An Experienced Cast Eyes the Next Step
Aug. 20, 2012
It was a term that had been discussed often within the confines of the Villanova Soccer Family. So much so that when it finally came to pass, those who helped engineer it weren't quite sure how to react.
Breakthroughs are funny that way.
For the better part of two decades, the Villanova Men's Soccer program dealt with a simple, albeit unpleasant fact - for as many strides forward as it had made, particularly in the last four seasons, there was nary a post-season victory to celebrate.
That all changed on a chilly November night at Notre Dame. Four days, later the Wildcats added another post-season triumph, this one over No. 5 ranked USF. And just like that, Villanova's winless post-seasons were a historical footnote.
"We've talked about the breakthrough for the last five years," notes Villanova head coach Tom Carlin, who begins his fifth season at the helm when the Wildcats visit Manhattan on Aug. 24. "That was the breakthrough for us. We had the fact we had not won a BIG EAST playoff game on our shoulders for a while. It was a mental block for this team. We were able to break through that, at Notre Dame, which is one of the most storied programs in the country.
"Once we got that win, there was a sense of relief. Whatever barrier we had as a program was lifted. From then on, that group believed more than it ever had before. We've gone from asking, `can we do it?' to knowing that we can. I believe that confidence will be a springboard for all of our guys."
The opportunity to build on the late-season momentum created by the Wildcats' march to the BIG EAST semifinals at Red Bull Arena is nearly upon us. Optimism is running high for a program that returns 10 of 11 starters while welcoming a gifted crop of newcomers that should further enhance the squad's depth and athleticism.
Carlin and his staff spent much of the spring season reinforcing the message that, for all of the gains made, November's progress guarantees nothing in the new campaign.
"It was very nice that we won two BIG EAST playoff games," Carlin states. "But our overall body of work for the season was not what we wanted it to be. We weren't an NCAA caliber team and that's a level we are striving to reach. We don't want to rest on our laurels.
"I think our guys know that. I trust the leadership of this team and I trust the commitment that they have made to using this as a springboard to where we want to be."
One significant advantage over past years is the depth of talent on the 2012 roster. Outside back Kevin Garcia is the only missing starter and the graduated Matt Margiotta is the only subtraction among the important reserves from `11. But with the additions of a promising freshman class and the improved health of some of those who confronted injuries a season ago, the lineup should be a measureable asset.
"It is all set up for us to handle the kind of adversity we have faced the last few years," Carlin notes.
Injuries did much to contribute to the inconsistency that hindered Villanova during the 2011 regular season. Leading scorer Dylan Renna was idled by spring hip surgery and missed the first three contests. Chris Bresnahan, a three-year starter in goal, missed the entire campaign with his own hip surgery. Chris Christian, a central defensive mainstay, went down with his third ACL injury in his career seven games into the campaign.
"There is a lot of experience coming back," says Carlin, "and you can't teach that. We think the experience we have gained and minutes we have logged will lead to consistency."
All of that wisdom should allow the Wildcats to take a more aggressive approach. Where in the recent past, Villanova was more of a conservative counter-attack unit, its confidence and experience should translate to more scoring opportunities.
"We were good at hanging in against teams that weren't necessarily expecting us to be good," says Carlin. "Now we have to make the step to where we have the mindset that we are the aggressors, we are the kind of Big East team where our opponent is looking at hanging on. Soccer is a cruel game but we have to go out to seek to win the games rather than hang on to win the games.
"We are talented enough to play like that."
That approach should boost an offense that would like to enhance an attack that averaged 1.1 goals per game and relieve some of the heat on a defense that should be among the BIG EAST's best.
Villanova's top returning forward is the junior Renna, who despite zero preseason training time in the summer of `11, still contributed three goals and six assists for a team-best 12 points. It was Renna's play along the sideline that set up teammate Aaron Dennis for the goal that proved to be the difference at No. 18 Notre Dame.
"This is a big year for Dylan," Carlin states. "He has played well for us through some big-time injuries. How he has been on the field for as much time as he has is a credit to his determination. Now he's healthy, and there is an expectation that he can be the guy. The team is ready for him to be the guy. He understands that and is excited about the opportunity."
Renna's synergy with senior Kyle Soroka looms as a significant part of the Villanova offensive attack. Soroka ended the year with five goals, though injuries to others limited his time in the attacking portion of the field. After using Soroka in the defensive midfield to help offset the loss of Christian, the decision was made prior to a home game against St. John's on Oct. 19 that he was most valuable in an attacking position. His two goals that day helped upend St. John's and he thrived alongside Renna the rest of the way.
"We used the two of them together in the spring and they are now in synch with each other and what needs to happen," explains Carlin. "That's an important combination for us."
Villanova will also look to sophomore forward Dennis, who contributed five goals and an assist. In spring play, Dennis looked to have taken another step towards being a force up front.
"Aaron Dennis was our most dangerous player in the spring," states Carlin. "He's a guy you can rely on to put pressure on opposing defenses. He can beat you on the first step and he's learned how to play off Renna and Soroka."
Senior Alec Weiss brings superior speed after overcoming injuries earlier in his career and often brings an energy boost to the forwards off the bench. Hayden Harr started seven times at forward as a rookie, contributing one goal and a pair of assists. Junior Danny Gonzalez has been a rotation regular in each of his first two seasons on campus.
"All three of those guys have had their moments," says Carlin. "It's just a matter how they blend in and complement those three in the attacking part of the field. We're going to call on all of them to give us a spark."
Newcomer Kye West should add a new dimension to the attack as well, perhaps playing out wide on the right side.
"Kye is fast, athletic and can get after if 1 vs. 1," Carlin states.
Freshman Dami Adetola also will have a chance to make a mark up front. "Dami is also athletic and a dependable two-way guy," adds Carlin.
Joining them in the mix up front is another freshman, Brandon Thompson, whom Carlin describes as "dynamic and athletic with a lot of potential. He just has to figure out the speed of play at this level."
Senior Emerson Lawrence and sophomore Oscar Umar loom as critical pieces to the midfield. Lawrence moved up after spending his first two seasons as a starter on the backline and contributed four goals in 2011. Umar was a revelation, a talented distributor from Ghana who added two goals and four assists while garnering recognition as a member of the BIG EAST All-Rookie team.
"By the end of last year, Oscar and Emo really started to connect," notes Carlin. "That was a big ingredient in our success late in the year. In the spring, they began to look for each other and find one another. They are going to be the guys to ignite things to allow our attacking guys to be dangerous. We will rely on those two in a big way."
Umar stepped into a key midfield role as a freshman and this year another novice, Sean Sheridan, could do the same either in the midfield or on the outside of the back four. This product of Neshaminy High School brings the kind of tools that should make an impact from his first day in the blue and white uniform.
"Sean is very good on the ball," explains Carlin. "He can pass in the short range or long-range. As a left-footer he is very dynamic when he needs to be and he has the kind of toughness defensively that is so important in the Big East. Even as a young player, he plays with a fearlessness that you can't teach."
Also on hand to lend support in the midfield are returnees Nik Lyon, J.T. Maurer and Adam Santoro. This group saw limited action in 2011 but could find their way to additional minutes in the new season.
The backbone of Villanova, as it has been for much of the past decade, is its central defense. These spots will again be manned by McCarthy, a three-year starter, and Will Cason, a junior who stepped into the lineup when Christian was first injured in 2010 and has helped maintain the group's consistent level of success.
McCarthy spent much of his first two plus seasons in the defensive midfield before the injury to Christian last September opened up a void in the central defense. After a period of adjustment, McCarthy and Cason took control of the area and were especially effective down the stretch. Carlin and his staff expect that to continue in the new season.
"They were both very consistent for us down the stretch," Carlin states. "They took pride in keeping other teams off the board. Kyle is in his second year at that spot and I think both he and Cason have gained a lot of confidence."
Another returning starter is outside back Ryan Whalen, a senior who has been a fixture there for the last two seasons.
"Whalen's been a great complement to Cason and Kyle on the outside," Carlin states.
Opposite Whalen on the outside should be either sophomore Matt Wiltse, Sheridan or another rookie, Liam Callahan, from Amherst, N.Y. One of those three figures to fill the gap left by the departure of Garcia, who was selected in the MLS supplemental draft last January by the New England Revolution.
"Liam also has that combination of toughness and skill that should allow him to help us early in his career," says Carlin. "Wiltse has been a productive player for us and now has a year of Big East soccer under his belt."
Wiltse appeared in 19 games last season, often stepping into the defensive midfield or into an outside position on the backline. Ryan Quane is a dependable senior who can contribute on defense as well. Juniors Adetomiwa Adewole, Scott Keogh and sophomore Colton Bryant offer other options in front of the `Cats own goal.
"We feel like we have a lot of quality back there," says Carlin.
In 2011, the major question confronting the Wildcats was in goal. When Bresnahan was lost for the season, VU had only two goalies on the roster, neither of whom had logged a minute of BIG EAST action. However, John Fogarty stepped into the void and answered those questions with an outstanding season. He started all 21 games and posted an 0.95 goals against average to go with a .824 save percentage. He was credited with eight shutouts.
"Fogs' really embraced his opportunity," says Carlin. "He's always worked hard and it was rewarding to see him emerge as a high-quality Big East goalie. He made some mistakes early but he kept battling and really was terrific for us down the stretch."
The red-shirt senior looms as the mainstay in goal as the cumulative injuries suffered by Bresnahan over the past few seasons have forced him off of the active roster and to the sidelines, where he will remain a part of the program as a graduate student assistant.
Two young keepers represent Villanova's future in net. Andrew Weakly served as principal understudy to Fogarty in 2011 and will vie for that distinction again with freshman Casey DeFluri. Both have bright futures and should be in position to carry the load when Fogarty completes his eligibility at season's end.
For now, though, the focus is building on the momentum of November.
The Wildcats feel they have made a breakthrough.
Now, it's time to see where it all leads.