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A few new faces, all familiar goals for Louisville soccer in 2015

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Louisville men's soccer kicks off its 2015 season tonight at Lynn Stadium. Card Chronicle's second annual soccer season preview breaks it all down.

GoCards.com soccer media day coverageCoach Lolla previews opening night

Since Louisville's trip to the College Cup final in 2010, each season has opened with the goal of winning a national championship. You shouldn't be surprised, then, to hear that that's the aim of this season's squad. And like every year that's followed the magical run of 2010, there's no question that Louisville — ranked No. 18 in the preseason — has the talent to get there again.

Head coach Ken Lolla has hinted throughout this preseason that his 2015 team may require a bit of patience before it really hits its stride. When Card Chronicle caught up with Lolla on Wednesday, he echoed that sentiment.

"By no means are we a finished product right now," said Lolla. "We're still trying to figure out a little bit of shape, but we're also figuring out best spots for guys."

To recap, Louisville fell in the Sweet 16 last season to Cinderella story UMBC, who went on to beat Creighton for a College Cup berth. As the Cards learned the hard way more than once last season, anything can happen in the postseason. Those lessons won't soon be forgotten as the team heads into another tough slate of games both inside and out of the ACC schedule.

"We have some significant guys that have played in very important games for us, and they're no longer young," said Lolla. "Having experience in the junior class, even though we don't have a lot of seniors, we have a more mature group."

If you take a look at some of the departures from a year ago, that there may be a transition period early in the season makes a lot of sense. Goalkeeper Joakim Ball, center back Daniel Keller and forward Ricardo Velazco have all moved on, leaving room and a need for impactful players all over the field.

There's plenty of time for growth, but make no mistake; the veterans who return won't be content to not get results while the team gels. And for the record, there's far too much talent returning to the roster for the Cards to see any sort of serious regression at the beginning of the season. Let's take a look at who will be responsible for carrying the torch, how they'll do it and more.

The shape

There was talk at media day of Louisville utilizing a 3-5-2 shape this season. That may sound familiar to those who have followed the U.S. Men's National Team following the World Cup. Given Louisville's versatility and midfield depth, it may be a good way to showcase some strengths of this season's group.

"The idea was to get another forward in the attack and look at how many players we have experience-wise and where their strengths are," said Lolla.

It's important to note, though, that Lolla isn't ready to announce the new shape as a sure thing.

"I would tell you that we're still evolving," Lolla said Wednesday. "Are we married to it? No, and there might be times that if we're not playing in that shape, that we will in certain situations. It's been a benefit preseason, and we'll see how productive we can maintain it and keep moving in that direction."

Confused? Here's the gist of the 3-5-2 (a good diagram is here):

It's composed of three central(ish) defenders, five midfielders and two forwards. The general idea is putting more attack-minded players in better spaces to, well, attack. The obvious drawback is that some of those midfielders — particularly the outside midfielders or wingbacks — have to pull double duty when getting back behind the opposing team's attack. Let's look at why this might work for Louisville.

The returnees

Ben Strong

A shifty and speedy senior midfielder who fits into the picture as a wingback or an attacking midfielder that sits just behind the two forwards in a 3-5-2.

Romi Hernandez

A steadying force in the middle of the park. Hernandez has excellent feet and the ability to facilitate in the midfield. Likely fits in as one of two "holding" midfielders in a 3-5-2.

Andrew Brody

Like Strong, Brody's extremely dangerous with shifty feet and a knack for running at defenders with purpose. He's a goal-scoring threat that also showed last season how good he can be finding others in the final third.

Tim Kubel

One of the linchpins if Louisville sticks with a 3-5-2 look. Incredibly dangerous on the wings, Kubel is one of the best Louisville has at providing good service into the box. He's also a sound defender. Lolla on Kubel's impact on the 3-5-2 shape:

"His versatility absolutely helps. And we'll see as the season goes on how much that really benefits the team."

Mike DeGraffenreidt

Extremely gifted athlete, which makes him a fixture in Louisville's back three/four as a center back. On top of the speed, he's a disciplined and smart defender with good feet. One of Louisville's better guys regardless of position.

Jack Gayton

Injury held him out of the start of the season, but he's a taller midfielder with a strong pedigree coming out of the Real Salt Lake Academy a la Brody and Ricardo Velazco. His talent should be on display this season, perhaps as the other holding mid next to Hernandez.

Shane Campbell

Injury hampered the Penn State transfer's first year with Louisville, but he's back as a senior that could be a part of the "back three" or perhaps a wingback. He saw time as an outside back last season when Louisville played with four defenders in the back, and his ability to help in the attack can't go unrecognized.

Louie Berra

The former Ohio State transfer was a starter in the holding midfield throughout the 2014 season. He's got great feet and is also a good bet to see significant time in a holding role again this season.

The newcomers

Daniel Johnson

A Maryland transfer who joins Louisville as a junior. He scored in Louisville's first exhibition game and should fit into the starting 11 up top right away. Lolla mentioned that he's "driven to have an impact" with Louisville.

Dear NCAA, tournament matchup with Maryland, please. Thanks.

Danny Reynolds

The true freshman joins Louisville from England and likely fits into the starting 11 as well after starting all three preseason games. A 6-1 defender, he's a perfect candidate to help anchor a back three/four.

Theo Jamilloux

A junior transfer from Florida Atlantic, the French international started two of Louisville's three preseason games. Nick Jeffs also saw significant time in goal this preseason, but a hunch says Jamilloux will be the starter.

Tate Schmitt

We mentioned the Real Salt Lake academy earlier. Schmitt is the latest arrival from the West, following Velazco, Brody and Gayton.

"Simply, RSL is one of the best with their setup, their coaches and how they develop players," said Lolla.

Whether or not he starts right out of the gate (he did in all three preseason games), Schmitt will have an impact this season up top as a freshman forward.

Max Steigwardt

Freshman midfielder who played with U.S. U-14 and U-15 national teams.

Ethan Vanacore-Decker

Junior UConn transfer who scored six goals as a forward for the Huskies last season.

Home games you can't miss

1. #8 Stanford — Aug. 31, 7:30 p.m

Two words: Jordan Morris.

2. Kentucky (Rec. votes) — Sept. 8, 7:30 p.m.

Remember when Kentucky soccer tried to claim Abe Lincoln last season? Yeah, that didn't go well.

3. #22 St. Louis — Sept. 15, 7:00 p.m.

Always a tough matchup for Louisville, the Billikens have another strong squad this season.

4. UConn (RV) — Oct. 13, 7:00 p.m.

Hello there, old (Big East) friend.

5. Wake Forest (RV) — Oct. 30, 7:00 p.m.

Plenty of history at Wake. The Deacons are always a tough opponent.

*It's also important to note that while Louisville isn't on the road much this season, almost every road trip will be big. Road opponents this season include: Syracuse (#15), Ohio State (RV), Virginia (#2), Clemson (#11), Indiana (#14) and North Carolina (#5).

TL;DR

Louisville's schedule is absolutely loaded this season thanks to the ACC and some tough out-of-conference scheduling. A strong showing against that slate will mean great things for the Cards when it comes time for the ACC and NCAA Tournament draws. The Cards have the horses to get it done, especially if they continue to gel. Head coach Ken Lolla likes the chances of that happening given the character of this particular group.

Ben Strong, Andrew Brody, Romi Hernandez and Tim Kubel headline the group of veterans returning this season. Hernandez is a steadying force in the middle of the park as a holding midfielder and will more than likely be responsible for plenty of important links between the back four (or three) and the attack.

That's where dangerous midfielders like Brody and Strong and some new faces up top (Maryland transfer Daniel Johnson and freshman Tate Schmitt, to name a couple) come into play. Finally, don't forget Kubel, who proved himself as both a goal-scoring/attacking threat despite his position as an outside back. His versatility is critical and will be on display once again this season.

In a sentence: A tough road awaits, but Louisville once again has the talent, experience and leadership to go far.

"We have a massive amount of room to grow," noted Lolla. "We're not even scratching our potential right now."

Another exciting soccer season is upon us. Enjoy year two of the beautiful Lynn Stadium.