2018 LMU men’s soccer season preview

HARROGATE, Tenn. — The what-if scenarios have loomed large over the past decade.

The “woulda-coulda-shoulda” explanations have too, but this is a year Helio D’Anna wants his men’s soccer team to walk away with more than an excuse.

“I could tell you so many stories of how close we were so many times in these years,” the 16-year Lincoln Memorial University head coach said, “including overtime, heartbreaking loses and so forth. It takes doing everything right like we always do.

“It takes a little break here and there, but it takes the most important things: score more than we’ve been doing and be scored on less than we’ve been giving.”

The “it” D’Anna refers to is winning a conference championship. It’s a feat the Railsplitters haven’t done since 2007, which is the lone year LMU won both the regular-season conference and tournament championships.

Since that standard-setting season, the Railsplitters have flirted with bringing a championship trophy back to Harrogate but haven’t sealed the deal.

With a talented, seasoned group, that 10-year drought is set for reversal starting in the Railsplitters’ season and home opener at 3:30 p.m. Thursday when Erskine College comes to town followed by Salem University (WV) Saturday at the same time.

“We feel we are a pretty mature, deep and talented group,” D’Anna said. “We do have good leadership. Maybe unusual that we are actually exactly what I’m going to state: We have two players per position, which is a plus.

“Of course, we have players that can play multiple positions but we feel we are deep in each and every one of them. On paper it looks good, but we don’t play on paper.”

A top-3 preseason South Atlantic Conference poll selection — tied for third with Carson-Newman — speaks to the squad D’Anna is going to display.

The three preseason all-SAC second-team honorees — forward Victor Peres, midfielder Felipe de Sousa and defender Christoph Willemsen — do too, but those players are only the beginning of what the Railsplitters are going to embody.

There’s a combination of returning players like senior goalie Caleb Cothrin and fellow senior midfielder Felipe Machado, both of which D’Anna thinks are all-conference players, plus a handful of additions this offseason.

The veteran coach singled out two Brazilians in junior college transfer Alan Brandao and freshman Rodrigo Aguiar, who according to him are two strong, starting defensive presences.

D’Anna pointed out graduate transfer Matteo Bufalo, an intriguing Italian center forward, and then midfielders Danilo Seglio, a freshman from Italy, and Joseph Sefoi, a junior college transfer and Sierra Leone native, to wrap up standout prospects.

“But plenty, plenty more,” said D’Anna after singling out some of his athletes.” All 13 names of the newcomers I could say. Plenty, plenty more of talent. We are such a unique balance. We have some freshmen that are 20-something years old. All the newcomers have leadership.

“Some of the transfers, and we have about three graduate students, just by sure age, they are leaders. If nothing else, they are leaders by example. …There is a ton of leadership. You don’t need to be a captain to be a leader.”

Now that the impactful players are in place, D’Anna wants to see them take their talent paired with game instincts to implement the Railsplitter style of play.

That vision includes starting each match quickly and using the press to their advantage.

“If we can pick up a goal early in the press, that’s beautiful,” D’Anna said.

LMU getting the press on its side means the number of scoring chances will increase — an area D’Anna wants to see improved from a season ago — and if that happens, watch out.

“Consistently the past few years, we were very good creating chances to score,” he said. “Our ratio of conversion was about three to four to one, meaning we created three to four chances and we scored once. We have to get that better. If you can get close to 50 percent, which is hard, we are going to be unstoppable.”

While those are the keys to success in every match, especially SAC play in hopes of capturing the Railsplitters’ first conference title since 2007, D’Anna’s vision goes beyond the regular season.

It carries even past the SAC Tournament and into the postseason of the NCAA Tournament, trying to make nationals for the second consecutive season and catch some squads by surprise along the way.

“The South Atlantic Conference has become a powerhouse in all sports,” D’Anna said, “but we have probably the only sport in the conference that has had three teams — ourselves included — that has played in the national championship and about four or five that have been deep in the tournament. We are very, very deep as far as conference.

“… It’s been a few years and I’m looking forward to winning the conference and looking forward to getting the banner there, but I’m looking forward to a deep run in nationals and I think we are due. We are past due.”