Aug 27, 2013
Prior to the start of August training for the 2013 season, Villanova head men's soccer coach Tom Carlin likened the competition among the Wildcats to a "proving ground."
While the past three weeks of training have helped clear the picture some, the fact is that this young roster is likely to keep evolving well beyond Friday evening's opener at New Mexico.
"We had some injuries that slowed the progress of some guys," notes Carlin of the August run-up to the season. "The biggest thing is that we learned a ton about this team and how we can put our guys in the best position to succeed.
"I think our lineups will continue to evolve."
Renna led the Wildcats in scoring in both 2010 and '11 as he spent most of his time positioned at forward. In 2012, he was utilized more as more of a creator than finisher and was still an important presence. That point was underscored when he was selected to the pre-season All-BIG EAST team.
Gonzalez is a jack-of-all trades who has been a solid contributor and starter, mainly in the defensive midfield though he has seen time at forward too.
"Danny and Dylan are the seniors," notes Carlin. "They are the guys who have been with the program and get what we do. They know what it takes to be successful here. We are going to draw on them."
Two other seasoned performers, Aaron Dennis and Oscar Umar, will also be asked to set a tone as juniors. Both have been starters since the outset of their freshmen year and have offered significant contributions. Umar was selected third team All-BIG EAST in 2012 on the strength of a four goal, three assist effort and is a pre-season All-BIG EAST first team choice in 2013.
"Aaron and Oscar are huge for us," adds Carlin. "They are going to be called on to lead."
The Wildcats have more proven point producers, led by Renna (9 career goals and 13 career assists), Umar (six career goals and seven career assists) and Dennis (seven career goals), than at any point in recent memory even when the loss of 2012 leading scorer Kyle Soroka is factored into the equation. Another junior, forward Hayden Harr, has accumulated nine points in his first two seasons and has demonstrated a knack for scoring significant goals.
Renna and Harr both figure to log major minutes at forward. They will be supplemented by Dennis and Umar in the attacking midfield.
There is also a tantalizing crop of new arrivals that will have an opportunity to make their presence felt. Freshmen Max Kroschwitz and Padraic McCullaugh started alongside Renna in the first scrimmage of the season against Drexel (a 1-1 draw resulted in that one with McCullaugh notching the Wildcat goal).
"Max scored a lot of goals for his club team and he's got the ability to finish in big-time situations," notes Carlin. "Padraic has great size and may have been our most pleasant surprise of camp. Harr has scored some big goals for us over the last two years."
Sophomores Kye West and Damilola Adetola bring speed to the frontline and will allow the coaching staff to create a different look to contrast with the ample size offered by Renna, Harr and McCullaugh. Versatile senior Adetomiwa Adewole saw time as a reserve on the frontline last season and is an option up front. Freshman John Jlopleh demonstrated a knack for scoring as a club player in Baltimore and will work to carve a niche here.
"This is as deep as our attack has been since I've been here," says Carlin. "We have a lot of options. How those options pan out remains to be seen. We have an arsenal of attacking players that we can draw from.
"We have the ability to play to certain matchups and field conditions. If a team is physical, we can come at them one way. If a team is smaller and skilled, we can find another way to break them down. If we see a weakness on tape, we'll have the ability to take advantage of those matchups."
One thing is clear - the more aggressive push toward goal that Villanova fans saw in 2012 will continue in 2013. The Wildcats generated 34 goals in 20 games last season, a 13-goal improvement over 2011 when they advanced to the BIG EAST Championship semi-final.
"We want to possess the ball and play at a high tempo," states Carlin.
The midfield will obviously be a key to that. Umar looms large in this area as he works as a distributor and facilitator with the ability to score on his own when the opportunity presents itself. Dennis will also be a part of the midfield as will sophomore Sean Sheridan, who earned BIG EAST All-Rookie accolades a year ago while starting every game in his debut season.
"Those guys will connect things for us and ignite the attack," Carlin says.
Chris Hill, who transferred to Villanova after starting 12 times at Richmond as a freshman last season, has a chance to make an impact in the midfield as does freshman Eric McKenna. Other possibilities through the middle include junior J.T. Maurer, sophomore Kyle Burnett and freshmen Fabian Gonzalez and Frank Russomano. It's also likely that some of the candidates up front, such as Gonzalez, West and Adetola, will log minutes in the midfield too.
The area of the field where the Wildcats have the least experience is on the back wall and in goal. The entire back four will have a new look after the departures of three veterans and Sheridan's move to the midfield.
"That is the biggest area that we have to solidify," Carlin notes. "We have some talented guys who are getting an opportunity."
Sophomore Liam Callahan would have been a returning starter as an outside back this year were it not for a knee injury that limited him to three games last season. Sheridan filled that void at left back last year after his classmate was hurt so Callahan's return should bolster two positions.
"Having Liam back there is going to be a huge help," notes Carlin.
"We really like Willis," states Carlin. "He is a good passer of the ball, has good mobility and is a leader. Colton had a great spring and has really grown as a player."
Michael Manta, who transferred after a solid freshman season at Lehigh, also will have a role, either on the back wall or in the defensive midfield.
"Manta comes from a Villanova family and he was Lehigh's projected starter at center back so we look for him to help us as he gets settled here," says Carlin.
Junior Matt Wiltse, who appeared in 30 games as a key reserve for the Wildcats in his first two seasons, earned the starting assignment at right back in the two preseason scrimmages (VU and West Virginia played to a scoreless draw on Aug. 23) and will see time there and in the midfield.
"We want to take advantage of Wiltse's versatility," says Carlin.
Hill is another viable candidate at right back as well and it's also possible Adewole could be used here as the Wildcats look to fill the gap created by the graduation of another key 2012 senior, Ryan Whalen.
John Fogarty, who was rock solid in goal for Villanova as the starter for the last two seasons, must be replaced as well. That duty will likely fall to one of three candidates: Fogarty's former understudy Andrew Weakly, who got the start in the scrimmage against Drexel; freshman Will Steiner, who also saw action against the Dragons; or Michael Barr, another freshman, who kept West Virginia off the board after earning the start in the second scrimmage.
Weakly's work in the pre-season appears to have given him an edge in this important positional battle.
"Weakly is a big, physical, imposing kind of goalkeeper who's emerged for us in the pre-season," notes Carlin. "Steiner has tons of potential - his emotional presence is great. Barr continues to get better."
It is also worth nothing that the lineup that walks out to open the season against the Lobos could look much different when the regular season concludes at Georgetown on Nov. 8.
"I think this competition is going to go on all season," explains Carlin. "We can go 20 deep and that's a healthy thing - those battles won't end when we start the season. Last year, we had a lot of things written in pen. This year, most of it is written in pencil."
The Wildcats are hopeful that no matter the writing instrument of choice, the final line in the 2013 worksheet lists the program's first ever NCAA Tournament appearance. That's a destination foremost in the mind of players and staff alike on the heels of an impressive five year resurgence that culminated in a 12-6-2 mark a year ago.
"We were close last year," noted Carlin. "It's the one step we have yet to take."
The journey for the 26 Wildcats athletes and four coaches begins at New Mexico.
"The one thing we really demonstrated in the pre-season scrimmages was resiliency," stated Carlin. "We were happy with that."
Camp has ended but the proving ground will continue to be on display, it appears, as these Wildcats seek to carve their own identity.