When Johan Cedergren took over the Kentucky men’s soccer team in 2011 as only the third coach in the program’s history, he said success, for him, would be all of his players buying into his system.
But UK Athletics Director Mitch Barnhart put it to Cedergren another way.
“What Mitch told me was, that if you want to stay here, you have to make the NCAA Tournament,” Cedergren recalled.
With NCAA Tournament appearances in three of his first four years and a 2015 Conference USA regular season title, Cedergren has accomplished both. His Wildcats enter the 2016 season as the favorites to win the conference again, boasting one of the stingiest defenses in the nation and an attacking midfielder in senior Napo Matsoso who was named preseason C-USA offensive player of the year.
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For Cedergren, who signed a new four-year contract this summer, success still begins with the whole team buying into his scrapping, defending style.
“This is blue collar. This is team before self. This is 90 minutes or more of defending your tail off. If you turn the ball over, I’m going to cover for you. I’m not going to just stand over there and blame you.” Cedergren said as his team got ready for its first preseason game earlier this month. “If you have that mentality, we call it ‘UK attitude,’ we’re not going to go anywhere and be intimidated. When we roll up in our blue bus with UK on the side, we know it’s on.”
That grit translated to a road upset of then-No. 1 Notre Dame in 2014 and an undefeated conference record in C-USA last season. While it might be confusing that the men’s soccer team plays in what some estimate to be a mid-major conference in other sports, consider that the wide-ranging C-USA boasted four top 25 men’s soccer teams last year and includes programs with proud traditions in a sport relatively new to men’s college athletics. Kentucky has only been playing since 1991. C-USA foes South Carolina, Charlotte, Florida International and New Mexico have all made runs to the NCAA championship game in that time.
Winning through frustration
Postgame reports from opponents’ web sites over the last few seasons reveal how frustrating it can be to play Kentucky, which was ninth in the NCAA last year in goals against average (0.60) and 11th in the NCAA in shutout percentage (0.53). Many teams reported that they felt like they were in control of the game. They point to more shots, more corners, more possession.
Kentucky points to the scoreboard.
“We sit back and we’re comfortable with the other team having the ball …” said Cedergren. “And you have to have the right mentality to say that.”
Absorbing the other team’s pressure and thwarting them at the middle of the field and in your own half demands a lot of his players, but that’s where his ‘UK mentality’ kicks in. And then the counterattack is on. UK averaged 1.58 goals per game last season.
“If a team wants to play, and they’re going to open up and they’re going to send both fullbacks, well, then, let them come!” Cedergren said, as he explained how his team often invites its opponents higher and higher up the field. “I don’t want to win the ball right now, because if I win the ball now, there’s six of them I still have to go through (on an offensive attack). If we drop another 20 yards, now there’s three I have to beat, and I have 40 more yards of space. So, that whole ‘Barcelona,’ ‘tiki-taka’ possession (tactic)? Ehhh.
“I’m more about winning games and developing players.”
Who’s gone, who’s back
The Cats graduated two key starters off last year’s 12-5-2 squad in All-American and Canadian national team goalkeeper Callum Irving and holding midfielder Kristoffer Tollefsen. Callum got the accolades, but both were equally important to the team, Cedergren said. Callum now plays professionally in the USL, the United States’ second-tier league. Tollefsen is playing for a second-division team in his native Norway.
“We are all going to miss them, but the good thing about college is that you know when you’re going to lose your guys and you have time to prepare,” Cedergren said.
Part of that is returning a defensive back line comprising seniors Charlie Reymann, Tanner Hummel, Jordan Wilson, a first-team all-conference selection, and Alex Bumpus who’ve played together now for three years and each logged more than 1,400 minutes last season. And they are bolstered by the return of junior defender Kaelon Fox, injured most of last season.
Reymann was part of Cedergren’s second recruiting class and is among seven seniors on the roster. The Cats struggled to an 8-9-2 record his freshman year, the only season Cedergren did not make the NCAAs.
“My freshman year we were trying a bunch of different things and after that offseason it was just a process to figure out how we were going to win,” Reymann said. “That process and that system he put in place, as you can see in the past year, showed success and won a conference title, so that system has paid off.”
Junior Stuart Ford has the No. 1 jersey, but has yet to be named the starting keeper for the Cats. He and fellow junior Braeden Luna split time in the net during Kentucky’s first preseason game Aug. 16 against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville.
“With (Callum) leaving, we have really good goalies coming back,” Reymann said. “They might have a learning curve, but we’re here to protect them and we’ll do our part.”
Offensively, the Cats return all of their offensive weapons in attacking midfielder Matsoso (four goals, six assists), leading goal scorer and second-team all-conference junior Stefan Stojkovic (five goals, two assists), sophomore forward Xahne Reid (three goals, four assists) and junior forward Andrew McKelvey (three goals, two assists).
Keeping them on the field
Cedergren came to Kentucky after five years as an assistant at Dartmouth, an Ivy League school that’s among the top programs in the nation.
“Conference USA is a very, very strong league, so to win the title in the first four years would be at my expectations or better than expectation,” he said. “But at the same time, when I was at Dartmouth, we made the Sweet 16 two years of the five years that I was there.”
But returning the Cats to the NCAA Tournament will require keeping players healthy and on the field at the end of the season. In last year’s opening-round tournament loss, UK was without four of its top players — three due to injury, including Matsoso, and one out for suspension. In the tournament loss the year before, the Cats were without Matsoso due to suspension and senior forward Justin Laird to injury.
GPS tracking has become a huge part of the effort to measure the effort being expended by players in practices and games to try to make sure players are not exerting too much or too little effort during the season and keep them healthy. The Cats are also committed to reviewing player wellness questionnaires to keep watch on potential injury issues.
“If you don’t have your healthy players ready for game time, it doesn’t matter how good you are. It doesn’t matter how talented the players are.” Cedegren said. “If they don’t play on Saturday then it’s not going to help us win games.”
Before Cedegren arrived, the Cats hadn’t made the NCAAs since 2003, a nine-year drought Cedergren ended in his first season. Now, Cedergren knows it’s time for Kentucky to take the next step and not only make the postseason, but also start advancing through it.
“We are too good to not win NCAA games,” he said. “We have one of the five best facilities in the country for men’s soccer, by far. We owe Dr. (Eli) Capilouto and Mr. Barnhart all for that. And, now, what we have to do, is we have to pay them back. We have to win even more than we have done. And that’s kind of the challenge that we’ve thrown in front of the seniors, because they have now won the regular season. They’ve gone two years to the NCAA tournament. For some, that’s going to be good enough. Not for us.”
Duquesne at Kentucky
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 30
Where: Bell Soccer Complex
Tickets: $5, adults; $2, children 6-18 and seniors; free, 5-under.
UK men’s soccer schedule
Kentucky at Marquette
Duquesne at Kentucky
Dartmouth at Kentucky
Louisville at Kentucky
Kentucky at Furman
Kentucky at FIU
ETSU at Kentucky
New Mexico at Kentucky
Lipscomb at Kentucky
Charlotte at Kentucky
Kentucky at Evansville
Kentucky at UAB
Old Dominion at Kentucky
Bowling Green at Kentucky
Kentucky at FAU
Marshall at Kentucky
Kentucky at South Carolina