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2019 Marquette Men’s Soccer Season Preview: The Returning Players

What does Louis Bennett have to work with from a crew that closed 2018 in a strong fashion?

Connor Alba
Connor Alba is part of a deep scoring crew on the MU roster this season.
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The start of the Marquette men’s soccer season is right around the corner. In fact, the squad has already played one exhibition game, which will help us with our season preview project.

Here, we’re going to talk about the guys returning to the Golden Eagles’ lineup after MU’s 5-4-3 finish against Big East opponents in 2018 gave them a 7-9-3 record on the season. We can summarize a lot of it with “well, if they play like that for the whole season, things will be good,” but we’ll dive in to each individual man and see what he brings to the table in 2019.

Let’s take it position by position, shall we?

GOALKEEPER

We have to start with keeper, I think, because it’s probably the biggest roadblock/question mark along the lines of the “well, if....” question outlined a moment ago. Cedrik Stern appears to be the man ready to take control of the MU net going forward, replacing Luis Barraza. It’s been a tumultuous last four years with Barraza in net, as he never quite actually won the full time starting job outright until his senior year. Then he was named Big East Goalkeeper of the Year in his swan song and was selected by NYCFC in the MLS SuperDraft. It was a lot.

Still, even with Barraza performing at that high level, Stern made five appearances, including four starts, last season. It wasn’t all seashells and balloons for him, as he allowed six goals in his first two starts of the season. He only allowed two goals in the final three appearances he made, and he can’t even be blamed for one of them. Barraza committed a red card foul early in the second half against Butler, leading to a penalty kick that Stern had to run off the bench and defend. No one in the world expected him to be able to stop it. That was one of the two goals he allowed in the final 223 minutes he played last season.

More importantly than that, Marquette desperately needed him to be that brick wall for the final 113 minutes. Stern throwing a shutout across the rest of the second half against Butler with only nine men in front of him clinched a Big East tournament berth for the squad, their first since 2014. Stern’s shutout against DePaul locked up the #4 seed in the conference tournament, meaning they would get to host a quarterfinal match. These are big performances in very very big moments after the season did not start so well for him. If he can use that as a stepping stone to a big sophomore season, then Marquette should be in good shape.

Stern has two returning keepers behind him in the corps, but it’s not as exciting as it sounds. Both Alec Wons and Jackson Weyman were on the roster last year, too, and they did not see a minute of action. Thus, both are redshirt freshmen this season. Wons was the first man off the bench behind Stern in the exhibition draw against Loyola-Chicago, racking up 13 minutes of action. Weyman actually played longer than Stern did, going 31:42 compared to 30:18. Weyman was the last keeper off the bench, though, so it’s hard to tell what all of that playing time actually means right now.

DEFENSE

Since we started with keeper, we may as well work our way forward through the field. While there are questions to be asked about Stern as the full-time starter, he will clearly benefit from a robust returning defensive group. The back line is led by Patrick Seagrist, who is coming off of an All-Big East First Team honor at the end of last season, which turned into a preseason all-conference nod to start 2019. The 6-foot tall Streamwood, Illinois, native has been a regular starter for Bennett since Day 1 on campus, and turned into something of an offensive powerhouse for a defender last year. He tallied three goals and a tied for the team high six assists to finish second on the team in points. His speedy wing play is what turns balls into assists with frequency and when you have a wing back that needs to be marked all over the field, you’re getting benefits elsewhere.

Seagrist was one of four returning defenders who started in the exhibition match against Loyola, as if to explain exactly how well stocked MU is on the back line. He was joined back there by Oliver Posarelli, Gabe Kash, and Manuel Cukaj. The word “returning” does take on a bit of an interesting meaning with this trio. The 5’11”, 170 pound Posarelli is the only one of the three who saw the field in 2019, appearing in all 19 matches with 15 starts and tallying 1,452 minutes. The Italian senior acquitted himself nicely in his first year with Marquette last season, becoming a reliable defender after making the transfer from Montana State-Billings. Kash, now a redshirt freshman, stayed on the bench for his first season in Milwaukee, while Cukaj’s time on the bench wasn’t a strategic decision for the coaching staff. Instead, his was medically induced, as he had double hip surgery to correct an issue with his joints and cartilage. Cukaj played nearly 1,000 minutes in an injury hampered freshman campaign in 2017 that saw him register a goal and an assist as well as earn Big East All-Freshman team honors. The 6’1” German is a strong physical presence on the pitch for the Golden Eagles, and if he’s 100% and ready to go, then MU will be the better for it.

Without seeing Gabe Kash play yet, I can only guess as to how he fits into Louis Bennett’s system. However, at 5’6” and 145 pounds, I can only presume that he’ll be Seagrist’s mirror on the other wing. With Posarelli and Cukaj in the same lineup, they are much more your traditional central defender from a physical standpoint, while Kash appears to be better deployed in a more mobile position.

Behind those four are two more gentlemen who saw heavy action in 2018 with Kash and Cukaj on the sideline. Leo Villa appeared in 16 of Marquette’s matches, starting 15 of them. While he’s a defender and a pretty good one, Villa had two of the more memorable goals of the 2018 season, although technically only one counts on his stat sheet. That was his 80th minute goal against then-#19 Creighton that leveled the Golden Eagles with the Bluejays and had them hurtling towards a stolen road point.... until they gave up a goal 34 seconds later. Villa’s other twine shaking moment came in the Big East quarterfinals when it was his penalty kick in the 9th round that advanced the Golden Eagles after the match ended in a 2-2 draw.

Josh Hancock is the other experienced guy who came off the bench against Loyola-Chicago. As a freshman last year, Hancock saw over 850 minutes of action in 12 matches with nine starts. He was in the starting lineup at the beginning of the season, going the full 90 minutes in the first eight matches of the year. At 6’2”, Hancock is the tallest of the returning defenders and his lanky frame at 170 pounds gives the Golden Eagles a different dimension on the field. It remains to be seen how much playing time Villa and Hancock will see in 2019 if the exhibition starting four are going to end up going the full 90 minutes on a regular basis. However, having proven reliable hands in support of the starters, especially on defense with a relatively unproven keeper, is never a bad plan for a season.

MIDFIELDERS

Well, we can’t very well have a discussion of what’s to come in 2019 without talking about Luka Prpa. The senior midfielder is on the precipice of entering Marquette’s all-time top 10 in career assists, and if he’s lucky and/or the Golden Eagles have an outstanding 2019, he could find himself in the top 10 in points and goals, too. Prpa has been one of the best Golden Eagles to ever suit up, even if the end-of-match results haven’t matched his own personal stellar play.

Prpa is the elder statesman of the midfield, but he’s also the only seriously experienced man out there, too. Three of the other midfielders — Christian Albelo, Alex Mirsberger, and Jett Blaschka — didn’t play at all last year, while Alan Salmeron and Zak Wegner saw their first year of on-field experience in 2018. Albelo’s tenure in Milwaukee has been all over the place from the get-go, coming in as the #17 prospect in the country.... but then appearing for just 389 minutes in nine matches in 2017 before sitting out in 2018. Mirsberger and Blaschka were true freshmen last year, so it’s not surprising to see them stay on the sideline for a year. If Albelo can finally pay off his prep promise, then that could mean a lot for the Golden Eagles.... but he also only came off the bench in the exhibition against Loyola. Same goes for the two redshirt freshmen, although Mirsberger got a full half of run while Blaschka only got 15 minutes.

Salmeron didn’t put the ball in the net in 2018, but he started in nine of his 12 appearances after missing the first six matches of the season. Wegner was a fixture in the starting lineup nearly all season long, only coming off the bench once in MU’s 19 matches. He tallied one assist on the year for his first career point and ended up fourth on the team in minutes played. He’s a wiry 5’11” and 160 pounds, but the Wisconsin native proved to have the confidence of the coaching staff.

That trio of guys who sat out last year are going to be asked to shoulder some of the load in 2019 and beyond. There is just one freshman midfielder on the roster right now, so these guys are going to have to step in and provide for the Golden Eagles at some point. The ability of the coaching staff to get them in position to succeed this season may be the tipping point as to how far Marquette can go this year.

FORWARD

With that said about the midfielders, Marquette does have a healthy crop of forwards who can drop back from the front of the formation to fill in the lineup. Look no further than Bennett putting four of his returning forwards into the starting lineup against Loyola-Chicago for evidence of that.

While there were four returning forwards in that starting 11, the collegiate experience level is all over the place in that group. Marquette has two senior forwards in Connor Alba and Josh Coan. Alba has been a reliable scoring threat for the Golden Eagles through his first three seasons (11 career goals, eight career assists) as well as a fixture in the starting lineup. Coan is a slightly different story, as he started his college career at Pitt. He came in with 25 matches of experience and four career assists...... and then immediately assembled a nine point season (3 goals, 3 assists) to end up more impressive than we could have really hoped to see.

No one is ever going to say that five goals from a freshman is a bad thing. That’s what Lukas Sunesson did for Marquette last season. However, the speedy Swede exploded out of the gate with three goals in MU’s first two matches, and then had just two more the rest of the season. Any goals you can get from a freshman are fantastic, and clearly Sunesson was top of the chart on a scouting report after his swift start. However, MU is going to need a little bit more pop in the lineup this season, and that’s going to probably mean a more even year-long performance from Sunesson. The talents and instincts are there, as well as the support around him to make him a successful striker.

AJ Franklin is the fourth and final returning guy who was in the starting lineup for the exhibition. However, he’s also a redshirt freshman. He had an outstanding prep career, making himself one of the best goal scorers in Illinois history. At 6’3”, he provides Marquette with a literal extra dimension at the front of the formation, and hopefully that can all translate into goals now that he’s getting playing time.

That leaves us with Griffin Jende to wrap up both the forwards section as well as the whole article. As you could probably guess from how the rest of the section was assembled, we’re not going out with a bang here. The redshirt junior from Pewaukee has only appeared in four matches during his two active seasons with Marquette, two in each year. He’s clearly talented, as he holds his high school’s career record for goals and assists. You don’t get there on accident, but if he couldn’t crack minutes with Alba, Coan, and Sunnesson last year, I don’t expect anything to change this year.