrum for Indiana’s movement on both sides of the ball. The midfield has the potential to be part of an incredibly exciting attacking group.
“We’re so dynamic up top, we can chase guys all over the field now,” Schmidt said.
The ‘now’ refers to the additions of freshmen Sam Sarver and Tommy Mihalic, who have already staked a place in the starting XI.
Mihalic was named in Top Drawer Soccer’s Freshman Best XI after picking up a goal in the win against Louisville. Mihalic brings versatility as a wide midfielder or center-forward, and has used the time around the team as an early enrollee to get involved in the attacking movement seamlessly.
Sarver is Indiana’s highest-ranked recruit, No. 32 in the 2021 class according to Top Drawer Soccer. The energy in his
individual pressing has been praised by Yeagley and Schmidt, and while he has yet to tally his first goal as a Hoosier, it feels like it’s just a matter of time considering the opportunities he has created for himself.
The new additions are combined with the continued development of Maouloune Goumballe, Herbert Endeley, Ryan Wittenbrink and Nate Ward, which offers Indiana a variety of attacking options — and that isn’t even mentioning star forward Victor Bezerra.
Indiana’s 4-4-2 often morphs into a 4-2-4 when on the attack, and when Nyk Sessock and (when fit) Spencer Glass overlap from the defense, Bezerra is surrounded by a group that gives him a chance to break even more records in the fall. He revealed on The Q49 Podcast that he turned down MLS offers to stay at Indiana, and Indiana seems poised to take full advantage.
Five goals in two preseason appearances is an unbelievable start to a season, but for Bezerra, it feels standard. Toward the end of the spring season, teams began to frustrate IU’s attack by double-teaming Bezerra. That strategy likely won’t fly this time around, however.
Take, for example, IU’s second goal against Louisville: Endeley dribbles inside from the right wing, before sliding a pass back out to the right to an overlapping Sessock. Sessock plays a low ball into the box in the direction of Bezerra, who leaves it to find Mihalic for a tap-in at the back post. If IU can replicate these types of unselfish chances throughout the regular season, look out.
All in all, Indiana should view the preseason as a success as they were able to evaluate new players and evolving rotations. Now, the Hoosiers turn the page to regular season action.
NOTRE DAME PREVIEW
Since 2001, Indiana and Notre Dame have met every fall season at least once in the annual Berticelli Memorial Game.
What should IU expect from the Fighting Irish?
Well, they have a much larger sample size to watch film from given the ACC competed in both the fall and spring, the only Power 5 conference to do so due to COVID-19 restrictions. Notre Dame posted an 8-9 overall record, winning a conference tournament match in the fall, but losing their last four matches.
Leading the Fighting Irish in scoring was junior forward Jack Lynn, who earned All-ACC honors. His eight goals were good for second in the conference, and he is the lone Notre Dame player on the ACC preseason watch list.
Not returning, however, were two key cogs to the team: All-ACC midfielder Aiden McFadden and goal-keeper Keagan McLaughlin. McFadden led Notre Dame with four assists and finished second in points with 12. McLaughin’s departure opens the door to a contest for the ‘keeper spot between junior Thomas Deslongchamps, freshman Liam Egan and sophomore Bryan Dowd.
An average season coupled with player losses led to a bottom ranking in the Coastal Division in the Preseason Coaches’ Poll.
While the Hoosiers travel as overwhelming favorites, Alumni Stadium has proven a tricky stadium for IU. Two wins, two losses and a draw in their last five trips, including a 4-0 loss in 2016 against the then-No. 1 Fighting Irish, will require an effective IU performance to open the season in the desired manner.
“They’re always well organized and well coached, they don’t complicate the game,” Yeagley said. “Notre Dame don’t beat themselves, we’re going to have to earn our goals.”
IU has had all summer to think over the overtime defeat to Marshall. Though an in-state rivalry will pose a tough challenge to open the season, a team with College Cup aspirations like IU has to prove it can handle such a test.
“We’ve been waiting for our first game since we lost in May,” Schmidt said. “We’re ready for anything, we can deal with a little crowd noise.”