Having completed his third season at Clemson, men’s soccer coach Mike Noonan now has a firm idea of the potential of a team that fell short of making the NCAA Tournament, but which got a late-season surge to finish in the ACC’s upper-tier.
Though the Tigers closed the season with a 6-9-5 record after dropping a 2-1 decision to Maryland in the second overtime of an ACC Tournament semifinal, their 3-2-3 league mark at the end of the regular season was good enough to earn the 4th-seed in the ACC Tournament (their highest seed since 2001) and the right to host Boston College in a quarterfinal match.
“A positive is that it would appear that we’ve made progress in terms of how competitive we are,” said Noonan. “Arguably, we played one of the most difficult schedules in the country. Within that you could see that we could play with and compete with the best teams in the country, but that we’re still developing and weren’t consistent enough.
“Against some of the best teams, and some of the teams on our schedule that I felt we should have beaten, our performance wasn’t up to par. And that prevents you from moving on to postseason play.”
To have reached the NCAA field without winning the ACC Tournament outright, the Tigers needed to finish at .500 or better, overall, and their late-season push wasn’t enough to offset a slow start against tough competition.
While conceding the challenges of the schedule, Noonan explained that the difficulty was by design, and that his priority was to gauge exactly where his team is at in terms of its development.
“We’ve got to get off to a better start,” said Noonan. “Because in the second half of the season, we seemed to take off. Did we do some things that haven’t been done here for a while? Yes, I think this year we took some steps in that regard. But we have to be more consistent, and we have to be able to sustain our performance from one match to the next, and even within games.”
Under Noonan, the Tigers have rapidly established a new identity, though not without grappling with some systemic issues from the program’s recent past.
“Not winning one-goal games, and not having the leadership and drive, or not understanding what it takes to be successful, that’s systemic,” said Noonan. “To change that is a challenge, though we’re making good progress in those areas. I think we now have people culturally in our program who’ll continue to do what’s required as far as being more competitive and winning on a more consistent basis.
“Being able to compete and finish where we did in the ACC, gave our seniors, who made it through the transitional phases of three different coaches, something to actually hang their hat on. So I thought that was a nice way for them to finish their careers as far as playing in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament.”
While the Tigers performed unevenly at times this season, the rigorous schedule taught them that they could match-up credibly with any team in the country.
“The record’s not where we want to be, because we definitely want to still be playing,” said Noonan. “But we know from the way that we played Maryland, Wake Forest, and North Carolina, that we can play with anybody. Also, teams like Indiana, and Notre Dame, who’s the No.1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They were hanging on in the last twenty-minutes of the game with us.
“So we know we can compete and play at that level. That’s what the schedule was meant to do. It was to see, ‘Okay, what’s it going to take, and how far are we from it?’ And we found out that we’re not there yet, but that we’re not far away.”
In fact, given the Tigers’ fluid and attractive brand of soccer, their ascension to the next level is perhaps as close as the addition of a difference-making player or two.
“We need a little bit more ball-possession in midfield, and we need a difference-maker like (former Tigers) Dane Richards, Wojtek Krakowiak, or Bruce Murray,” said Noonan. “We need someone of that ilk. The team is at a good place, but we need to have that person, or two people, that’s on every team’s scouting report as the guy they’ve got to stop. Most of the ACC teams, or teams at the top level, have that player.
“There aren’t many of them out there, and that’s why they go to the top teams. So getting the team right, and reshaping the entire team has been the first priority. Now, more specifically, it’s a matter of attracting that kind of player. But I’ll tell you, if someone has watched us play, and they’ve looked at the film, and they’re that kind of difference-maker, this is a pretty attractive team to come into right now.”