Indiana men's soccer's historic 50th season could be its toughest one yet. But don't let its No. 13 preseason ranking, according to the United Soccer Coaches, overshadow the Hoosiers' history of flipping the script. In 2012, that same poll slotted Indiana No. 12, before it bulldozed four higher-seeded teams in the postseason en route to claiming its eighth banner.
Over the past decade, the Hoosiers have appeared in the preseason top-25 eight times (excluding the 2020-21 poll published after the spring COVID season started). Within that frame, they've made it as far as the First Round once, Second Round once, four Sweet 16s, and four College Cups (including winning one championship). They've contended in an astounding 35 consecutive NCAA Tournaments. But where Indiana could finish in the tournament is a batch of uncertainty.
So heading into the new season, with the first exhibition match right around the corner on Friday, here's what we know.
Challenging schedule and ranked opposition
Some might call Indiana’s No. 13 ranking an unlucky start to the season — head coach Todd Yeagley will even be starting his 13th season at the helm. However, others may point to the fact that entering the program's 50th season, there's no better time to secure its fourth conference and Big Ten Tournament title in five seasons. That path presents challenges, though, and Yeagley is fully aware. Conference counterparts Maryland and Penn State, who finished ahead of Indiana last year in the regular season, are ranked back-to-back No. 20 and No. 21, respectively.
"We have once again put together a very challenging schedule, making each match an important building block to help this team compete for championships," Yeagley said per release.
October will be an arduous month. Apart from playing Penn State and Maryland in what could be crucial matches to determine who wins the conference down the road, Indiana will also face off against No. 8 Kentucky. Yet favorably, all three matches will be held at home in Bloomington. So will contests against 2021 NCAA Tournament teams Portland, No. 4 Notre Dame, St. John's, and Akron in late August and early September.
"Our loyal fans and electric student section, the Hoosier Army, help make Bill Armstrong Stadium a special college soccer venue," Yeagley said.
But against arguably its most formidable regular-season opponent, Indiana won't have the home-crowd luxury. The Hoosiers open the season on the road against Clemson, the defending national champion. In recent history playing the Tigers, Indiana has won five of the past six matches. Indiana escaping with a road win or a draw against the top-ranked team in the country would be instrumental to starting the season right.
Boots to fill and returning core
Following last year's 15-6-1 campaign, two-time Big Ten Goalkeeper of the Year Roman Celentano and MAC Hermann Trophy runner-up Victor Bezerra were shipped off to Major League Soccer. That left two substantial gaps at the caboose and locomotive of Indiana's train.
Junior Duke transfer JT Harms and redshirt senior Bryant Pratt will likely be vying for the starting goalkeeper spot. Harms proved dependable in Indiana's 3-1 victory over Lipscomb in a spring scrimmage.
Likely taking over for Bezerra will be Xavier transfer Karsen Henderlong, who wears the identical No. 7. The senior forward was named to the All-Big East first team last season, leading Xavier with eight goals and four assists.
And even better news for Indiana fans? An experience-filled cast of characters surrounding and assisting him. Sophomore scoring duo Samuel Sarver and Tommy Mihalic combined for 12 goals last season. There's also the speedy forwards Herbert Endeley and Maouloune Goumballe, along with Ryan Wittenbrink. Returning upperclassmen centerbacks Joey Maher and Daniel Munie, as well as rightback Nyk Sessock form the backline — while Ben Yeagley and sophomore Patrick McDonald likely return to play the bulk of minutes at central midfield.
Formation and defensive backbone
Yeagley said in Wednesday's press conference he intends to utilize a three-back system — which appeared in the spring scrimmage against Lipscomb. Though the wingback position is very demanding in that type of formation, Indiana has multiple options in upperclassmen Lawson Redmond, Brett Bebej, Sessock, and Xavier transfer Jansen Miller. Along with Maher and Munie, the Hoosiers possess a formidable and layered defense.
“It wasn’t a shock; they knew when we finished the spring this was something that was not just for the spring,” Yeagley said. “It was who was coming in, who we had already in the team and we also have some older players that can play positions they couldn't have played as a freshman or sophomore.”
Yeagley admitted the midfield still required some tweaking. But three preseason exhibition matches demonstrate an excellent opportunity to showcase the team's depth and functionality. Indiana welcomes DePaul for the first exhibition this Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Due to field maintenance on Jerry Yeagley Field, the match will be held on the practice field next door to Bill Armstrong Stadium. Fans are welcome to attend, according to an IU press release, but must watch from behind the fenced perimeter. It's perhaps a less scenic view than usual, but still, the same gradual beginning of Indiana's quest for its ninth championship.