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After a one-year hiatus, Louisville men's soccer is right back in the national title hunt

In addition to getting together with family, gearing up for the Louisville-Kentucky basketball game and watching the Cardinal football team play in a bowl, a recent holiday tradition in the Derby City has become watching Ken Lolla's UofL men's soccer team chase a national title.

Under Lolla, the Louisville program has gone from one which had never qualified for an NCAA Tournament, to one which played in the national championship game in 2010, and advanced to the Round of 16 in two of the three seasons after that. It seemed like only a matter of time before UofL got over the hump and back to the College Cup, which is the soccer equivalent of the Final Four.

Then the 2015 season happened.

Playing in the toughest conference in the country and dealing with a brutal non-conference schedule, the Cardinals finished with a shockingly disappointing mark of 7-9-3. Despite owning an RPI that placed them in the nation's top 25, NCAA soccer has a rule which states that teams must have a .500 record to be able to participate in the NCAA Tournament, which meant Lolla's team would be home for the holidays for the first time since his debut season of 2006.

"Last year was a year that, to be honest with you, we underachieved," Lolla said in August. "And yet we were very close. We were one win away from qualifying for the NCAA Tournament and putting ourselves in a position where we could have made a run. That alone is a really good message for our guys in that there is a very fine line sometimes in being successful and not."

Still, the disappointing season had a ripple effect. Suddenly the Cardinals, who had come within second of winning the ACC Tournament in 2014, were picked in the preseason to finish fifth in the six-team Atlantic Division. Only Pittsburgh, NC State and Virginia Tech received fewer votes from the league's coaches in the preseason poll.

The humbling season and the resulting diminished expectations put Louisville in an underdog role it hadn't known since Lolla's early days on Floyd Street. They have played the part just as well as they did back then.

Sparked by the play of Lexington native Mohamed Thiaw, who leads the nation with six game-winning goals, the Cards have tasted defeat just once in 2016 and are the proud owners of a sparkling 4-0-1 mark. They've toppled No. 16 Virginia, No. 14 Connecticut, No. 3 Syracuse and No. 1 Notre Dame, and have themselves gone from unranked in any preseason ranking all the way up to No. 2 in the current Soccer America top 25.

Perhaps the biggest improvement from the Cards has come on the back end, where the defense has yet to surrender more than one goal in a game, and where goalkeeper Stefan Cleveland -- a graduate transfer from Dartmouth -- has recorded eight shutouts. The team is allowing just 0.32 goals per game, an average which is the best in Division-I.

"It's hard to put into words how much the addition of Stefan has meant," Lolla said "It's been tremendous because he has a maturity to him and a confidence to him, and the players in front of him feel that. He's the one registering the shutouts, but it's been a team effort. The guys in front like Thiaw and the forwards work hard defensively and prevent many opportunities, but he's been awesome when he's been called on to make saves."

The additions of Cleveland and Thiaw -- who transferred in from Cincinnati State Technical and Community College -- as well as a battle-tested roster that includes nine upperclassmen and eight players who started last season have many believing this is Lolla's best shot at a national title since that 2010 season.

With five remaining regular season games, including three against ranked opponents, and the ACC Tournament still left to play, a long-awaited reappearance at the College Cup might not be on the radar of the Cardinal coaches and players just yet. That doesn't means the fans can't get excited about the potential return of a modern holiday staple.

A version of this column runs in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune