Coming off a banner year in which it won the most games and made the deepest postseason run in program history, the University of Kentucky men’s soccer team is off to an uneven start in its quest to make an even bigger mark this season.
Ranked No. 2 in the College Soccer News Top-30 Poll, the visiting Wildcats were dominated by No. 15 Louisville on Tuesday night, falling to the Cardinals 3-0 at Lynn Stadium and dropping to 1-1 on the year. Kentucky beat Albany 3-2 in last week’s season opener in Lexington.
This year, UK returns 19 players off a team that went 19-2-1 and made it to the Elite Eight for reigning Conference USA Coach of the Year Johan Cedergren. The Cats are again expected to make a run at the C-USA title, placing four players on the preseason all-conference team, including Defensive Player of the Year selection Aime Mabika and Co-Offensive Players of the Year Kalil ElMedkhar and Jason Reyes.
But on Tuesday, Louisville looked far-and-away like the better team. The Cardinals put the Cats on the ropes early, jumping out to a 1-0 lead less than two minutes into the match on a goal from junior forward and first-year transfer from UNC-Wilmington Emil Elveroth. In the 20th minute, Louka Masset scored on a penalty kick after being shoved by Kentucky’s Daniel Evans to put the Cardinals up 2-0.
After UK beat the Louisville 3-0 last season in Lexington, Cedergren said his squad knew the Cardinals would be out for revenge.
“The way we beat them last year we knew they were going to be fired up, so we talked about the first 10 or 15 minutes, ‘OK, no matter what, let’s be safe.’ And to give up a goal after 90 seconds, we’re losing our minds because we know that’s exactly how they wanted to start,” said Cedergren. “With the things that we’re talking about wanting to do after last year, if you come here and play the way we played in the first half we’re never going to reach those goals ... You don’t want to tear everything down but you also have to be honest enough to recognize that performance in the first half wasn’t good enough. And now, can we learn from it?”
Louisville had Kentucky on its heels the entire first half, pressing the action and taking six shots on goal to just one for the Cats. The overwhelming majority of the first half was played on Kentucky’s side of the pitch.
“We were confident. We had a game plan. We scouted them well,” said John Michael Hayden after picking up his first victory as Louisville’s new head coach. “I think some of the things we discussed tactically came off. There was an urgency and intensity about what we were doing and it led to the goals early.”
The matchup got testy at times, with players jawing back and forth on several occasions. About 12 minutes into the second half Louisville junior midfielder Elijah Amo was ejected after fouling Kentucky’s Marcel Meinzer and receiving his second yellow card in a two-minute span. Meinzer and Amo shared some angry words before Amo left the pitch.
The Cardinals put the match away with just over eight minutes left to play when Elveroth sent a long pass deep into Kentucky territory and Connor Brazil outraced the Wildcats’ defense and fired a shot into the right side of the net.
Cedergren said he expects the Cats to quickly rebound from Tuesday’s setback.
“This is a one-off. We beat them with the same score last year,” he said. “We’ve just got to figure out how to be more of a team and be ready right from the go. Because they were and we were not.
“We have some new leaders on the team that need to do a better job. But I’m not shying away from the fact that we have a very good team. This is a performance that we have to improve, but at the same time its game two out of 17.”
For Hayden, it was victory No. 1 of what he thinks could be many for the Cardinals (1-0-1) this season.
“This group’s special. I really believe that,” said Hayden, who stepped up from his assistant position when longtime head coach Ken Lolla resigned after last season. “This win against Kentucky is only the beginning for this group.”
The Wildcats play their next two matches at home, beginning with Tulsa on Friday night at 7:30 p.m. They’ll host Xavier on Sept. 11. Louisville (1-0-1), which opened its season with a 2-2 tie against Cleveland State, has three straight road games beginning with Florida Atlantic on Friday at 7 p.m.
Tulsa at Kentucky, 7:30 p.m. Friday
Louisville at Florida Atlantic, 7 p.m. Friday