Photo by Howard C. Smith/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
Losing a national championship game can be as demoralizing and heartbreaking as any defeat, but when you enjoyed a near-perfect season, there's reason to be optimistic.
That is the case for the University of Louisville, which returns many of its starters from a 2010 season during which it went without a loss until the final game of the year against Akron.
The Cardinals have put that College Cup disappointment behind themselves, and they now look back on last year's 20-1-3 record as something to build on rather than dwell on. They have also turned their focus on returning to the NCAA tournament final and hoisting college soccer's most-prized possession in 2011.
"We're disappointed that that final game we didn't outscore our opponent," said head coach Ken Lolla. "But for looking at the body of work that we did over the course of the season, it was a very positive season, and I think the players view it that way. Right now we continue to get better and improve and get a chance to play in that final game again."
With a list of returning players that includes Colin Rolfe, Austin Berry and Andre Boudreaux, Louisville enters the season as the favorite to win the national championship. The Cardinals were voted No. 1 in the NSCAA preseason poll.
But even with a chunk of last year's successful team making its way back, Louisville will see some changes. One of those will be the style of play, even though the team scored 49 goals and only allowed 19 in 2010.
"It's definitely more possession-oriented," said Rolfe, a finalist for the 2010 Hermann Trophy. "We've definitely been working on keeping the ball and now we're more working on possession with a purpose and finding the right times to go forward and when to maybe bring it back and spread teams out a little bit."
The team will benefit from having Rolfe and Berry return, and not just because of their experience and skill. The two seniors spent part of the summer training with the clubs in Europe, Berry with Orebro and Rolfe with Djurgarden and Fredrikstad.
The two players have nothing but positives to say when asked about their experiences abroad, and both had their eyes opened as to how much work is put into playing the sport professionally.
"Showing up early, getting things done, not just getting there right at practice time, showing up for practice and leaving right after," said Berry, who spent some time with U.S. men's national team midfielder Alejandro Bedoya while training with Orebro. "There's a lot of guys over there that that's their job, and they'll be at practice an hour before to get work in. Then they're at practice with the coaches and then a lot of guys would stick around or come back later, so it's just taking that as an example for myself to see what it takes to be a professional and being able to show that example at practice week in and week out."
Louisville will likely need that and more as it plays a schedule filled with teams in the top 25. The Cardinals begin 2011 with a home game against sixth-ranked UCLA on Saturday, and they then go on a road trip to face unranked but talented Wake Forest followed by the third-ranked team in North Carolina.
The season is littered with stretches of games like that for the Cardinals. In three games in late September-early October, Louisville will face Notre Dame, Connecticut and Indiana, all of which are currently ranked inside the top 17.
"We do have a tough season and in preseason being ranked No. 1, and always going to be ranked high this season, we're going to get everyone's best game," said Berry. "Everyone is always going to be excited and wanting to play the top team, and I think that will only help us to grow as a team: to be able to face solid competition all throughout the year and come tournament time, we are kind of up to speed with the high pressure situations and what it takes to play in games of pretty big magnitude being through that this whole regular season."
To get through the rough schedule and to try and match last year's impressive record, Louisville needs production from its returning players as well as some of the younger guys, like redshirt freshman Manolo Sanchez and sophomore defender/midfielder Andrew Farrell.
Lolla has stressed the importance of having a deep team, as he knows injuries and other factors will help determine how the season plays out. But Lolla is counting on his more experienced players to help carry the load, on and off the field.
"The experienced guys that have been here for a while understand the standard as well as create good habits," said Lolla. "Guys you would expect us to talk about like Austin Berry and Colin Rolfe and Nick DeLeon and Kenney Walker, are guys that have been around for a while and are very experienced and understand what it takes to be successful and create good pictures for our young guys as well."
If any senior is going to be relied upon more than most, it is likely to be Rolfe. The senior forward is an integral a part as any in the Cardinals' offense, especially considering he led the team in goals scored (9) and tied with Walker for the team best in assists (7) last season.
Rolfe doesn't think the team sees him as the main goal-scorer, and he doesn't care if it's him scoring or someone else, as long as the team is winning.
It is that team-oriented mentality that has allowed Louisville to shrug off any lingering disappointment from last year while also helping it to focus on finishing the job in 2011.
"We're shooting for a national championship, just like plenty of other teams around the country," said Rolfe. "But we sat down at the beginning of this preseason and kind of mapped out where we wanted to go and that was definitely the endpoint of where we'd like to be."