Marquette men’s soccer finished the 2017 season with a record of 3-11-2, with a mark of 0-6-1 in non-conference action.
That is, in a word, suboptimal.
That’s not to say that last year’s roster was full of subpar performances nor is it, I believe, an indicator of the true talent level of the guys who are returning from last year. Here’s the deal: Six — count ‘em, six — of head coach Louis Bennett’s charges appeared in all 16 matches last season. Only two of those six started in all 16 matches.
Soccer is, to a degree, a game of coherence and unity. You have to be able to develop some sort of rhythm and continuity to be able to succeed. When you have 15 players starting at least five matches, the fact of the matter is that guys were going in and out of the lineup from match to match, and that rhythm and continuity never developed last year, or, at least it developed too late, as the Golden Eagles went 2-3-1 in their final six matches of the season.
The point here is that if healthy and if ready to compete together, I think Marquette has a high quality roster ready to surprise a team or two in 2018. They’re going to need these guys to be healthy and stay healthy in order to lead the way for the surprisingly high number of freshmen and transfers on the roster.
Onwards we go, starting with Marquette’s incumbent keeper....
After two seasons of battling with Mac Wheeler for playing time, it seemed that the starting netminder position was going to be firmly entrusted to Luis Barraza last year. It was either the New Mexico native or redshirt freshman Noah Heim, so it seemed like a safe bet that Barraza would hold on to the spot all year. Instead, what happened was he posted a career worst in goals-against average at 1.69 and got benched for two games in late September/early October, and then missed the final four games of the season due to injury.
Not great, Bob!
Now, yes, part of Barraza’s problems last year were clearly due to the constant turnover of players in front of him. But he’s also never posted a season long GAA under 1.60 in three seasons, so that can’t be all of his problems. The starting spot is almost assuredly going to be his again to start 2018, as it’s him and three freshmen on the roster. If that’s how that shakes out, the question becomes how long does Louis Bennett give Barraza if he can’t seem to make it come together for the Golden Eagles?
Here’s the good news for Barraza: Marquette has three returning defenders on the roster, and they’re all guys that I would trust to play full time. Here’s the bad news: Two of the three combined to miss nine games last year. Steffen Bohm played in all 16 contests in 2017, so he appears to be the most reliable hand for the Golden Eagles right now. Patrick Seagrist started all 16 matches for MU as a freshman, but only made it into 12 games last season. Presuming he’s good to go in 2018, his speed will be put to good use. Manuel Cukaj is the most intriguing name on the roster. The 6’1” German was named to the Big East’s All-Freshman team last year even though he appeared in only 11 matches. His wide-shouldered frame will do a lot of good out in front of Barraza.... if he’s healthy, and that’s up for debate. Cukaj did not play in last Saturday’s exhibition victory over Loyola-Chicago, so we’ll have to cross our fingers to see if he’ll be ready for the opener on August 26th.
As we transition our way up the field, we’ll start this group out with a mention of Ruben Sanchez. With Cukaj out of the lineup, it was Sanchez and junior transfer Leo Villa that earned the start on the back line alongside Bohm and Seagrist against Loyola Chicago. Officially, he’s listed as a midfielder, but Sanchez has been a defensive minded middie when he hasn’t been deployed as part of the actual defensive corps. He’s been a sturdy contributor there, and regardless of which aspect of the field Bennett ends up using him in, he’ll get the job done.
Next up on the list of midfielders is Luka Prpa, Marquette’s lone representative on the preseason all-Big East team. After a stellar freshman season in terms of scoring, Prpa’s role on the team changed last year. His skills and gifts on the field were still on display, but they were more oriented towards MU’s possession of the ball than towards putting points on the board. Hey, sometimes you have to sacrifice personal stats for the betterment of the team, and as the only returning guy started all 16 matches last season, Prpa was a player that Bennett and his staff could rely on night in and night out. That will apply to this season as well. In fact, I can’t help but wonder if Prpa will be the biggest beneficiary of Marquette midfield star Bryan Ciesiulka joining the coaching staff for this season.
That brings us to redshirt senior Martin Alba, who has had a star-crossed tenure with the Golden Eagles. While he was a top 100 prospect coming out of high school, he has played in just 30 matches in three active seasons on the Marquette roster out of 49 possible. His big year was 2016, where he appeared in 14 of Marquette’s 16 matches and logged more minutes than in 2015 and 2017 combined. If he can go, he’ll be in the starting XI and usually playing the full 90 minutes, which gives you an idea of how much Bennett likes what he brings to the table.
MU’s midfielder depth gets a little questionable from there. Christian Albelo came in last year as the highest ranked recruit in Marquette history, but played just 389 minutes in nine matches with four starts. It’s probably not a good sign that he didn’t appear in the exhibition against Loyola. Zak Wegner redshirted in his first year on campus last year, but he also got the nod in the starting lineup against Loyola, so perhaps we’ll see a lot of him in 2018. Cade Dombrowski is a redshirt sophomore who has yet to appear on the field for the Golden Eagles. It’s not the 6’2” Wisconsin native isn’t talented, by the way. He had 17 goals and 31 assists for a 20-3 Whitnall High School team during his senior year.
I suppose we should lead off this group with Grant Owens, who is officially listed as a forward/midfielder. The redshirt senior didn’t come to Marquette after two years at Saint Louis with a reputation as a scorer, but he had a team high five goals last year to provide a rare bright spot amongst the clouds. If he can replicate that kind of pop in his final year of eligibility, it would be a welcome sight.
Connor Alba has been a relatively consistent performer up top for the Golden Eagles. He’s appeared in all 32 matches during his two years in Milwaukee, picking up 29 starts along the way. Alba has tallied seven goals and six assists in that time, which qualifies him as one of the biggest scoring threats for MU’s offense. I suspect Alba’s biggest limitation in terms of the scoreboard has been MU’s turmoil in putting a consistent roster together around him, so if MU can keep putting the same guys out there every night, perhaps we’ll see a jump in production from the Waukesha native.
This will be Diego Nunez’s third season with the Golden Eagles, and he’s already found the back of the net four times, twice in each previous season. When you watch him play, you can see the speed, agility, and physicality that makes him a reliable and go-to threat on the field. He appeared in just 10 matches last season, so hopefully he can stay on the field in 2018 to provide some fireworks as he did while scoring MU’s lone goal against Loyola.
Depth in the forward department has a question mark or two, just like the midfielders. Tode Atlija saw 287 minutes of action in 11 appearances as a freshman last season, so we’ll see how much Bennett makes use of him in 2018. Griffin Jende was a goal scoring machine at Pewaukee High School, setting a school record with 90 career goals, with 65 coming in his final two seasons. He redshirted in 2016 and played just 28 minutes last year. You don’t score 65 goals in two seasons by being a chump, regardless of competition levels, so perhaps MU will be able to take advantage of Jende’s talents this time around. Then again, he didn’t play against Loyola so [shrug emoji].