By Carter Chapley
St. Louis, MO
High expectations are not a foreign concept to the SLU Billikens Men’s Soccer program. Their prolific early history is well documented and their string of top tier play in the 21st century has been consistent.
But after a disappointing 2018 season, which ultimately resulted in a 6-4-7 record and a first-round exit in the A10 tournament, high expectations are a breath of fresh air for the program. In the A10 coaches poll released earlier this week, the Billikens, are ranked second in the preseason predictions behind only VCU who won the conference last season They also received votes in the preseason national poll, one of only two A10 teams to do so. The other being Rhode Island who sit just behind the Billikens at third in the aforementioned A10 poll.
Despite these preseason accolades, there is no one in the country with higher expectations for this team and program than the coaching staff itself. After the Billikens played their final preseason exhibition match on Sunday, Billiken Head Coach Kevin Kalish laid out his expectation “We’re a program that in my opinion that has the goal of contending for a national title, contending for an A10 title and being a top 30 RPI program that’s in contention for an NCAA berth every year, those are the goals that we internally set each and every year.”
In his second season as Head Coach, Kalish has turned the page, in a sense, and the program in getting back to dominating St. Louis and the greater St. Louis area on their recruiting trail search. This renewed local scouting in major part has led to the resurgence of much exterior praise and expectation. Nine Billikens on the 2019 Roster are alumni of the St. Louis Scott Gallagher, a development program that Kalish was VP of prior to becoming SLU’s Head Coach, and another three players are coming from other St Louis based programs.
The Billikens welcome 13 new players to the roster this season, 11 freshmen and a pair of transfers. The group is highlighted by a pair of freshmen who saw time with the first team at STLFC. Kipp Keller is a midfielder who captained the STLFC U19 team and signed an academy contract with the big club earlier this year, appearing in 4 preseason games. Kalish describes Keller as the type of player who “makes everyone around him better”, “His range of passing, ball-striking ability and composure on the ball make him an ideal fit”. The other key freshman is goalkeeper Patrick Schulte. Patrick recently made headlines when he made his professional debut for STLFC during the 2019 US Open Cup. Patrick made three key saves in the Penalty Shootout to secure the win for STLFC over fellow USL Championship squad the Des Moines Menace in the third round of the tournament. Prior to Patrick’s call up to the first team, he anchored a U19 squad that advanced to the USSDA playoffs and he also got the call to join Team USA at the U18 National Team Camp.
The Billikens completed their preseason exhibition this Sunday playing in-state rivals Missouri State to a 0-0 draw bringing their three-game record to one win, two draws and no losses. The Billikens allowed only a single goal in the preseason, a penalty kick during their 1-1 draw with Wisconsin in their first game. The Bills played an extremely long bench taking advantage of their time to give playing time to all of their players. While a great opportunity for coaches to evaluate their bench it does have a drawback because it’s hard to get a full analysis of what to expect from the team for when the regular season kicks off. That being said, Coach Kalish feels like the preseason was an undoubted success; “We laid out some goals from the beginning of preseason. We wanted to give everybody a fair evaluation in terms of their form at the moment, we wanted to be healthy coming out of preseason…and we wanted to lay down our identity as a team. So, if you look at those three main areas it’s a success.”
Despite only winning one of the three games the Bills were the dominate team in all three matches. Controlling the ball and the pace of play, they simply couldn’t find the finisher. “You obviously always want to win games, and for it to be better but I’m very happy with the way the groups worked so far.” Kalish said after the Missouri State game; “I’m happy with the culture and the amount of care they show for each other so now it’s on to the next game and trying to improve the next day.”
The Billikens open their regular season play on Saturday August 31st when they host Notre Dame. The matchup is an opportunity for the Bills to announce themselves to not only the Billiken faithful in attendance at Hermann Stadium, but college soccer as a whole. Notre Dame is the 9th ranked program in the preseason national poll and a win against them this early would likely vault the Billikens into being a nationally ranked team.
But even if the result is less than ideal, the coaching staff won’t be in panic mode quite yet. Coach Kalish; “With half the group we’ve only been working (together) for 2 weeks so there’s a lot of work to be done. We’ve definitely seen some progress, but I don’t know if you’re going to see the full body of work till the end of the season. But we’re going to get better each week.”