Marquette men’s soccer gets their 2016 season started on Friday, August 26, when they host Conference USA preseason favorite Kentucky. Yes, you read that sentence completely correctly.
In the meantime, though, we’re going to take a trip through the roster and provide a wee bit of insight and thought process on the guys who are back from the 2015 team. Hopefully this will start to put the puzzle together on what we can expect from Louis Bennett’s squad this season.
We’ll start out with the two returning forwards on the team, move on to the midfielders, and wrap up with the core of the experienced players: the defenders and the goalkeepers. There’s A LOT of those dudes on the roster this year, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on how you look at it.
Technically speaking, there’s only one forward returning from last season. Toby Howell appeared in 14 games as a freshman for Marquette in 2015, getting five starting nods along the way. He only played 499 minutes, though, tallying just one point on an assist against Notre Dame.
The other forward on the roster is Nick Parianos, who missed the entire 2015 season after suffering a season ending knee injury in late September. As a reserve forward for his first year and change at Marquette, Parianos admittedly does not have the most stellar output for a striker. He has just one goal and one assist in his 18 career appearances, but this can all be forgiven because his lone goal came in the Big East tournament match against Providence in 2013. He played in the second half without a knee brace in the exhibition against Wright State when Bennett switched out the entire 11 man lineup, but did not play in either of the two exhibition matches.
Marquette’s returning midfielders are a bit of a mixed bag. We should probably start with Ruben Sanchez, who appeared in all 17 matches last year as a freshman. He played as a midfielder in the opener, then moved to center back for the remainder of the season due to injuries elsewhere on the field. He was named Big East Defensive Player of the Week once and was named to the Big East’s All-Freshman team at the end of the season.
MU’s other three returning midfielders are no slouches, either, as all of them made at least six starts in 2015. Martin Alba made his redshirt freshman debut last season in the starting lineup and stayed there until suffering a season ending injury after nine matches. Ben Tweedie essentially replaced Alba in the starting lineup, making his collegiate debut as a starter in MU’s 10th match of the 2015 campaign. Redshirt junior Daniel Szczepanek is the veteran presence in the midfield with 34 career appearances, including 16 of 17 matches a year ago with six of those as starts. Only Sanchez and Tweedie recorded points in 2015, with Sanchez getting a helper against Villanova and Tweedie assisting on two Kelmend Islami goals against Providence.
It’s probably important to point out at this juncture that this section should have been led off by a paragraph about Louis Bennett II, but he signed a professional contract with Anorthosis Famagusta FC in early August and will forego his senior season as a result.
Marquette returns six defenders from the 2015 roster, and if that wasn’t enough to make it the obvious strength of that side of the roster, then center back John Pothast being included on the preseason all-Big East team definitely pushed it over the line. Pothast earned his spot in the starting lineup since day one on campus, with only a redshirt in his second year derailing his streak of consecutive matches started. Pothast has played every single minute of each of the past two seasons and finished 2015 tied for the team lead in assists with three. Pothast’s complete game streak is in danger ever so slightly, as he sat out Saturday’s exhibition match against Nebraska-Omaha with what GoMarquette.com called a "minor injury."
The plan will be for Danny Jarosz to spend the entire season next to Pothast on the back line. I say "plan" because that was the plan last year before Jarosz got clattered 66 minutes into his redshirt freshman season and missed the rest of the season. If you’re wondering why Louis Bennett trusted Jarosz to step in and replace Axel Sjoberg at center back, it’s because Jarosz’ Marquette High School teams went 63-3-5 and won two Wisconsin state titles, oh, and Jarosz was the 2013 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Player of the Year. As a center back. Think about it.
Of the four remaining defensive players, Jack Alberts will likely play the most prominent role. For starters, he’s the only one who has appeared in a Marquette uniform before, playing in all but two contests in his first two active seasons and making 14 starts. Alberts is also the only one of the four to appear in all three exhibition matches this season, including starts in the last two. Redshirt freshman Kees Westra and redshirt sophomore Brian Fletcher have both appeared in two of the exhibitions, while redshirt sophomore Colin Koerber only appeared in the first match where Louis Bennett switched the entire lineup out at halftime.
While Fletcher and Koerber have fairly unremarkable high school and club careers, it’s Westra’s inability to crack the lineup after sitting out his first year in Milwaukee that’s surprising. IMG Academy had him as a top 70 prospect coming out of high school, making him one of the key reasons why Marquette had a top 15 recruiting class in the spring of 2015. The Washington State native came up through the Seattle Sounders Academy program, winning the MLS Generation Adidas Cup twice. Here’s what Bennett had to say about him when he signed:
Kees, stylistically, is a custom fit at an attacking outside back in the Marquette mold. He is quick and gets forward often allowing him to attack and cross the ball well. His MLS academy experience with the Seattle Sounders also preps him well for the collegiate challenge.
And yet, he was a flipped lineup sub against Wright State and played just 21 minutes against Nebraska-Omaha in a game where John Pothast was sidelined. It’s possible that Bennett is looking at a slightly different tactical setup given the overall youth of this team, but given that Ruben Sanchez was the only recruit in the class better than Westra, it’s almost shocking to see him struggle to get playing time.
The Golden Eagles have two keepers returning this season: Luis Barraza and Mac Wheeler. Barraza was the starter from the get-go last season as a freshman, and he was... okay. Barraza posted a not-great goals against average of 1.68 and a save percentage of 71%, which was, again, not great. After a 4-3 loss at Providence where Barraza and the MU defense gave up a 2-1 halftime lead by allowing two goals in the first five minutes of the second half, Louis Bennett turned to Wheeler for the start in the final two games of the season. Things didn’t particularly go better for Marquette as they were shutout by Butler and DePaul and Wheeler was replaced by outgoing redshirt junior Brady Walsh for the final 45 minutes of the season.
Given that Danny Jarosz’s injury threw Bennett’s game plan for his defensive construction out of whack in the first game of the season last year, I’m hesitant to point fingers or assign blame for anything here. Based on Barraza and Wheeler splitting starts in the first two exhibition matches and then playing 45 minutes each in the third, it remains to be seen who will man the net at first kick on Friday night. It seems that Bennett isn’t sure who he will go with, either. Here’s his comments on his netminders following Saturday’s exhibition vs Nebraska-Omaha:
"I’m really happy with the goalkeeper situation," Bennett said. "Both guys played very well. Mac made a good save on a penalty and Wicho came in and did a nice job in the second half. We have a real battle at that position."
The question might not be who will be in the starting eleven on Friday, but instead how much leeway for struggling will that keeper get before Bennett turns to the backup?