Thu. Dec 13th, 2018

Women’s soccer breakdown

By Matt Bradshaw —

Women’s soccer returns nine starters and 16 letterwinners from last year’s team that finished with a record of 9-7-2. NC State dealt Louisville a 2-1 loss in their regular season finale, denying the chance of an ACC Tournament berth.

In a 2018 preseason poll, the Cardinals were picked to finish ninth in the conference. With the top eight teams in the ACC advancing to the Tournament, Louisville has work to do in order to advance and prove pundits wrong

Goalkeeping and defending

Expected starters:

Redshirt sophomore Gabby Kouzelos (goalkeeper), senior Gabrielle Vincent, junior Niamh Nelson, junior Arianna Ferraro and freshman Sarah Hernandez.

After starting all matches during her freshman, sophomore and junior seasons, Vincent is the true anchor of Louisville’s backline.

“Playing alongside Vincent is easy,” head coach Karen Ferguson-Dayes said. “She tells freshmen where to go and really teaches the ropes. She’s been an outstanding captain and leader, so that’s been really helpful.”

The senior held opponents to 1.06 goals and 9.2 shots during the 2017 season and netted three goals. In other words, Vincent gets it done in the back as well as on offense.

“Playing behind Gabby is always so much fun,” Kouzelos said. “We know how each other play, and we’re looking forward to having new personnel in the back.”

Kouzelos registered 50 saves in 2017 as a redshirt freshman, along with a goals against average of 1.05. The Ohio native gained valuable experience defending goal against tough ACC opponents and enters 2018 ready for more challenges.

The Cards finished last season with eight shutouts overall, including one against then-No. 5 North Carolina. The Tarheels, now preseason favorite to win the ACC title, became conference champion and participated in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

“Defense wins championships,” Vincent said. “Every tackle counts, and the tougher you can be on defense will lead to more opportunities on offense.”

Midfield

Expected starters:

Junior Callie McKinney, sophomore Nadege L’Esperance, sophomore Emina Ekic and sophomore Taylor Kerwin.

McKinney brings the upperclassman experience to the midfield, having appeared in all matches during 2016-17. The junior had solid outings all season long last year, firing 13 shots with seven on goal. Kerwin was sidelined by injury as a freshman but returns healthy as ever. The sophomore scored the eighth goal in Louisville’s season opener versus Wright State.

L’Esperance and Ekic stand poised for a breakout year following immediate impacts during their rookie seasons.

Hailing from Quebec, L’Esperance saw action in 11 games in 2017. Quick with her feet and smart with the ball, the midfielder poses a dangerous threat for sluggish opponents. L’Esperance also brings international experience to the table. The sophomore played this past year as a member of Team Canada’s CONCACAF Under-20 Championship team.

“Nadege has experience at the Under-20 World Cup with Canada, so she really gets the system and understands us,” Ferguson-Dayes said.

Named ACC Co-Freshman of the Year, Ekic started in 17 matches last year and led the team with seven goals. The Louisville native from duPont Manual notched a team-high three assists and finished her first season with two multi-point games, including a career-high two goals and one assist against Kentucky. This year, Ekic was named to the Preseason All-ACC team.

“Emina has that natural intuition and feel for the game,” Ferguson-Dayes said. “On top of that, she works as hard as any player on the team. When one of your best players has that kind of a work rate, it’s pretty easy to have conversations with her.”

Forwards

Expected starters:

Junior Allison Whitfield and junior Brooklyn Rivers.

With a combined eight goals last year, Whitfield and Rivers return to the front of the field as Louisville’s top scorers.

Look for Ferguson-Dayes to use the pair as key offensive weapons. Rivers finished last year with three assists and scored two game winners, one at Clemson and again versus Pittsburgh. Whitfield dished out two assists and scored two game winners against Boston University and Gardner Webb.

Schedule

The 2018 schedule features six matches against 2017 NCAA Tournament squads and nine home games at Dr. Mark and Cindy Lynn Stadium.

“Every year we make a point to schedule teams who are really going to challenge us and help prepare us for our demanding ACC schedule,” Ferguson-Dayes said. “We have a great core group of returning players and a lot of new faces that will benefit from a challenging non-conference schedule before we begin ACC play.”

Louisville downed Morehead State 4-0 in an exhibition match on Aug. 11, then crushed Wright State 8-1 in the opening match of the regular season.

U of L hits the road on Aug. 23 for matchups at Dayton and Michigan before returning to Lynn Stadium to close out the month.

The Cards face the Cats in the Battle of the Bluegrass on Aug. 31 at 5:30 p.m. After losing 3-1 in Lexington last season, Kentucky will look to return the favor and hand Louisville a loss at home.

Purdue and Eastern Kentucky make up the final non-conference matches of the season in early September. As with all Louisville athletics, winning non-conference games is vital to a successful season. The ACC is one of the best all-around athletics conferences in the country and women’s soccer is no exception.

“Were we an NCAA Tournament team last year? Absolutely,” Ferguson-Dayes said. “We’re just a victim of the best conference in the country. And I think that’s an awesome thing, because the platform we play on every day prepares us to play in the NCAA.”

Conference action kicks off on Sept. 15 with a weekend clash at Pittsburgh. Home games versus Notre Dame and Syracuse follow on Sept. 20 and Sept. 23.

The highlight of the schedule comes against 2017 ACC Champion North Carolina on Sept. 29, followed by 2017 NCAA Tournament quarterfinalist Virginia on Oct. 4.

Louisville faces Miami at home on Oct. 7, then hits the road for three consecutive matches against 2017 NCAA qualifiers. Wake Forest comes first on Oct. 12 with Duke second on Oct. 18. The Cardinals conclude the road stand with a Sunday afternoon match against NC State on Oct. 21.

On Oct. 28, the Cards return home for their final match of the regular season versus Virginia Tech.

You can follow Matt Bradshaw on Twitter @bradmatt8.

File Photo / The Louisville Cardinal

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