What constitutes a successful season for Indiana men’s soccer?
It’s a question I’ve been asked numerous times over the three years I’ve covered this storied program — whether on podcasts, by fans, or within my own conscience — and I always return to the same answer: I’m still not sure, to be honest.
It’s a conundrum of sorts, if you’re Indiana or a fan of the program. It’s almost always a lose-lose situation, one that can only be reconciled with a trip to the College Cup, and sometimes that isn’t even enough to satiate the thirst of the fanbase.
To equate it to something a bit more mainstream (though college soccer remains on an encouraging upward trajectory), Indiana is to college men’s soccer as Alabama is to football; Kentucky is to men’s basketball; Vanderbilt is to baseball. In essence, the annual expectation for each of the aforementioned programs is to compete for a national championship. Anything less is often met with disdain, a sense of failure, or a combination of the two.
So, with Indiana falling to No. 2 Washington, 3-2, in the Sweet 16 on Saturday afternoon, the initial question becomes salient once again: Was this season a successful one?
For 99 percent of college men’s soccer programs, the answer is unequivocally yes. Heck, many might even think about hanging a banner for a Sweet 16. However, Indiana doesn’t have this same luxury, and you could could argue it hasn’t been held to ‘normal’ standards since Jerry Yeagley rode off into the sunset in 2003 with a sixth national title.
When you step back and truly think about what Indiana has accomplished in its near-five decade history (plus many more years when the program was still operating as a club sport), the records and accolades are simply astounding.
IU hasn’t missed out on the NCAA Tournament since 1986 — 35 consecutive postseason appearances.
IU hasn’t entered the NCAA Tournament as an unseeded team for eight-straight seasons.
IU hasn’t failed to reach the Sweet 16 for seven-straight seasons.
And prior to Saturday’s loss in Seattle, IU was the only program in the entire nation to make three College Cup appearances in the past four seasons. Except, an extension of that feat was laid to rest at the hands of the Huskies and Dylan Teves’ golden-goal in the 97th minute.
I could write an entire story chock full of random numbers, streaks and records that Indiana currently owns or shattered at one point in program history. However, that would only belabor the point, which is this:
Whereas Sweet 16’s are celebrated amongst a vast majority of soccer programs; Sweet 16’s are seen as a letdown for the Hoosiers and their fans. It’s the price one has to be willing to pay by pledging its affiliation or allegiance to arguably the greatest men’s soccer program in NCAA history. And it makes sense, too.
When you firmly establish yourself as the pinnacle of a certain sport, the target is always on your back, no matter what the seeding or record might indicate. Sure, Indiana had to travel to Washington — first time since 2015 that IU has played a road match in the NCAA Tournament — and, accordingly, was viewed as the underdog, at least at a national level. But make no mistake, Indiana is always the hunted.
In Todd Yeagley’s own words, playing Indiana is most teams’ “super bowl.” In the case of Creighton, which this season handed Indiana its worst home defeat in recent and modern memory, celebrated in the visitors locker room as if it had just won a College Cup. And taking nothing away from Creighton — it dominated that 3-0 result from start to finish, and leveraged the win for a spot in the NCAA Tournament — for all intents and purposes, that was the Blue Jays’ biggest win of the season. Many other teams likely would’ve celebrated in a similar fashion, at Bill Armstrong Stadium, no less.
So, how should we view this season?
For a team that was coming off an overtime defeat in the previous College Cup finals, the only realistic way IU could top that was by winning the whole thing this season. But it didn’t.
All the pieces were in place, too. A returning front-runner for the MAC Hermann Trophy in Victor Bezerra — check. A returning All-American goalkeeper in Roman Celentano — check. A returning All-American left-back in Spencer Glass — check. A backline that returned all four of its starters, plus a fifth-year midfielder in co-captain Joe Schmidt — check. A highly-regarded recruiting class with impact freshmen in Sam Sarver, Tommy Mihalic and Patrick McDonald — check.
The stars aligned for Indiana this season, which set expectations astronomically high and, for several weeks, had the Hoosiers ranked No. 1 in the country. Then came the 3-0 loss against Creighton, a 2-1 loss against Rutgers, a 2-1 come-from-behind overtime loss against Michigan, and a pair of Big Ten title chances squandered against Maryland and Penn State.
At certain points this season, Indiana looked like a team that couldn’t be beaten. A seven-match shutout streak is evidence of that. At other points of the season, however, IU appeared to have more questions than it had answers.
The backline play, anchored by Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Daniel Munie and center-back stalwart Joey Maher, ran into bouts of inconsistency and vulnerability. The attack relied heavily on a trio of freshmen — McDonald, Sarver and Mihalic — for its scoring production, and those three eventually hit the proverbial freshmen wall late in the season. Bezerra, who ranked second in the Big Ten in goals scored and third in points, couldn’t churn out another Herculean-like season. It all compounded into a season where IU never truly seemed to click cohesively for a sustained stretch.
To Todd Yeagley and the coaching staff’s credit, they made the necessary adjustments. Whether it was moving a veteran Ben Yeagley into a starting midfield role down the stretch, or strategically picking and choosing its moments to utilize Sarver’s dynamism, or plugging Brett Bebej in at right-back to help stabilize an unpredictable right side of the field, IU did what it could with the personnel it had.
The two glaring pieces the Hoosiers lacked, though, was an alpha midfielder and a go-to striker capable of shouldering the scoring load.
In losing A.J. Palazzolo to the transfer portal last offseason, IU was without a true big-bodied enforcer in the midfield who could win back 50-50 balls and command the tempo of games. For all of Schmidt’s toughness, tenacity and organizational strengths, he was never quite able to fill Palazzolo’s void. Neither could Yeagley, McDonald, Quinten Helmer and whoever else IU tried in the midfield next to Schmidt.
Then there’s Bezerra, who, at his own volition returned to Indiana for one last chance at a national championship. Though the scoring rate wasn’t near what it was from a season ago, Bezerra was asked to engineer IU’s attack in a way he hadn’t previously. No longer was he just IU’s goal-scorer, but he was also thrust into the role of IU’s creator, initiator and attacking leader. That meant opponents constantly man-marking Bezerra, even double-teaming him at times, leading to fewer and fewer true opportunities to take over a game.
At Indiana’s core, there was nothing inherently wrong with its philosophy or strategic shape. In many ways, the roster was designed to mask its weaknesses and emphasize its strengths. However, the pieces seemingly couldn’t complement each other for an entire season, which made for volatility in performance and results.
Now, the Hoosiers are left asking what if?
What if Glass never broke his leg last season and returned this season at top form?
What if IU’s backline played all season like it did throughout the seven-game shutout stretch?
What if Mihalic and Sarver were a year older, freeing up Bezerra’s attacking responsibilities?
Those are questions that’ll remain unanswered, much like the initial question posed at the top of this story.
While Sweet 16’s are often celebrated, Indiana doesn’t have that luxury. The standard has been set, and was set decades ago: It’s College Cup or bust.
The Hoosiers will have to wait at least another season before its quest for a ninth star continues in earnest.