Louisville transforms from also-ran to national power
Can they sustain it?
That's the question asked every time a team without a history of success breaks into the national rankings, making a name for itself on the national stage. Everyone wonders if it's a one-time or a one-season thing. Usually, it is. But occasionally, it becomes the moment people will point to years down the road when they talk about when the program emerged from mediocrity.
The University of Louisville men's soccer program is clearly proving capable of sustaining -- and improving upon -- its success.
In just a few seasons, the Cardinals have gone from being a program for which simply being ranked was an accomplishment to being a program for which a College Cup is a real possibility.
"When we first came in, we held the kids to high expectations and created a standard of success, and they have risen to that standard," said coach Ken Lolla, who took over the program in 2006. "The focus for us has been the growth of our program and what we've done in a short amount of time."
What Lolla and his players have done in that time is turn a program that never received much attention into a national contender.
Two years ago, the Cardinals cracked the top 25 for the first time in school history. That same season, they advanced to the NCAA tournament for the first time, knocked off a ranked Duke team and finished 11-7-4.
People started to take notice, and last season Louisville proved the program was worth a second look. The Cardinals built on their success, becoming a mainstay in the top 25 and cracking the top 10. Louisville earned its second straight NCAA bid but was knocked out in an overtime loss to Jacksonville in the first round.
The progression has been evident, and this year, the Cardinals' upward trajectory continued. Their 5-0 win over Villanova to close out the regular season gave Louisville (13-2-2, 8-2-1 Big East) a school-record 13 wins. It also gave the program its first Big East (Red Division) regular-season conference title.
The team has made tactical changes this season (such as switching to a 4-4-2 formation), but it's been just as much, if not more, about the less tangible aspects of the game. The team has matured since Lolla took the reins. The players are hungrier and expect more. Just making the tournament, just being ranked, isn't enough.
"When Coach came in, he pushed some limits," said senior midfielder Freddie Braun. "He challenged us to believe this program would be a national contender, and here we are four years after he came in, and we're No. 5 and a national contender -- and we expect to win. To this day, we're getting stronger each practice."
The team's depth has ensured the players are pushing themselves every day -- not just every game -- and it's paying off.
Louisville enters the Big East tournament with eight wins in its past nine games and riding a four-game winning streak, having outscored opponents 14-1 in those four games. The team is also undefeated at home this season.
"When I came in my sophomore year [in 2007], the program wasn't nationally recognized," senior defender Phil Edginton said. "We always felt that we could do well, but that year we kind of came out of nowhere and no one was really expecting it. It's changed to the point where the last couple of years it's become an expectation, which is what you want for your program."
A Big East tournament win and a deep run in the postseason would go a long way toward raising those expectations -- and Louisville is in a good position to make that happen.
Elsewhere in the Big East
Louisville will have some tough teams to contend with in the Big East tournament.
No. 8 Connecticut (11-3-3, 8-2-1 Big East) won the Big East's Blue Division regular-season title, and the Huskies are also perennial contenders. The team has not fared as well as it would like in the postseason the past few years, which is no doubt going to fuel UConn down the stretch. The Huskies had a nine-game unbeaten streak snapped by Notre Dame last weekend, but bounced back with a 3-0 win over Marquette to gain some momentum heading into the Big East postseason.
Notre Dame (10-7-1, 8-3) might have had some ups and downs this season, but the Irish posted wins over both Louisville (4-0 on Sept. 25) and UConn (2-1 on Oct. 31) and finished runners-up in the Big East Blue Division. However, Notre Dame has struggled with consistency, unable to string together more than three wins at any point this season. That rarely bodes well for a team heading into tournament time.
A College Cup competitor last year, St. John's (7-8-2, 6-1-4) finished behind Louisville in the Big East Red Division. The Red Storm's win total might not be overwhelming, but they are undefeated in their past 10 games, and their current three-game winning streak is the longest of the season. The team also has wins over both Notre Dame (2-0 on Sept. 6) and Louisville (3-2 in overtime Oct. 17).
Maria Burns Ortiz covers college soccer for ESPNsoccernet. She can be reached at email@example.com.