Men's Soccer: First Look

State of the Program: In transition. Mike Noonan, who guided Brown to 10 NCAA tournament appearances and eight Ivy League titles in 15 seasons, took over last spring as Clemson’s fifth head men’s soccer coach, bringing to a close an era under the direction of Trevor Adair (now an assistant at Old Dominion) and Phil Hindson (now head coach at UNC-Pembroke). Noonan, who succeeded Adair as head coach at Brown in 1995, inherits a team that lost an all-star goalkeeper and three members of its back line, and which suffered the last two seasons from a lack of scoring punch.

What’s New: Since arriving at Clemson, Noonan has added 10 freshmen and a pair of transfers, and newcomers now make up more than half the roster. Among those likely to make early contributions include Kurt Freeman, a transfer from West Virginia who was one of the DC area’s top high school scorers; Erik Mozzo, a transfer from St. Leo’s in Florida who started 14 matches in goal and had a 1.54 goals-allowed average as a freshman; former Texas club teammates Wesley Nelson and Marco Alcocer; DC-area prep standouts KC Onyeador and Cedric Bullock; Georgia ODP veteran Michael Derbecker; and English club youth development products Jack Metcalf and Alex Stockinger. The all-new coaching staff includes Phillip Jones, who served on Noonan’s staff last season at Brown, and John Murphy, who brings a wealth of collegiate, MLS and international to the program. The first American-born coach to work in British football as a coach and manger (with Livingston FC of the Scottish first division), Murphy holds a prestigious UEFA badge and has also helped develop successful goalkeepers with three MLS clubs. At the collegiate level, he was a six-time coach of the year and was twice a NSCAA national coach of the year nominee.

Reasons For Optimism: A fresh start should be energizing for a program that has spent much time in recent years frustrated by unrewarded effort. Noonan will build around an experienced core of midfield players (Tommy Drake, Eric Cava and Riley Sumpter) that know the pain of ‘almost,’ but also share the experience of having knocked off some of the nation’s premier teams. In 2009, Clemson was the only team to defeat both NCAA champion Maryland and runnerup North Carolina; and a year ago the Tigers upset eventual NCAA champion Virginia and a top-15 NC State team en route to a 5-11-1 record.

Cause For Concern: Clemson’s strength last season was its back line, anchored by goalkeeper Joe Bendik and multi-year starters Greg Eckhardt (a national-team pool player) and David Newton. All must be replaced, leaving sophomore Francklin Blaise as the team’s top returning defender. Up front, the Tigers were shut out seven times, and there were only four games in which they scored more than one goal. The Tigers should be good enough to possess the ball in the midfield, but need better productivity up front to have any chance of success against a steady diet of elite opponents.

How The Schedule Shapes Up: The season-opener at South Carolina on Sept. 3 will kick off a stretch of four road matches in five games for the Tigers, who, after playing East Tennessee State at home on Sept. 6, will travel to Wake Forest, Virginia Tech and Furman. Defending NCAA champion Virginia will visit Riggs Field on Sept. 25, and beginning with the St. Louis match on Oct. 1, the Tigers will play eight of their final 10 games at home, including ACC matches against Boston College, Duke and NC State. Clemson will play at Maryland and North Carolina.

O&W’s Outlook: Noonan faces challenges on a variety of fronts in his first season, as he attempts to breathe excitement into a storied program which, though it made a run to the NCAA Final Four in 2005, hasn’t finished higher than fifth in the ACC since 2001. With major issues on both defense and attack, it’s probably unrealistic to expect a dramatic turnaround this season. It will be important for the Tigers to maintain their thorn-in-the-paw status against ACC opponents as they build for the future.

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