Senior midfielder Napo Matsoso stands just 5-foot-6 and weighs in at 138 pounds, but those measurements don’t account for his speed, his heart and his importance to the Kentucky men’s soccer team.
Coach Johan Cedergren calls him one of the toughest guys in college soccer.
“Napo is so much fun to be around because of the passion and the drive and the ability,” Cedergren said. “He never switches off. He works his tail off. He’s one of the hardest working guys in practice.”
That effort translated into two goals and an assist in the Cats’ season opening 4-0 win at Marquette on Friday. The Cats play Duquesne Tuesday evening in their home opener.
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As an attacking midfielder, Matsoso keys UK’s offense and doubles back to help defenders break up the opponent’s advance. A first-team all-Conference USA selection in each of the last two years, Matsoso was named preseason C-USA offensive player of the year by the coaches ahead of this campaign.
“It’s an honor to be recognized like that, but I have to give credit to my teammates,” Matsoso said. “They do a good job supporting me, helping me out on the field and off the field.”
A native of Maseru, Lesotho, Matsoso played high school soccer for St. Francis in Louisville. Three of his five brothers played college soccer, as well.
In soccer parlance, Matsoso plays the “No. 10” position. He’s the playmaker in the midfield and Cedergren counts on him to help solve the opponent’s defense and find the right teammates in the right space.
“I challenge you to find a better problem solver (than Matsoso),” Cedergren said. “He solves things and he’s really good 1 v. 1. The goal that he scored against Marshall last year with 10 minutes to go — we win 1-0 — he’s the only one in the country that can score that goal.”
From his back-line position, senior fullback Chris Reymann has a great view of Matsoso’s dynamic play. And he confirmed the Marshall goal where Matsoso outmaneuvered three defenders at the top of the 18 was impressive.
“Every day we see something new,” Reymann said. “He’s a special player. The Marshall game, that was special, but you could look at almost all of his goals last year and you would just shake your head because you don’t see many college players doing that.”
Now, with expectations higher for the Cats than they’ve ever been in his four years at UK, Cedergren is looking to keep Matsoso on the field for an NCAA Tournament run. In each of the last two seasons, Matsoso has been out, once due to a suspension earned in the previous game and last year to a sports hernia injury that required surgery in January. Matsoso reports he’s fully recovered, but the UK staff plans to monitor him throughout the season.
“Almost everything that he does is high speed, because he either has to get to a guy or he has to get away from a guy,” Cedergren said. “So Napo, he can be between 200 and 300 sprints in a game.”
That workload in games and in practice offers a great example for UK coaches to point out to younger players. But it also means the UK staff must make sure Matsoso isn’t wearing himself out and hurting his ability to endure the season through tournament play.
“He hasn’t played in an NCAA game, which that makes my life very hard, because one of my best attacking players is not on the field.” Cedergren said.
Matsoso knows that responsibility lies with himself as well, and while preseason accolades are nice, the team’s goal of NCAA Tournament wins are the primary objective.
“I really want it bad,” he said. It’s my last season here at Kentucky, and I want to end it the right way. Go out, give it my best and make sure I don’t regret anything that I didn’t do or that I should have done. So, I’m pretty excited. I just have to take one step at a time.”
Duquesne at Kentucky
7 p.m. at the Bell Soccer Complex