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Soccer Q&A with Card Chronicle

Clemson has it's biggest game of the season this Friday on the road against Louisville. Both teams have identical conference records at 4-2. The winner of the game will more than likely finish in the top 4 of the conference, which guarantees a first round bye in the ACC Tournament. Chris Gehring of Card Chronicle decided to have a little Q&A in advance of this big showdown.

What were the expectations for the first season in the ACC, since that is one of the toughest conferences in the country? And has Louisville met those expectations?

I think the expectations every year for Louisville are to compete for a division/conference title, which was justified at the beginning of the season when the head coaches picked them to win the Atlantic. They’ve proven themselves as a top program in recent years, so joining the ACC was a huge step and a huge challenge, but one I think they were ready for.

Obviously, they’ve taken some lumps with a loss at N.C. State and an OT loss in South Bend against a very tough Notre Dame team, but they’ve still come out of it in control of their own destiny in the Atlantic Division. That’s all they could really ask for at this point, so after a long-winded answer, I think they have met expectations so far.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of Louisville this season?

One specific weakness this year has been lacking the finishing touch in the final third. Head Coach Ken Lolla has attributed that to a lack of overall focus and sharpness at times, which has contributed to some defensive lapses as well and may be the bigger issue on occasion. There’s always a focus on possession with this team, which involves both having the ball and creating numbers around the ball defensively to turn it over and get it back. While they’re usually good at asserting this style, it requires discipline for 90 minutes, and lack of focus can spell trouble in making it work. When Louisville isn’t able to play with control of possession and make it meaningful to create chances, it’s hard to win, which was most apparent during their four-game losing slide earlier this month.

With all that said, I think there are far more strengths than there are weaknesses. While there was a rough goal drought for a stretch early this month, the Cards rebounded to beat a very good Syracuse team last week and are now on a three-game winning streak. Louisville's attacking group (wide midfielders Ben Strong and Andrew Brody, attacking mid/forwards Will Vitalis and Ricardo Velazco) is particularly creative and very skilled individually. Like the team as a whole, they’ve played much better as of late, and when they get good width in the attack from their outside backs (particularly right back Tim Kubel), they’re extremely dangerous and can score goals in a lot of different ways. Still, Louisville's had to display some toughness and grind out results this year, and they’ve shown the ability to do that as well. I think that’s a tribute to some strong leadership from guys like center back Daniel Keller (a senior captain), who anchors a strong back four.

What formation does Louisville play and what is the most likely starting lineup? And how does Louisville prefer to attack out of that formation?

Louisville will usually lineup in some version of a  4-2-3-1. There have been some variations within the starting XI recently, but here’s my best guess: GK – Joachim Ball; Back Four (right to left) - Tim Kubel, Daniel Keller, Michael DeGraffenreidt, Jerry Ramirez; Holding Mids - Romilio Hernandez, Louie Berra; Wide Mids – Ben Strong, Andrew Brody; Center/Attacking mid – Will Vitalis; Forward – Ricardo Velazco

Have to note here that it wouldn’t be surprising to see Taylor Curtis as the starting right back, and Santiago Velez has been starting in the midfield as of late in place of either Vitalis or Velazco. Velez and Curtis could very well start Friday.  As far as how they like to attack, a lot of goals have come from the wide players (Brody, Strong, Kubel) pressing the attack into the final third and finding others around the goal. With that said, Kubel and Strong are leading the team in goals, and both have the ability to hit it themselves. Like I mentioned earlier, when they’re at their best, they’re a dynamic group that can score in a lot of ways.

Who are some of the best players/ones Clemson fans should keep an eye on?

Daniel Keller is a rock solid center back and a leader of this squad. Freshman right back Tim Kubel has been a wonderful addition to this team as someone who’s comfortable on the ball, can whip great service into the box and score goals of his own with a powerful right foot. From there, the attacking foursome of Strong, Brody, Vitalis and Velazco can be pretty special and especially frustrating for defenders when they get the ball pinging around in their opponent’s half.

Do you think that Louisville will make the NCAA tournament? I know y’all have a really solid RPI and I would be surprised if you didn’t.

It’d certainly be surprising if they didn’t, though there is still work to be done starting with the big match on Friday. If they continue to build positive momentum, though, the potential to claim a national seed is still out there considering the strength of the opponents they’d presumably face in the ACC tournament. Obviously, that would all depend on beating some of those top teams (Notre Dame, Syracuse, Virginia, North Carolina and Clemson are all currently top 25 RPI wise), which is a tall task. Still, it’s achievable if they peak at the right time.

A big thanks to Chris for helping out with this. My responses to him will be up on Card Chronicle. Louisville's team is very similar to our and I see this game going either war and being decided late.