The challenge this season for Washington men’s soccer coach Jamie Clark got a lot tougher after the MLS SuperDraft on Thursday.

Two Husky defenders — junior Ethan Bartlow, the Pac-12 defensive player of the year in 2019, and redshirt junior Freddy Kleemann — were drafted in the first round.

So now Clark will have to figure out how to replace his top two defenders, after already losing his top scorer from last season, Blake Bodily, a first-team All-American. Bodily began playing last year with the Portland Timbers while still having a year of college eligibility.

A header by Huskies Ethan Bartlow (5) bounces off the crossbar during the second half of the NCAA men’s soccer playoff match between University of Washington and Boston College at UW on Nov. 24, 2019. The Huskies won 2-0. 212188
MLS bound: Here’s how UW men’s soccer stars Ethan Bartlow and Freddy Kleemann made history

Because the college season was moved from the fall because of the coronavirus, the MLS SuperDraft came before the season instead of after it.

“It is bittersweet,” Clark said of having Bartlow and Kleemann drafted so close to the start of UW’s season. “Our purpose and our job is to help these guys maximize their potential, and move them forward in their lives, and we’re really proud of the guys. … But through no fault of our guys, the timing is very bad. We lose, in theory, two of the top 10 players in the country two weeks before our season.

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“But I couldn’t be any happier for them. They both got guaranteed contracts, so they have stability for a few years to play the game they love.”

Clark said the Huskies are hoping to start the season Feb. 4 against Northwest University of Kirkland, an NAIA Division II school.

“The Pac-12 for some reason didn’t allow us exhibition games,” said Clark, whose team is also planning on nonconference games against Seattle University, Portland, Gonzaga and Seattle Pacific before what is expected to be a 10-game conference season.

Clark, in his 10th season as UW coach, has built the program into one of the best in the country. The Huskies were ranked No. 1 much of last season (in 2019) before losing at Georgetown in the Elite Eight, and finished 17-4.

With most of the top players from that team eligible to return, the future looked very bright. Even losing three of those players to the MLS, Clark is still expecting good things.

“The optimist in me says, ‘I’m excited because some guys who have been waiting to get their turn, are now going to play,'” Clark said. “We have a great group still, but we just got a lot thinner — in a COVID year and in a year of a lot of uncertainty. … But if we can stay healthy, I think we can still be quite good.”

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One of the top returning Huskies is redshirt junior midfielder Lucas Meek from Mercer Island. A seldom-used reserve to start the season, he finished with six goals — including a team-high five game-winning goals — and seven assists, and his 19 points were second to Bodily (30).

“It would be a dream come true if there were a couple of Meeks to unearth (this season), because we would be in a great spot,” Clark said.

The Huskies seem set at goaltender after Sam Fowler took over the job as a freshman at midseason in 2019. He had shutouts in his first five games and allowed 0.64 points per game. Clark said the team has good depth at that spot, with junior Andrew Morrison and freshman Jacob Castro also very capable.

Getting the chance to replace Bartlow and Kleemann are junior Kendall Burks, a transfer from Cal State Bakersfield who is from Tacoma, and Ryan Sailor, a fifth-year senior who started two games last year.

“We think we have two potential first-round draft picks in the players replacing (Bartlow and Kleeman), but time will tell,” Clark said.

So even after losing so much talent, there is reason for optimism.

“This spring is going to be a real fun challenge,” Clark said. “It’s going to be a challenge to players and coaches. There are players who are going to play more than they thought they would. Losing two of the top 10 players in the country is going to hurt, but it’s an opportunity — and we have to view it that way. I am excited because we have to lean on some new guys and it will be exciting to see how they respond.

“But I couldn’t have more belief in the group and that we can get it done.”