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From the World Cup to the College Cup

A report on the state of the beautiful game, and a preview of what's to come for a new era of Louisville Men's Soccer.

The United States may not be what the rest of the world would call a "soccer nation" yet. Realistically, "Football" may never be a sport that Americans pack some of our nation’s largest stadiums for (except for when they do). But this summer did something for the beautiful game in this country.

The World Cup captivated millions of Americans, many of whom had little to no interest in soccer before the tournament. An unofficial hunch says there there have been few sporting events in American history for which people have gathered in public in droves all over the country to watch. It’s certainly never happened for soccer.

So it’s fitting for Ken Lolla and the Louisville Cardinals that in the aftermath of a wildly entertaining World Cup in Brazil, they enter the newest and biggest era the program has ever seen.

"The timing is great," said Lolla on Wednesday at the team’s media day. "With the momentum of the World Cup, there’s a genuine excitement for the sport. We hope that continues into our season with bigger ACC teams coming into our stadium. And in another four years, I think there will be a bigger wave and more momentum for the sport."

Four years from now will undoubtedly be another time for celebration of the growth of American soccer, but for Louisville soccer, that time is right now. The growth of the program has gotten Louisville to a point where a dream stadium by college soccer standards now stands very real on Floyd Street.

Lolla wasn’t exaggerating when he said on Wednesday that his Louisville Cardinals are entering the best conference in college soccer in the best stadium in college soccer in 2014. Lynn Stadium is an incredible testament to not just the vastness of the Louisville athletic department, but to where the game is in our country today. When asked which other college stadiums compare to Louisville, Lolla and his players had a simple answer.

"None."

Around this time last year, ESPN soccer commentator Taylor Twellman spoke at Louisville Men’s Soccer’s first ever kickoff banquet. During a truly fascinating question and answer session, he was asked a general question about just how big the game of soccer is getting in the United States, and he summed it up this way:

"We’re sitting in a sold-out ballroom in Louisville, Kentucky talking about a $18.5 million soccer-specific stadium being built for a college program. I think that about sums up how far we’ve come in this country."

He’s right. If you step back and think about it that way, that a college program whose only local "coast" is the Ohio River now boasts the best facility in the nation, it really is incredible.

The accomplishments of the program to date are fairly incredible, too. Six former Cardinals are active on MLS sides. Two of those six – Andrew Farrell and Austin Berry – have already had bobblehead nights in their honor (important). Louisville has been to three elite eights in the past four years, reaching the College Cup final in 2010. It has won four regular season conference titles and a conference tournament since 2009.

It’s a relatively recent history of success, but it has created a culture of success and high expectations for a Louisville program that aims for a College Cup (being held this year in Cary, N.C.) every year. 2014 will be no different, and the spotlight will certainly shine brighter on this campaign thanks to newness of the ACC and Lynn Stadium.

Identifying with the United States as an American seemed like the natural thing to do when the World Cup came along this summer. This fall, identifying with this Louisville soccer squad as a Louisville fan can be just as easy. So, hand-egg-loving Cardinal fans, let’s get to it. Here’s the authoritative (well, sorta) look at what could make Louisville "football" one of the best teams in the country this season.

The Coaches

Head Coach Ken Lolla is not only a man of great integrity and character. He’s a leader in sideline style that could likely make even the classiest European bosses jealous. More importantly, he’s a former NSCAA Coach of the Year who has led Louisville to all of its seven trips to the NCAA tournament en route a career record of 99-47-23 at the school. Associate Head Coach Mario Sanchez joins Lolla’s staff for his fifth season at Louisville after a summer that included two stints with the United States U-17 youth national team. Lolla has heralded Sanchez on multiple occasions for his tactical expertise and coaching ability, and it shows in how Louisville trains and plays.

The Back Four/Goalkeeper

The Cardinal defense will start with the leadership provided by two of the team’s three captains in center back Daniel Keller and German goalkeeper Joachim Ball. Both seniors, Keller and Ball talked about their chemistry on media day, which should go a long way in setting the tone for the entire group. Keller, who has experience as a center back and a defensive midfielder, will be a steady force both on the ball and in the air to anchor the back line.

In 2013, true freshmen Michael DeGraffenreidt and Taylor Curtis started 17 games apiece and performed at a high level. They’ll be back as sophomores along with junior outside back Jerry Ramirez. Joining the group this season is German international and freshman Tim Kubel, who Lolla mentioned as a potential contributor at right back.

In Ball, the Cardinals return one of the nation’s best keepers who saved over 80% of the shots he faced in just over 1,700 minutes (19 starts) last season. Experience and cohesiveness is key in the back, and this team will have both.

The Midfield/Attack

A hallmark of Louisville’s style of play is an emphasis on possession that is rare in college soccer. Lolla talked Wednesday about the World Cup’s top sides (Germany, Holland, etc.) dominating possession this summer, and if you spend five minutes watching Louisville, you’ll notice a similar effort. It’s not rare for the Cardinals to have 75% of the ball or better in any given match, and it’s a critical part of how they’ll look to create chances.

Helping to regulate that possession will be captain Nolan Moore and sophomore Romi Hernandez, who both spent time in holding/defensive midfield roles in 2013. Both have the technical ability to both defend and link the back four to the attack, which is critical to any team’s success regardless of shape.

It’s a simple principle, but if the Cardinals keep the ball, their opponents won’t and in turn will have limited chances to score. From there, midfield talent and versatility will need to create scoring chances, and there is plenty of ability in this year’s group to do just that.

Louisville returns a powerful battery in the attack. In many ways, the midfield and forward positions can be interchangeable on this Cardinal side, with multiple players capable of handling the load "up top" as a forward or in the midfield.

Likely to be featured in the wide midfield for Louisville are junior Ben Strong and sophomore Andrew Brody, both of whom are capable of taking on defenders individually and pressing the attack into the final third. As a freshman in 2013, Brody earned the team’s second-highest points total with eight assists and three goals, making him a player to keep an eye on heading into this season.

Senior Will Vitalis and junior Ricardo Velazco will anchor the center of the Louisville attack, and are the two most likely players to be seen atop the Cardinal formation. The return of Vitalis brings excitement to the coaching staff and his teammates alike, as Lolla described his ability as "special" while Velazco more simply called it "awesome."

Velazco led Louisville in points last year with team highs in goals (7) and assists (9), and with Vitalis on the way to play as another forward or attacking midfielder, the duo could prove to be one of the best scoring forces in the country by season’s end. A freshman forward to watch is Papy Diouf, a native of Dakar, Senegal. Who else is from Senegal, you ask? Soccer Gorgui, that’s who.

"Our front four are incredible," said Velazco on Wednesday. "The creativity up front is crazy, and it’s going to be dynamic. We’re similar, but different at the same time. Will (Vitalis) is such a complete player, so smooth on the ball, and he makes everyone better."

If there’s an intangible that always seems to describe Louisville Soccer, it’s a friendship and togetherness that brings a talented team together. It showed in flashes on media day, and it’s even more apparent to anyone who has watched the team train.

The fundamental concept of teamwork will certainly be important as the Cardinals embark on perhaps their toughest schedule ever (seen in full here). From the opening game against the second-ranked Maryland Terrapins to an in-conference battle with familiar foe and top-ranked Notre Dame, 2014 is littered with challenges. With a higher degree of difficulty comes an opportunity to be in excellent position for post-season seeding, an added incentive to produce in the regular season.

Louisville enters the season ranked 14th in the NSCAA Coaches’ Poll (seen in full here), a good starting point no matter how irrelevant preseason marks may be. Still, all that matters is the final ranking after the College Cup in December. Perhaps the greatest part of the beginning of the season is that Louisville holds the power to chart their path.

And as some of humanity’s greatest leaders like Voltaire, Spiderman's Uncle Ben, and, as of Wednesday, Cardinal center back Daniel Keller have famously uttered...

"With great power comes great responsibility."

To borrow a phrase from the Men in Blazers, world famous soccer podcasters and purveyors of suboptimal radio, #NoSleepTilCary.