By Brad Rudner
Q: How will a throng of newcomers mesh with eight returning starters?
From the watch parties that popped up coast-to-coast to the catchy chants that you won't soon forget, this past summer's FIFA World Cup in Brazil catapulted the sport of soccer to new heights in the United States. For a two-week stretch from the middle to the end of June, the nation was abuzz with futbol fever and all you had to do to notice was refresh your Twitter timeline. From John Brooks' improbable goal in the final moments against Ghana to Tim Howard's remarkable performance against Belgium, fans -- both old and new -- couldn't take their eyes off their television sets.
Even after the World Cup ended, the hype didn't stop, at least not here in Ann Arbor, where thousands of fans were already counting down the days until Aug. 2. Michigan Stadium is known for football, but on this day a different take on the word was showcased to nearly 110,000 people, as two of the world's premier clubs, Manchester United and Real Madrid, met in the biggest match of the 2014 International Champions Cup. The largest crowd to ever witness a soccer match in the U.S. piled into the Big House to get a glimpse of some world's best players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and Gareth Bale.
Now, in the aftermath of one of the sport's biggest summers ever, every soccer club is trying to keep the momentum going. Our own men's soccer team is no different. With eight returning starters and one of the nation's top hauls of recruits, the Wolverines are looking to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the second time in three years under head coach Chaka Daley.
The attack should be stacked with options, led by Tyler Arnone, the returning Big Ten Midfielder of the Year. Over his three years, Arnone has developed into a well-rounded, box-to-box midfielder, starting all 59 of his matches in Maize and Blue, accumulating 29 points (9g, 11a). He'll have several options to pick from when the Wolverines choose to go forward, including TJ Van Slooten, Colin McAtee, Marcos Ugarte and James Murphy.
In the defensive third, expect big jumps from sophomores Lars Eckenrode, Rylee Woods and Andre Morris. Each member of the trio saw significant time last season as freshman, as Eckenrode and Woods were each named to the All-Big Ten Freshman Team. Morris played in 13 matches (eight starts), but missed the final five due to injury. Fifth-year senior Nick Lewin provides a veteran presence and is another option for Daley to utilize in the back. Behind them, fifth-year senior Adam Grinwis is back in net. A three-year starter, Grinwis is one of the Big Ten's most experienced goalkeepers, playing in 58 career matches and corralling 235 saves. He needs 68 saves to become the program's all-time leader.
Also don't be surprised to see several members of this star-studded freshman class to make an impact right away. This seven-person class was ranked as the second best in the country by College Soccer News, including a pair of top 10 recruits in forward Ahinga Selemani (No. 3 overall) and goalkeeper Evan Louro (No. 10), both of whom have youth national team experience with the U.S. Selemani, an Ann Arbor native, has chance to earn significant playing time from day one with his impressive offensive arsenal, while Louro has the size (6-foot-3, 230 lbs.) and skills to challenge Grinwis for playing time. The wildcard of the group isn't a freshman at all, but rather a transfer in British-born William Mellors-Blair, a speedy winger who spent the last two years at Georgia State, where he earned All-Sun Belt Rookie Team honors as a freshman.
Never afraid to play with the big boys, Daley is hoping another schedule filled with great teams -- U-M will play six opponents in the preseason Top 25 -- gives his team a resume that the selection committee simply cannot overlook. One advantage is the U-M Soccer Stadium, where U-M will play nearly two-thirds of their matches this season. Armed with one of the most vocal student fan bases on campus (The Michigan Ultras), the venue, now in its fifth year of existence, has proven to be the perfect pitch for the home team and a hostile environment for the visitors. Six of their first eight matches are at home, as are three of the last four. Among those aforementioned big tests include a showdown with defending national champion Notre Dame (Oct. 7) and preseason No. 2 Maryland (Sept. 12).
So if you're one of those fans that are suffering from World Cup withdrawals, look no further. Your favorite sport is back and you may be looking at Michigan's breakout team of 2014-15.
Key Player: Marcos Ugarte. This technically-gifted midfielder has been with Daley the longest, having prior experience with the head coach at Providence. Though he was hobbled for the majority of last season (his first at U-M after the transfer), Ugarte enters his final year with high expectations. Expect him to play a pivotal role in the middle of the park this season.
Key Competition: Sept. 12 vs. Maryland. The Wolverines will have a chance to make a statement right off the bat in an early-season showdown against the visiting Terrapins, a College Cup team last season. Don't forget about Michigan State, though. The Battle for Big Bear takes place in East Lansing (again), on Nov. 2.
Key Number: Two -- the number of times Tyler Arnone has been named an All-Big Ten first team selection. If he receives the same honor again this year, he'll be the first player in program history to accomplish the feat.
Contact: Scott Kemps