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Louisville Soccer eyes NCAA Tournament Elite 8

The UMBC Retrievers will come to Lynn Stadium on Sunday with two big upsets under their belt, but Louisville should be up to the challenge on their home field.

Jeff Reinking, Louisville Athletics

Louisville Soccer Game NotesNCAA Interactive Bracket

This week/weekend will be an overload of all that is good in the world. Thanksgiving, Black Friday, football against Kentucky and NCAA Tournament soccer are all part of it, and I'm excited. First of all, Turkey is delicious. Beating Kentucky in any sport is probably better than turkey and Black Friday combined, and a trip to a national quarterfinal for Louisville soccer would be a nice way to put a bow on the beginning of the holiday season.

Sunday evening, the Cards will take on the UMBC (University of Maryland, Baltimore County) Retrievers at Lynn Stadium as they look to inch closer to a College Cup bid. We mentioned earlier in the week that the winner of this match will play either 12th-seeded Creighton or unseeded Xavier in the Elite Eight. We'll keep our fingers crossed for Xavier in the event of a Louisville win, since that would give the Cards one more home game before the College Cup (Final Four).

To get started, here's what we know about the Retrievers...

UMBC are the America East Champions after going undefeated in the conference and winning their postseason tournament to reach the NCAA Tournament. To date, their record is 13-5-4. The Retrievers entered the tournament with an RPI of 50, but pulled off a couple of upsets to get to Louisville.

In the first round, they beat Wake Forest in Winston Salem in penalty kicks after playing the Deacs to a 0-0 tie through two overtimes. They followed that performance with an even more impressive outing last weekend in College Park, where they beat fifth-seeded Maryland 1-0.

Three fun facts about UMBC: The school was founded in 1966. Their mascot is a Chesapeake Bay Retriever (the state dog of Maryland), and his name is True Grit. The men's soccer team's current run to the Sweet 16 is the deepest run of any of their teams in an NCAA Division I tournament. Yes, the mascot's name is True Grit.

So far, I have a tremendous amount of respect for anyone who has A) Beat Maryland and Wake Forest at their respective stadiums and B) Has a mascot named True Grit. Let's keep going.

The Retrievers are led in the goal-scoring category by senior forward Kay Banjo (that's it, UMBC is my favorite opponent of all time), who has scored eight goals and assisted on five others for a team-leading total of 20 points on the season. Following him in the goals category are senior midfielders Mamadou Kansaye and Geaton Caltabiano who have netted four goals apiece and have combined for an additional seven assists on the year. Finally, senior defender Oumar Ballo is listed at #32 on Top Drawer Soccer's MLS Draft Big Board.

Of the eight UMBC players that have started 20 or more games this season, seven of them are seniors and the other is a junior. Like most other sports, this is a fairly typical thing to see from a team from mid-major team that had to win its conference to reach the NCAA Tournament. The Retrievers are an experienced bunch that has played together for a long time, which is always dangerous in a win-or-go-home scenario. Louisville will certainly have their work cut out for them.

With that said, Ken Lolla and his staff will all but certainly preach to their team that this game will hinge more on how effectively Louisville can stay focused and play their brand of soccer than the tactical challenges presented by UMBC. As always, it's probably safe to say that they'll use possession to their advantage and try to make the Retrievers chase them around the field.

An early goal may not necessarily be in the cards, but Louisville's high-pressure style usually creates fatigue by the second half, meaning spaces to play and attack will open up as the game wears on. When that happens, Louisville's attacking group can be even more dangerous. The usual suspects will apply here, as Ricardo Velazco, Tim Kubel, Andrew Brody and others will be looking to take advantage of those bigger pockets of space to play in.

Finally, the Cards have been tested by a much tougher schedule this season and have plenty of talent and senior leadership of their own. On top of all of that, they'll be playing at home, where they have been hard to beat in past NCAA Tournaments.

It's hard to give a prediction without having a lot of access to watching UMBC, but it will probably be a hard-fought and physical game that will be close on the scoreboard. Again, the UMBC mascot's name is True Grit, and the Retrievers will certainly need plenty of grit to leave Louisville with a victory. Louisville will like their chances in this one, and they should. They obviously also know that UMBC won't shy away from the moment and is more than capable of pulling off big road upsets.

Like we've said before, this will be a good time. UMBC will bring a battle to Lynn Stadium, and the home team will certainly benefit from a good, loud crowd. So far, there's a 50% chance of rain, but the temperature should be fairly comfortable in the high 50's/low 60's. Remember, there's a big roof over the chair-back seats at Lynn, so if you're free Sunday evening, don't let the rain scare you away. 

Here's to Cardinal victories and holiday cheer across the board this weekend. On Monday, we'll recap the evening at Lynn and hopefully celebrate an Elite Eight berth.