The Panthers’ men’s soccer season is upon us, having opened Friday with a 5-2 win vs. Evansville at Englemann Field. Milwaukee is looking to improve upon a rough 2014 season that saw the squad finish with a 6-10-3 record, this following an NCAA Tournament appearance in 2013.
The team is off to a good start, as senior Declan Rodriguez scored two goals as part of a season-opener that saw it score the most goals in a kickoff game in 19 years. In addition, the Panthers doubled the shot total of the Purple Aces plus one, 27-13. Two of the team’s many freshmen, Matthias Binder and Francesco Saporito, scored a goal apiece, and senior Aaron Horvat added the final score of the three-goal win. Head coach Kris Kelderman spoke after the win.
“It’s a great result for us,” he said. “Going into the first game, a lot of new guys, a very young team, not knowing really what to expect. A lot of nerves out there and we were a little shaky the first minute and a half of the game but it got a lot better from there. We are very pleased with everybody – all 11 guys and the reserves played a very good part as well.”
Many injuries, a tough schedule and youth were the three main reasons for the uncharacteristic losing season. Kelderman elaborated.
“It was very frustrating, especially coming off a very successful season in 2013,” he said. “We had some injuries to some very key people and it felt like each game we were challenged with a couple of major contributors being out of the lineup for various reasons. At the same time, I don’t want to use it as an excuse. It was an opportunity for other players to step up and get the job done in their place. We didn’t do as good of a job at that as we hoped.”
Growing pains and the lack of depth resulting from injuries played a large role not only in the win-loss record from 2014, but the decline in defensive play. After a school-record 0.63 goals-against-average in 2013 that included 10 shutouts, last season saw a spike to 1.47 GAA and only 3 opposing zeros.
In addition, freshmen accounted for almost 70 total starts and three Horizon League all-Freshman honors. Two of the four top-four scorers were first-year players last season. This bodes well for this season and future ones, according to Kelderman.
“These guys had starting positions, played a lot of minutes and still have three years ahead of them,” he said. “That means a lot. They are going to be better players. Already in preseason you can see that those players look a lot different today than they did as freshmen 12 months ago – a lot different. And that is the challenging part. We are going to have a young team whether we like it or not. A lot of these guys will be getting that experience whether they like it or not. If we can be pretty good this year – and that is definitely our goal – then that means that there is a very bright future here at UWM.”
Despite the team being young as a whole, experience does return on the back line. Goalies Liam Anderson (junior) and Agustin Rey (senior) were the net-minders for every minute of play last season. In addition, two seniors: Horvat and Dustin Ashley, with 33 combined career starts, have the experience to make the Panthers’ back defense formidable.
Milwaukee faces a much stiffer test Sunday afternoon, as the team travels to Omaha, Neb. to take on the sixth-ranked team in the country in Creighton.