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Louisville Soccer set to host St. Louis in NCAA Tournament

The Billikens will visit Lynn Stadium trying to duplicate their early season victory over Louisville in the second round of the NCAA Men's Soccer Tournament on Sunday evening.

Jeff Reinking, Louisville Athletics

While Ken Lolla and his team are undoubtedly happy to have earned a national seed and a first round bye entitling them to a home game to start their NCAA Tournament run, the bracket didn't do them a whole ton of favors regarding the rest of the draw. That's because Louisville's second round game will be against St. Louis, who scored early against the Cardinals and held on for a 1-0 victory at Hermann Stadium back in early September.

Things have changed a little since then, as Louisville has found themselves to a degree later in the season despite a disappointing setback in the ACC championship game. The Cards have secured plenty of signature wins between that early September match and now, and they've proven their ability to be a legitimate contender against some of the nation's top teams.

Louisville dominated most of the play when they traveled to St. Louis earlier this season, but lacked the finishing touch and were shut out for one of what would be seven times to date in the rainy road match. That scoring outage has certainly been a concern at times this season, even though the Cards have plenty of talent up top that's capable of scoring goals.

We've talked about the likes of Ricardo Velazco and Ben Strong all year dating back to the preseason, and they've lived up to their billing as two of Louisville's top three point earners. One player that was hard to see coming, though - at least as an attacking player - was Tim Kubel, and he may be the most important piece to the puzzle.

Kubel has consistently been one of Louisville's most dangerous attackers this season from his right back position. His six goals and four assists on the season combine to fall just a point short of the team-leading Velazco (who has tallied six goals and five assists), and he's proven to be absolutely lethal on set pieces.

In tournament play, as we found out the hard way in last weekend's ACC Championship game, set pieces can be absolutely critical. So while Kubel is dangerous in the run of play with his good pace and ability to strike the ball, his ability to provide good service on corners and free kicks could certainly be the difference at any point in this NCAA tournament. It wouldn't be surprising to see him contribute in some fashion to a goal or two on Sunday.

St. Louis will come into Louisville with a 14-4-2 record after defeating Tulsa 2-0 in the first round of NCAA action on Thursday night. They have signature wins over Louisville and Creighton (the Bluejays are the 12th seed in this year's tournament), and will enter Sunday's game as the 19th-ranked team in the country in the most recent NSCAA poll.

The Billikens are led by a trio of pro prospects that is headlined by forward Robert Kristo. Kristo leads SLU with a whopping 14 goals on the season (the second best total in the country), and has also tacked on a pair of assists for a total of 30 points. Behind him on the field will be midfielder Kingsley Bryce and defender Anthony Manning, who have accounted for point totals of 16 and 12 on the season, respectively. All three Billikens were listed within the top 50 of Top Drawer Soccer's MLS Draft Big Board, with Kristo listed as the 14th-best prospect and Manning (#46) and Bryce (#49) following lower on the board.

Like many of the teams Louisville has faced recently, St. Louis has top talent scattered all over the field and can certainly make things hard on the Cardinals just like they did in September. This time, Louisville will have the advantage of playing at home in front of what should be a fairly raucous crowd, which has helped them in postseason play more times than not. Still, Louisville will need to stay disciplined and focused for all 90 minutes to beat a dangerous Billiken team.

Most importantly, this is what it's all about. We've finally arrived at the part of the season that every team plays for. This is the time where there's literally no tomorrow, which makes it both thrilling and terrifying. Kickoff on Sunday is at 6 p.m. at Lynn Stadium, and it would be wonderful to see the place sold out and loud. Be sure to hurry back from South Bend to support the Soccer Cards. This weekend's shaping up to be a pretty big time.