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Setting the table

This story originally ran in Volume 22, Issue 3 of Inside Indiana Magazine. To subscribe, call 800-524-9527.

The ground falls here, where it turns from green to brown. The grass is faded, dried, almost replaced by a shallow pit that turns muddy when it rains.

Of all the patches of earth on this pitch — physically connected but still somehow seeming separated from one another by the young men who run them and run around on them — this is the most consistently worn. The surface does not alternate between flush and lifeless with each step. It is all dead, trodden over with instinctive regularity. The patch of ground has an equally dilapidated counterpart at essentially the opposite spot on the field, probably 105 or so yards away.

For the young men who operate primarily from within them, these indentations are a paradox. At no point in a game, in no place on the field are those young men more exposed, more vulnerable, less in control. Yet, it is here where they must also be at their very, very best, because any ball that passes behind them here will almost surely cross the end line for a goal.

For four years, Luis Soffner has owned these two squares of land. They are his to keep, to man, to defend.

Career records — games played, saves made, that sort of thing — are sketchy at best for the IU men’s soccer program, but by the end of his time in the No. 1 shirt, Soffner will have played at least 80 games in goal for Indiana. That’s assuming the Hoosiers lose their first games in each the Big Ten and NCAA Tournaments, which doesn’t seem likely at this point. According to Indiana’s record of games played by letterwinners, that would slot Soffner behind only Scott Coufal (1993-96) in total appearances by a goalkeeper.

But the story of Soffner’s career is not one of a redshirt freshman simply too talented, too irrepressible not to play. He was not anyone’s heir apparent.

Soffner was, by the words of his coaches, frustratingly inconsistent as a young net minder — too much of the cerebral, not enough of the instinctive. He nearly lost his job at one point.

Indiana's netminder for four years, Soffner says he likes to come out of games "mentally exhausted," because it means he's done his job.

Now, Soffner is a rock in goal, the keystone around which Indiana is assembling perhaps its best season in coach Todd Yeagley’s three in Bloomington. He has, after starting for four years at one of the most storied programs in college soccer, molded himself into one of Indiana’s indispensable players.

The basic story of Soffner’s growth and maturation has been told, in some form, many times before, in several sports. That, of course, makes it no less important as Indiana seeks to end its second-longest national title drought in the last 30 years.

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Most sports have their own language and terminology, but “practice” is a pretty universal term. In soccer, however, players don’t practice. They train.

Soccer, actually, stands apart from most American sports in several ways. Primarily, it does not stop. Aside from the intermission between 45-minute halves, play is usually only stopped for injuries and substitutions in college soccer. For that reason, teams do not run plays. They rarely huddle. The sport requires inherent skill and instinct. All do, but because soccer never stops moving, it also requires its players to be incredibly cerebral, to think and act in equal measure, to see as much as they move.

At no position is this more crucial than goalkeeper. Ernie Yarborough, a former Indiana goalkeeper himself and the assistant in charge of working with IU’s keepers, is fond of telling his players they are the only ones on the field — including even officials — who see everything and everyone for all 90 minutes.

When the action is at the other end of the pitch, Soffner generally advances out past the edge of his 18-yard box, far away from that place of vulnerability, shifting left and right with the movement of the ball. As the game moves back his way, he retreats, all while yelling one command after another to his teammates.

Yarborough calls it “setting the table.” It’s Soffner’s job to continually set and reset his defense, moving players around based on what he sees in front of him, like arranging and rearranging a dinner table as guests arrive or depart. Soffner’s table can change a half-dozen times or more before he’s actually called into action.

Earlier in his career, Soffner was promising, but prone to mistakes. His coaches say competition helped him turn a corner as a junior and senior.

This is all part of the chess match of soccer. It’s called “the beautiful game” in certain parts of the world, because when players strike upon that excellent balance between thought and instinct, between reading and reacting, play starts moving almost to a rhythm, and the ball flows up the field like water following a well-manicured, well-placed series of aqueducts.

It’s Soffner’s job to dam that water up, and to do that, he never shuts his mouth.

“The ball can be up in the other side of the field, and I’ll still be communicating with guys who are 40 or 50 yards away from the ball,” Soffner says. “Even the slightest bit of yardage or whatever, tucking a guy in five yards can mean us winning the next ball, if it’s cleared.”

Soffner’s talking, though, serves an equally important purpose.

Yarborough is certainly right — when a goalkeeper is doing his job, the entire game stays in front of him. Played poorly, the position can be rather boring.

So Soffner goes through all kinds of motions to keep himself involved. He trots and shuffles around his 18, shouting intermittently at the players nearest to him. He toys nervously with his gloves, tapping and tightening them over and over.

Basically, Soffner focuses on focus.

“I like to come out of games and just be mentally fatigued, mentally exhausted, just because I know the whole time, I’m thinking, I’m yelling,” Soffner said.

His long-time partnership with center back Caleb Konstanski (22) is crucial for Soffner, and for Indiana. Together, the pair marshall IU's defensive efforts.

On a crisp, breezy night in mid-October, with Butler traveled south from Indianapolis for a midweek non-conference game, his attentiveness pays off, when center back Kerel Bradford shorts a headed pass back to him.

Goalkeepers aren’t allowed to pick up passes kicked back to them, but they can handle headed ones, hence Bradford’s decision, but a Butler forward is too close to the play, and he alters direction toward the ball as Soffner moves to retrieve it. Indiana’s No. 1 arrives a step early, at the very edge of the 18, and gathers the ball against his chest.

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Later in that game against Butler, Soffner flies after a cross swung in from near the left touchline, leaving the dead patch. As he approaches with a Butler attacker on his right hip, Soffner slides to the ground, placing himself between the ball and an oncoming opponent.

The moment highlights Soffner’s fearlessness, a basic requirement inherent to goalkeeping.

A good keeper must throw himself full-speed into large crowds of people not paying any attention to him, hurl himself toward loose balls that happen to be rolling around feet with studs on their bottoms, sling his body toward a metal post in hopes of turning a driven shot around its outside. A goalkeeper must be fearless and smart, reckless and calculated, all at the same time. He must be able to make decisions that should make him think three times in the space of a moment. In short, he must willingly put himself in harm’s way more often than most of his teammates will arrive there accidentally, and he must do it several times per game.

Soffner slides to the ground, curling around the ball while keeping it from crossing over the end line for a corner. The Butler attacker pulls off.

It is here where we begin to enter into the conversation about Soffner’s improvement over the last four years. Yarborough likes to call it “the three Cs” — “calm, confident and composed.”

Indiana begins NCAA Tournament play Sunday at home, with kickoff set for 1 p.m. The Hoosiers will need Soffner, a captain, at his best this postseason.

This moment is a little bit of all three. Soffner was never scared to do those things required of his position. He just didn’t make good decisions often enough.

In his first two years, Yeagley said Soffner suffered from a lack of consistency (Yarborough now adds a fourth C). He did not communicate well enough (and a fifth). He was too much in his own head, not able to move on from good or bad decisions and approach every situation, every ball as its own independent case, requiring its own decision-making process.

“I think Louie, in some of his decisions, maybe overthought, like: ‘I didn’t come out for that ball, a dangerous situation happened, they get a great chance,’” Yeagley said. “And then he’s thinking I’ve got to go make the next catch when it’s not on. I think he’s just reading the game and instinctually just making better decisions by just trust.”

That trust does not end when Soffner leaves that small dead place at the mouth of his goal.

For the last three years, Soffner has had Caleb Konstanski, a constant comrade at the rear of Indiana’s formation. Since the start of 2010, Soffner has started 53 games for Indiana, Konstanski 54.

The relationship between a goalkeeper and a center back (Konstanski’s position) is immeasurably important. These two players can never miscommunicate. If a striker and a midfielder aren’t on the same page, they lose possession. If a winger and a forward can’t get in lockstep, a cross is wasted. If a keeper and his primary central defender get it wrong, the wrong net ripples, because the other team scores.

Three years into their partnership, Soffner and Konstanski don’t get much wrong. According to the senior center back, when Soffner yells his name, more often than not, Konstanski knows what Soffner wants him to do without Soffner having to actually say it. All it takes is “CALEB!” and the table is rearranged to Soffner’s liking.

Soccer shares many of its positional names with American football, but the keeper is, in many situations, more like basketball’s point guard — always reading, always directing. The center back is his dominant center, when the relationship works, reliable and constantly attentive to instruction.

“You’re talking, you’re right next to each other the whole game,” Konstanski said of the relationship. “Me and Louie have been together for four years now. We know each other’s tendencies. We work well together. He’s just been such a leader in the back, telling me where to go, telling the other center backs (where) to go, and it’s just been big for us this year.”

This year. This year has so much potential. This year Indiana looks great again. Soffner has been a rock in goal, Konstanski and Bradford excellent together at the back. Forward Eriq Zavaleta has already surpassed an outstanding freshman year goal haul (10) with 12 in just 14 games. With so much left to play for, Indiana has experience and chemistry in a midfield made up almost entirely of players who played in the same club system — Carmel United — in Indianapolis.

At the writing of this article, the Hoosiers were 10-2-2, and closing in on a top-10 ranking. This group appears to have all the qualities necessary for a first College Cup appearance since 2004, the year of the program’s last national title — a lead-the-line forward, a smart and creative midfield, a settled, steady defense. And a composed, confident keeper, one who, in concert with Konstanski and the rest of his defense, has authored eight shutouts in 14 games this year, one clean sheet less than his career high.

In parts of the world where soccer is called “football” or some translated version thereof, team captaincy is paramount. A team captain is revered by fans and respected by teammates. He is his team’s face in front of the press, amid storms of criticism and to the public at large. His word holds immense sway.

Even set against the historic backdrop of IU men’s soccer, the stakes are not nearly so high, certainly, as they are at FC Barcelona, AFC Ajax or Inter Milan. But the role of captain is, nonetheless, diminished within the team dynamic, the respect for the position hardly diminished.

Along with Konstanski, Soffner, a four-year starter and one of the most well-traveled members of the IU men’s soccer fraternity, is a captain.

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No, Soffner was not always destined for that role, like fait accompli. In fact, before his junior year, he almost lost his job, his place atop that trodden, dead earth.

Indiana recruited and signed Michael Soderlund, a native of Boise, Idaho, who graduated early from Timberline High School to join the soccer program. Soderlund pushed Soffner hard early in his career — Yeagley described it as “back and forth” — before the junior finally stiff-armed the freshman and retained his hold on that dead pit that the keeper calls his home on the field.

Another C, competition, had taken Soffner to a new level of performance. Since the start of last season, Soffner has started 34 of Indiana’s 36 games. He’s posted 16 shutouts, besting the 12 he tallied in his first two years between the sticks. He’s won 22 games, a number that also better his freshman/sophomore total. He’s posted goalless streaks of 392-plus and 377 minutes, and he’s won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week five times. His goals-allowed-per-game average has shrunk from 1.27 as a sophomore to 0.82 as a junior to a meager 0.55 this season.

Those three Cs — or five Cs or however many Cs — have combined to turn Luis Soffner from frustratingly inconsistent into the best keeper in the Big Ten.

“Louie just had a little bit more at the right time, and we went with him,” Yeagley said, “and then he kind of hasn’t looked back.”

His college career being a finite resource, there might soon come a time when Soffner ought to start thinking about a professional future.

At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, athletic and agile, Soffner fits what Yarborough termed “the professional goalkeeper prototype.” His communication has improved. He is confident. He is an attractive professional prospect if not in the MLS then somewhere, surely.

“We obviously have to temper that accordingly,” Yarborough said of Soffner’s pro potential. “But at the same time, I think he has the skills, I think he’s got the personality and certainly now has the experience to take that step and do a very good job.”

But the young man so drilled in concentration, so desiring of focus, does not want to think too deeply about the future. When a goalkeeper’s mind wanders, mistakes follow, whether they be in training or in games or in the panorama view of a full season.

Soffner, always the good captain, only has eyes for what is in front of him, and for the silverware (footy speak for winning a trophy) in front of him — Big Ten regular-season title, Big Ten tournament title, NCAA Championship …

“I don’t want to think about it too much, I guess, because right now, we have a few trophies on our mind,” Soffner says.

So for the time being, the four-year starter, the senior captain, is worried only about this weekend, about the next opponent. No one would know better, surely, about the value and importance of what lies in front of him than Soffner, a stalwart — at one time shaky, but never replaceable — for one of the most storied men’s soccer programs ever.

All that matters, right now, to the 6-foot-4, 22-year-old from St. Louis is the No. 1 shirt, the clean sheet, the next step toward a championship. And the 3-foot by 3-foot patch of dead earth at the heart of his domain, the place where he must be at his most able, in the moments when he is most vulnerable.

This story originally ran in Volume 22, Issue 3 of Inside Indiana Magazine. To subscribe, call 800-524-9527.

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