By Brad Rudner
Q: After a record-breaking 2013 season, what's in store for 2014?
There could be argument that, outside of men's gymnastics winning the national championship last year, no U-M team was more productive than women's soccer. Backed by two All-Americans and a stuffed seven-person senior class, this group won 18 matches, reached the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament and came heartbreakingly close to winning the program's first Big Ten title.
But the core of last year's team is now gone. Absent are the contributions that you can see and count (like the 27 goals scored by last year's seniors, which accounted for 60 percent of the team's total last season), but even more is the leadership, experience and stability that they had provided over the last four years. After last year, there's absolutely no question that the rebuilding project that head coach Greg Ryan began in 2008 is now over. The question now becomes, what comes next?
One of the aspects that made last year's team so good was its lockdown defense (allowed only 12 goals in 23 matches), which will need to be rebuilt after losing three multi-year starters. Senior Chloe Sosenko is the only returning starter of last year's group and has the most experience of defensive player on the roster. Expect to see Christina Ordonez back there in some capacity, too. The converted midfielder spent the entire spring on defense and has made a positive impression on the coaching staff with her ability to pick up the ins-and-outs of the position quickly. Sophomore Taylor Bucklin also returns between the goal posts but will be challenged for time by the four other keepers on the roster.
Though she isn't a defender by trade, junior Cassie Collins will slot in her usual holding midfield position and could be in line for more playing time with Christina Murillo -- a three-year starter -- taking the year off to train with Mexico in advance of next summer's FIFA Women's World Cup. Further up the pitch, there's speed to burn, mainly on the outside with sophomore Madisson Lewis, a unanimous All-Big Ten Freshman Team pick last year. Lewis was tied for second on the team in both goals (six) and assists (nine) and should be one of the offense's focal points again this year. And keep an eye out for Anna Soccorsi. The rising sophomore can play anywhere on the field and is as fast (if not faster) than Lewis.
Beyond that, there's a host of others fighting for vacant spots in the starting eleven, including junior Corinne Harris, sophomore Nicky Waldeck, freshman Taylor Timko and Florida State transfer Ani Sarkisian.
Like every team, Michigan enters the season with one goal, one that last year's team was so close to achieving: winning the Big Ten championship. With the additions of Maryland and Rutgers, the conference is now stronger -- and tougher -- than it's ever been, as each team will have a 13-match conference slate. The good news for Michigan is that its rivals, both old (Ohio State, Michigan State) and new (Penn State, Nebraska), will have to visit U-M Soccer Stadium this year.
Rebuilding? Not anymore.
Reloading? That's more like it.
Key Player: Nicky Waldeck. The scoring machine that was Nkem Ezurikeis gone and while replacing her production is going to be hard to replace for any one person, Waldeck's name should be at the top of the list. Ryan lauded over the rising sophomore during the spring and for good reason. A gifted athlete, Waldeck is among the team's best players in the air and on set pieces.
Key Competition:Oct. 16 vs. Penn State. These two programs have developed quite the rivalry over the past two years and it's sure to continue this year. Though Penn State's streak of 15 consecutive Big Ten championships was snapped last season, the Nittany Lions will come to Ann Arbor for the first time since 2011 with revenge on their minds, looking to avenge last season's 1-0 defeat in Happy Valley.
Key Number: 11 -- the number of freshmen on the 2014 roster.
Contact: Whitney Dixon