Despite an up-and-down season that featured both an eight-match winless streak and an eight-match unbeaten run (that overlapped with each other), the Kentucky men’s soccer team is back where it usually finds itself in mid-November: playing in the NCAA Tournament.
On Monday afternoon, the Wildcats received the final at-large bid to the 48-team NCAA Tournament.
Kentucky — which compiled a 7-7-4 record across the regular season and Sun Belt Conference tournament — will play at 7 p.m. Thursday at Xavier in the opening round.
The winner of the meeting between the Wildcats and Musketeers will face the tournament’s No. 2 overall seed, Notre Dame, on Sunday in a match that will be played in South Bend, Indiana.
UK’s NCAA Tournament résumé heavily leaned upon a pair of impressive late-season wins: In October, UK won 2-0 at Marshall and 1-0 at home against West Virginia in consecutive matches.
Marshall is the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA Tournament and fellow Sun Belt foe West Virginia is the No. 5 overall seed.
UK lost 3-0 to Marshall in the semifinals of the Sun Belt Conference Tournament last week. Kentucky is one of five teams from the Sun Belt (along with Central Florida, James Madison, Marshall and West Virginia) that will participate in the NCAA Tournament.
UK’s résumé also included a home win over Lipscomb, which is in the NCAA Tournament field after winning the ASUN Conference Tournament, and a win in the Sun Belt Tournament over James Madison.
Kentucky, which was ranked as the No. 3 team in the nation in the United Soccer Coaches preseason poll, won four of its final five matches to help build its tournament case.
If the Wildcats are to spring a surprise run in this season’s NCAA Tournament, then it will come thanks to a elite goalkeeper at the back and a balanced scoring attack at the other end.
Sophomore goalkeeper Casper Mols — an All-American last season — has six shutouts in 16 matches this season. He has made 59 saves in net.
Four Kentucky players have scored three or more goals this season, with four apiece by fifth-year player Mason Visconti and junior Logan Dorsey leading the way.
Sophomore Max Miller, who attended Bryan Station High School in Lexington, has provided seven assists, a top-40 mark among all players in Division I.
Another player to watch is freshman Isaiah Chisolm: The 6-foot-3 forward has three goals and four assists, and he uses his size well as an offensive creator.
Kentucky back in NCAAs under Johan Cedergren
In 2022, Kentucky was the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA Tournament and the Cats entered the national postseason as the only undefeated team in the country. That run ended with a crushing home loss to Pittsburgh in the Sweet 16.
While it has been a rocky road for UK to return to the NCAA Tournament, another postseason berth continues a theme of national success for the program under head coach Johan Cedergren.
Kentucky has made 10 NCAA Tournament trips since Cedergren became UK’s head coach prior to the 2012 season.
Cedergren — who was UK’s head coach for the team’s best postseason showing, when the Cats reached the 2018 Elite Eight — also has a prior connection to Kentucky’s upcoming opponent.
After playing college soccer at Cincinnati, Cedergren obtained his master’s degree in business administration from Xavier.
Kentucky will face Xavier in NCAA opener
Xavier will enter its opening-round match against Kentucky looking to continue one of the best seasons in program history.
The Musketeers (9-3-6) won the Big East Tournament championship match in penalty kicks over Georgetown, the No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This was the first Big East Tournament title for the Musketeers.
Xavier — which is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2014 — also has a balanced scoring approach: Junior Taylor Rhinehart (three) and senior Jerome Jolly (four) are the only players with three or more goals scored.
At the other end of the pitch, the Musketeers are one of the stingiest teams in all of college soccer. Xavier has conceded just 14 goals this season, and sophomore goalkeeper Jonny Mennell has nine shutouts in 18 matches this season.
Mennell’s nine shutouts are the fifth-most in the country, and Xavier as a team has the 16th-best defense in the nation.
Furthermore, Xavier hasn’t allowed a goal in the last 463 minutes of play, and the Musketeers haven’t lost a match since Sept. 23 (a 10-match unbeaten run).
Louisville men’s soccer also in NCAA field
One of the early indicators that the 2023 Kentucky men’s soccer season would be more of a struggle than the 2022 campaign was an early-season 4-2 defeat at Louisville.
The Cardinals also find themselves in the NCAA field after an 11-5-3 season that included a trip to the ACC Tournament semifinals.
Louisville will host Dayton in its opening NCAA match, also to be played at 7 p.m. Thursday. The winner will advance to play at West Virginia on Sunday.
This means both Louisville and Kentucky still have a chance to contest for the NCAA Division I men’s soccer championship right here in the commonwealth.
This year’s College Cup — which consists of both national semifinals and the national title match — will be played at Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville, the home of USL Championship team Louisville City and National Women’s Soccer League team Racing Louisville.
The semifinals will be played Dec. 8 and the finals will be contested Dec. 11.