Take a look at this year's Men's Soccer roster, and even with Pablo Fernandez-Paniagua Juez no longer joining the program, and you might see 16 or 17 names with a case for a starter's spot in the season opener.
Unfortunately, there's only 11 openings, but the first two underclassmen-heavy years under Stu Riddle have led to a deep roster with multiple options at every position. It's a good problem to have: We're not predicting improvement for Buffalo just because Russell Cicerone is getting better and the Bulls found some secondary scoring in the spring, but because UB could field an entire lineup with player who have 15 or more career starts to their name.
To start to narrow it down, work from the ends. Sketching out the team, we can identify the locks to start (bold) and those few players who almost certainly won't (parentheses). Asterisks* indicate players who started at least ten game in 2014.
Forwards: Scott Doney, Marcus Hanson*, Nicolay Netskar, Steven Stryker, (Hunter Walsh)
Midfielders: Ryan Aspenleiter, Russell Cicerone*, Braden Culver*, Dylan Cope, Ryan Pereira, (Braden Scales), Daniel Warner
Defenders: Daniel Cramarossa*, David Enstrom*, Alec Fisher*, Nick Forrester, Austin Place*, Fox Slotemaker*
Goalies: Cameron Hogg, Joseph Kuta, Ryan O'Mara
It's tempting to pencil in one or two more, but the squad is too deep. Every returning defender started more than two-thirds of UB's matches in 2014, in the midfield Cope and Pereira just barely missed my arbitrary ten-game cut off.
The next question I'm using to put forward my guess is one of formation. Despite five "defenders" with ten or more starts last season, I can't in my writing find any reference to a five-man back line. And the reason, I think, is down to two areas of positional flexibility from Riddle: flankers like Daniel Cramarossa saw time both on the back line and on the wing of the midfield. Further upfield, the line between "forward" and "attacking midfielder/wing" was blurred from game to game as well.
So I'm comfortable working within the popular 4-4-2 (defense-midfielder-forwards) lineup for the sake of this post. At times last year, one midfielder (usually Kristian Lee-Him) played a little deeper within his band, and at other times it seemed like three Bulls were devoted to forward duties, but there wasn't a clear-cut lineup and shape game in and game out:
Doney - Hanson
Before the spring season I might not have been so optimistic on Scott Doney, but he completely changed the Bulls offense, bringing size that draws attention away from Marcus Hanson and Russell Cicerone. I do expect Steven Stryker and Nicolay Netskar to see minutes in just about every game.
Culver -------- Cope
-- OR --
Culver - Cicerone - Pereira - Cope
Diamond or straight line across? I prefer thinking of this group in a diamond for two reasons: First, Russ goes wherever he wants and does it effectively, and a diamond nominally acknowledges that by putting him in the middle and not preferencing one side or the other. In Culver and Cope UB has two players who I think are smart on the ball when building possession from the middle, but they also could be bumped aside if Riddle wants to field more attackers on the wings. The second reasoning for the diamond is that I think Austin Place, a listed defender, sneaks up into the midfield by virtue of his seniority and two years of every-game experience.
A straight line across, though, better represents the possibility of people moving between position groups along the sidelines. Maybe forwards Netskar or Stryker, or defenders Cramarossa or Fisher get a start on the wing of the midfield, and if Cicerone spends lots of time in the attacking third, this arrangement is better suited to maintain shape in the middle.
I think Place and possible sub Nick Forrester only play in the midfield if UB is using a holding role, as in the first option. From what I remember last year, Cope was best remaining on the outside, while I would feel comfortable slotting Pereira and Culver into any spot within the midfield.
This is pretty straightforward once you start to consider Place and Forrester in the midfield. Slotemaker and Enstrom are near-locks after their freshman years, and I was impressed by Cramarossa's play late in the season last year. I would not be surprised to see either he or Fisher moved up into a midfield role at times.
Flip a coin on this one, because that's pretty much all I have to go on. Kuta has more college experience, though it's two years old at this point, and that tips him into favor, barely, for me.
Putting it all together, the main factors that could introduce some variance, as I see them:
- How far forward does Cicerone play? Does he favor one side of the field, or range where ever there's space?
- How far forward do the midfield wings move, and how much does UB use a holding (defensive) midfielder to maintain connection between the backline and the mids?
- How much flexibility up and down the flanks is there? Which forwards will occasionally play as offensively-minded midfielders, and which defenders will be asked to step up to help UB's offense build possession from the back?
For now, though, that's my guess:
Doney - Hanson
Culver --------- Cope
Cramarossa - Enstrom - Slotemaker - Fisher