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The Q49 Journal: IU's season opener, defensive questions, and breakout candidates

Finally. Finally. Finally.

After nearly 450 days without Indiana men’s soccer and Big Ten soccer, finally the wait is over. I’ve been waiting to type those words for what feels like an eternity, but all will be righted as the Hoosiers kick off their season Friday at 1 p.m. against the Wisconsin Badgers.

With IU’s opening match on the precipice, there’s no better time than now to introduce the first installment of "The Q49 Journal" a weekly series where I’ll preview IU’s upcoming matches, give my thoughts on the Hoosiers’ current performance along with the rest of the conference, and delve into other minutiae that pertains to IU in its quest for a ninth championship.

With all the logistics and introductions out of the way, let’s get started.

Previewing IU’s season-opener against Wisconsin

IU head coach Todd Yeagley didn’t mince words in his pregame press conference when talking about Wisconsin and the challenges IU will face on Friday.

“Last year’s (Wisconsin) team will be very different from this year’s team,” Yeagley said Tuesday on Zoom. “They were riddled with injuries last year when we played them. We expect maybe three starters from last year’s team to be primary players. ...Their record of last year and where they were is not indicative of where I think Wisconsin will be this year.”

Well, that’s certainly high praise for a team that finished last season with a 3-11-4 record and just one win in Big Ten play. To compound matters, the Badgers are also without leading points scorer Matthew Comiskey and starting goalkeeper from a season ago, Dean Cowdroy.

But Yeagley may actually have a point in not overlooking the Badgers.

Spencer Glass during last Friday's conference opener against Wisconsin. Indiana went on to win 3-1. (Bailey Wright/HN)

First, what was originally scheduled to be IU’s home opener at Armstrong Stadium will now be played an hour-and-a-half north at Grand Park in Westfield, Indiana due to this week’s tremendous snowfall amounts. Though the relocation ensures the match will be played indoors and away from the frigid outdoor conditions, the Hoosiers effectively lose their home-field advantage.

Now, you’re probably asking — “What do you mean home-field advantage? How can that exist if there are no fans?” Put simply: Indiana has not lost a regular season Big Ten match at home since Oct. 10, 2015. That’s over five years. Fans or no fans, the task of a road team knocking off IU at Armstrong Stadium is a daunting one. And especially now, having not played an official match since Dec. 1, 2019, the Hoosiers surely would’ve loved to open the season on their home turf with plenty of rust to knock off.

Another element that cannot be overlooked against Wisconsin is its relatively revamped roster. With the departure of Cowdrey at goalkeeper, the Badgers are hoping graduate transfer Sven Kleinhans can take over immediately as a shot-swatter. Kleinhans, a native of Germany, has played some of the toughest youth competition and his resume is extensive and impressive. At 6-foot-2, he has a chance to surprise many in the Big Ten this season.

Speaking of international flair, midfielder Inaki Iribarren, transfer center back Moritz Kappelsberger and transfer forward Henri Tophoven add to what could be a dangerous Wisconsin team. Iribarren, just a sophomore, tied with Comiskey for most points on the team last season, and now with Comiskey gone, Iribarren has a real chance for a breakout season. Kappelsberger and Tophoven give Wisconsin much-needed experience and talent, something that I’ll be keeping a close eye on this season with the Badgers.

So, what do the Hoosiers need to do to start the season 1-0?

The keys to victory are two-fold: Lock in on defense from the start and don’t force things in the early going.

With the season as odd and unfamiliar as ever, there are sure to be jitters and rust in need of shaking. Fortunately for IU, Yeagley and his coaching staff are a defensive-minded team, and I wouldn’t expect that change this season, even with the departure of star center back Jack Maher. The Hoosiers thrive when they are turning defense into offense, and for a team that will almost certainly need time to ease into the game (as most other teams will, too), leaning on their defense will be crucial.

Similarly, IU is too well-coached to allow its attackers to take ill-advised chances. Due to the long layoff, players will want to get in attack-mode early, but that can’t happen on Friday. The Hoosiers need to be disciplined and allow goal-scoring chances to come naturally, rather than forcing them.

Bottom line: Force Wisconsin to make the mistakes and IU should have no problem starting its season with a win.

What to make of IU’s backline this season?

For a program that churns out and produces professional players like a Coca-Cola factory does cans of soda, roster attrition is hardly a surprise with Indiana on a year-to-year basis. No matter how well the Hoosiers played the previous season it’s almost guaranteed that players will jump to pro soccer just as quickly as prep players and transfers funnel into Bloomington. Case and point: Jack Maher, Josh Penn and Aidan Morris.

Daniel Munie during Indiana's 1-0 win over the Cruz Azul U-20's.

Comparing last season’s roster to this season’s potential starting XI,  the biggest question mark arguably resides in IU’s backline. Fifth-year captain Spencer Glass, who was named to the MAC Hermann Trophy Watch List, should have no problem leading IU’s defensive charge, but with Maher and Simon Waever both starting their pro careers, it leaves IU with some holes to fill.

On the wing, Pittsburgh transfer Nyk Sessock should slide seamlessly into Waever’s former role. Though small in stature, Sessock’s motor, quickness and strength should allow him to be successful in the Big Ten.

“Simon was fantastic for us,” Yeagley said “but Nyk is right in that mold. He is going to be an absolute lock-down defender, and he can get forward and execute on the attacking end. To me, he’s like Rece Buckmaster in how they play.”

Rece Buckmaster, huh? The same Rece Buckmaster who helped IU lead the nation in shutouts (15) in 2018 and then selected 32nd overall in the 2019 MLS SuperDraft? If that’s what Sessock can bring to the table, Hoosier fans are going to be thrilled to have him.

But then there’s the hole left behind from Maher, the Big Ten Defender of the Year in 2019 and No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft. When a player of his caliber leaves, there’s rarely going to be an easy fix. Denver transfer Callum Stretch was supposed to take over the center back position, but when the season got pushed back to the spring, Stretch decided to begin his pro career and forgo his college eligibility.

As they say, next man up. And that next man is Daniel Munie.

“We lost a huge one with Jack there; he was one of the best leaders I’ve ever coached,” Yeagley said. “Daniel Munie has done a really good job of improving in that area. He’s a phenomenal talent, and I think he had kind of a breakout year, and I think now you’re going to see how good of a defender this player really is.”

It’s easy to see why Yeagley is so high on the sophomore Munie. In 2019, after redshirting his first season in 2018, Munie broke out, appearing in 21 matches and starting 14 of them. He also tallied three points, including his first career goal against Wisconsin in what feels like an eternity ago.

At 6-foot and 180 pounds, Munie has the frame to play center back, though he didn’t get to show it much last season playing alongside Maher. However, Yeagley hinted that Munie could fill most of Maher’s minutes, so that should be an interesting development.

All things considered, the Hoosiers’ defensive-minded approach should allow them to transition smoothly into the post-Maher era, no matter how short-lived it was. While there may be a slight hitch as Munie, Glass, Sessock and others build in-game chemistry, I’d expect the backline to be among IU’s strongest position groups once again.

Who are potential breakout candidates to keep an eye on this season?

For accounting purposes, here’s how IU’s current roster shakes out based on previous experience and contributions:

Returning contributors (11) — Roman Celentano (GK), Daniel Munie (D), Spencer Glass (D), Brett Bebej (D), Joe Schmidt (MF), A.J. Palazzolo (MF/F), Victor Bezerra (F), Herbert Endeley (F), Thomas Warr (F), Ian Black (F), Maouloune Goumballe (F)

With the addition of Sessock at right back, the Hoosiers’ current rotation stands at 12 players who, unless there are any injuries, should contribute valuable minutes in varying capacities. 

For the purposes of this exercise let’s assume IU employs a 16-17 player rotation, leaving four or five spots open for competition. Here are some players who I think have a chance to crack the rotation:

Freshman defender Joey Maher

With the last name of Maher, expectations are going to be high, though they should be tempered in the early going. With Maher’s pedigree combined with Yeagley’s praise about the freshman throughout the offseason, the opportunity for playing time will likely be available for Maher.

Rated a three-star player and 112th overall in Top Drawer Soccer’s 2020 recruiting rankings, there are sure to be some growing pains for Maher early in his career. And while he’s not quite as polished as Jack was entering his inaugural season, his talent should allow him to see the field sooner rather than later.

Redshirt freshman midfielder Quinten Helmer

The second-year player from Amsterdam, Netherlands, has been mentioned several times this offseason by Yeagley and the coaching staff. Based on his development and passing ability in the midfield, Helmer has about as good of a chance as any to carve out a sizable role this season.

“You take a Quinten Helmer, who’s very much a technical combining player, more of a passer than dribbler,” Yeagley said, “that might be what we need against a team that’s playing deeper.”

Yeagley also mentioned the contrast in abilities between Herbert Endeley and Helmer — a one-one speedster vs. a technical passer — and how the rotation will vary throughout the season based on the opponent.

Freshman midfielder Emerson Nieto

Of the incoming freshman class, Nieto arguably possesses the highest ceiling and most polished, Big Ten-ready skillset. Nieto, rated a four-star prospect and No. 71 overall according to Top Drawer Soccer, played for USL’s Indy Eleven in 2019 and built a wealth of experience in his prep career.

With Aidan Morris and Josh Penn’s departure following last season, there’s plenty of playing time up for grabs in the midfield and at the forward spots. Whether Nieto is ready to contribute right away as Morris and Penn did, remains to be seen. Based on his talent alone, though, it wouldn’t shock me to see him make an immediate impact this season.

Other potential contributors — Tommy Mihalic (F), Trey Kapsalis (MF), Isaac Sarosy (D), Ben Yeagley (MF), Ryan Wittenbrink (F)

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