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Boys soccer preview

Field features old contenders, new challengers

Menwith Hill's Shaun Brooks, seen here in last season's Division III final against Brussels at the DODDS-Europe soccer championships in Kaiserslautern, Germany, will be returning for the Mustangs this season.

The 2014 DODDS-Europe boys soccer season opened last weekend on an unpredictable scene of contenders in flux at all three divisional levels. Saturday brings the first full schedule of games in the regular season; the DODDS-Europe tournament will play out May 19-22 at sites around Kaiserslautern, Germany.

Here’s a look at the season ahead.

Division I

Frustrated 2013 also-rans, take note: it’s safe to expect an entirely new championship-game matchup when the large-school title is settled this spring.

One member of last year’s final is officially out of the running. Heidelberg closed at the end of last school year, coming within a win of punctuating the school’s athletics legacy with a storybook soccer title.

Meanwhile, the squad that spoiled the Lions’ happy ending, International School of Brussels, is a long way away from championship form.

The Raiders return just six players from last year’s championship roster. The losses include all of their All-Europe and All-Tournament talent, and the 2014 roster includes no seniors.

Coach Philippe Kaisin frames the season as “a big rebuilding year.”

“I will have the youngest team out there,” Kaisin said. “Our strength is our enthusiasm.”

Teams squeezed out of last year’s championship picture will be just as enthusiastic to replace the Lions and Raiders in the season’s final game.

Ramstein and Patch are poised to make a move after reaching the 2013 European semifinals.

The Royals, who took a perfect record into last season’s tournament, return a pair of All-Europe midfield stars in Cameron Hansen and Brienno Illari. The Panthers are similarly stocked with proven senior talent.

Kaiserslautern, Vilseck and Wiesbaden will each look to build on winning 2013 seasons, with the Raiders and Warriors flush with incoming contributors from Heidelberg. Kaiserslautern coach Ken Robinson said his team is anxious to contend after its own “rebuilding year” in 2013.

“Our expectation is to make the finals,” Robinson said. “That is our sole goal this season.”

Lakenheath lurks as the division’s sleeper. New coach John Mitchell brings nine returnees back from last year’s solid squad, including goalie Christian Huizar and fullback Dillon Thompson to anchor a sturdy defensive unit.

Division II

A fourth straight European championship won’t come easily for the Marymount Lions.

That doesn’t mean it won’t come.

Simone Trott, the coach and athletic director of the Rome-based program, called last season’s third consecutive title the “last hurrah” of the core group of seniors that started and perpetuated the school’s DODDS-Europe dynasty.

The absence of those key players certainly throws Marymount’s reign into peril. But there is enough talent on hand that this season could end in yet another “hurrah” for the Lions.

Much of that talent is in the crucial midfield area. First-team All-Europe star Raffaele Bevilacqua returns for his senior season; he’ll line up alongside Lotanna Mba, who dazzled in a breakout freshman campaign last year. And while most of the rest of the roster is stocked with unfamiliar names, those names might be attached to the next generation of Lion champions.

Or, if the rest of the deep Division II field has its way, perhaps not.

All-Europe stars Lamberto Lambertini and Francesco Dinmore return for their senior seasons with American Overseas School of Rome, Marymount’s fierce crosstown rival and last year’s European runner-up. Head coach Niall Boyle cites “passing” and “speed” as his team’s primary strengths; likely not coincidentally, those are the two facets of the game that Marymount dominated in winning the European crown a season ago.

AFNORTH, meanwhile, is well-positioned to crack the Italian monopoly on the European title game. Tenured head coach Kevin Padron returns 11 varsity contributors from last year’s European semifinalist, including senior defender Gabriel DeSouza and young midfielders Logan Harless, Claudius Karich and Eren Yabici.

First-year head coach Isaac Michaels leads a skilled Black Forest Academy squad into the season, and boasts proven seniors Jordan Stemple, Daniel Mueller and Keith Min in a dangerous Falcon lineup.

Aviano, Naples or Vicenza could emerge from their rugged all-Italy regular season schedule with the proper seasoning for a run at the title.

And the combined team of Schweinfurt and Bamberg might accumulate enough players from their two Bavarian campuses to field a winner; midfielders Lucas Sekutera and Ben Sekutera and striker DJ Bascombe are a nice start.

Division III

DODDS-Europe’s two incumbent small-school finalists enter the season solid bets to return to the spring’s final game.

Defending champion Brussels, a 4-2 winner over Menwith Hill in last year’s title game, welcomes senior midfielder Merab Chitanava back alongside eight other returning varsity players, and adds some capable reinforcements in freshmen Tim Wilkinson and Blake Cornforth.

But the Brigands’ losses are considerable, including 2013 Stars and Stripes boys soccer Athlete of the Year Kristian Javier. Compounding that problem, head coach Alex Walford said, is a preseason injury bug that has slowed the team’s preparations for its title defense. A tough early schedule against the upper-division likes of AFNORTH, ISB, and Lakenheath only ratchets up the pressure.

Walford said the Brigands plans to “stay healthy as a team and focus on our style of play” in hopes of surviving the grind with title hopes intact.

The Mustangs stand ready to seize on any exposed vulnerability. Menwith Hill coach Ken Brooks has nine returning varsity players of his own to work with, and said an experienced midfield provides a “strong foundation” for a team that is “generally inexperienced.”

“If we can play disciplined soccer and stay positive, we’ll be successful,” Brooks said.

Sigonella, a 2013 semifinalist alongside since-promoted Alconbury, will throw its considerable star power into the fray. Star midfielder Alessandro Thomas can complete a four-year All-Europe career with a standout senior season, and junior keeper Thomas Wray is a stingy presence in goal.

broome.gregory@stripes.com

Twitter: @broomestripes

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