Coming into the spring exhibition season, Coach Mike Noonan and his Clemson men’s soccer team were looking in some phases of their itinerary to experiment.
That encompassed things like comparing systems (4-4-2 vs. 4-3-3) for productivity, or developing a standout goalkeeping corps by giving Andrew Tarbell and Chris Glodack more early match time than presumptive starter Cody Mizell.
At some point, however, and particularly from a lineup and personnel standpoint, experimentation by design gave way to experimentation by necessity.
“It’s a bit of a grind, right now,” said Noonan. “The guys have been working really hard. We’ve tried to create a competitive environment, because initially we had so many players who were returning. But through attrition and injuries, our numbers have kind of dwindled down. We’ve had a number of guys go ahead and take care of some minor surgical issues now, so that they’re ready to play in the summer.
“Also, we’ve had one of our main players out, because Alex Stockinger tore his ACL. The silver lining to that is that we’ve been able to see a lot of our freshmen who redshirted last fall. So they’ve come in and have been able to play, and getting a look at them has probably been the best part of the spring, so far.”
Noonan downplays springtime results, and says that while the Tigers have created a lot of scoring opportunities in their first four spring matches, they’ve often failed to convert. Though potentially worrisome, Noonan allows that some of that difficulty in finding the net is due to so many players being forced out of their natural positions.
“Up-front, we’ve been without Austin Savage, and we’ve had to play Brynjar (Benediktsson) in some midfield positions,” Noonan explained. “That’s been one of the tougher parts of the spring. Because of the injuries, we’ve had to play players where they may not feature in the fall. Jack Metcalf, who’s normally an outside back or an outside midfielder, has been playing center-mid.
“And it’s just out of necessity, because Alex is hurt. Brynjar, who we’re probably going to feature as a winger or as a straight-out center-forward, is playing wide-right, or wide-left in the midfield.”
On the other hand, while center-backs Francklin Blaise and Phanuel Kavita have been sidelined, Noonan discovered some defensive options which might not have occurred otherwise.
“Matt Hilton and Matt Erasmus recently played center back for us,” said Noonan. “Neither one of them has ever played center-back in their life. Matt Erasmus has been a midfielder, and Matt Hilton’s been a left-back. So those are the kinds of things that we’ve been dealing with in the spring. And, quite frankly, because we had to play them, we discovered that Matt Erasmus, if he learns how to communicate properly, can be a fantastic center-back.”
Overall, Noonan’s been impressed with the Tigers’ diligence and effort, and while noting that many of his players have become measurably stronger and faster, he concedes that he’d like to see as much measurable improvement in terms of soccer-intelligence.
In the meantime, he’s found it interesting to gauge the differences in how his players have dealt with the prospect of the competition that will arrive with the incoming freshman class in the fall.
“We’re on an outstanding path with the team, and we’ve signed a very good recruiting class, again, for next year,” said Noonan. “For some players, that will spur them to develop and work hard to make sure their place is protected, or else advanced. For others, that inhibits them, because their place is threatened.
“So we have a little mix of that going on right now in the spring, and it’s been fun to deal with because it’s a very good coaching challenge. As I’ve tried to tell them: Fear stands for False Evidence Appearing Real. Though they’ll certainly help, no eight or nine recruits that I’ve seen at this level are going to come in and start next year. That’s what I told the team after our game with the Charleston Battery. I said, ‘Look to the left and look to the right, guys. This is the group that is going to win next fall for Clemson.’”