Just barely into the preseason, men’s soccer coach Mike Noonan has been impressed with how his fourth team at Clemson has progressed in terms of its depth and athleticism, and perhaps just as crucially, its cohesion and maturity.
“There’s more continuity, and there’s more maturity in the team,” said Noonan, whose Tigers will take on Wofford tonight at 7 p.m. at CESA Soccer Complex in Greer.
“It’s less coach-directed and more player-centric, if that makes sense. Obviously, the coaches control practice and what goes on there, but the stuff that goes on outside on the periphery is now being taken care of by the players without the coaches’ direction. It’s a relief, in some respects, for the coaching staff, and it’s also empowering for the players.
“Those are great signs that things are continuing to progress along a path to where we want to be in terms of that maturation from within.”
Noting the team’s high fitness level entering the first few training sessions, Noonan said that athletic success goes hand-in-hand with the sort of intangible characteristics that the Tigers are demonstrating.
“We’re certainly more athletic, and we certainly have more talent and depth than we’ve had in the past,” said Noonan. “And most of all, it’s just a fun group of guys to be around. When you have good quality of character, generally, the team chemistry comes out from that. I’m not saying that we didn’t have character in the past, it’s just that we’ve matured because we have some seniors and a couple of graduate students
“There’s a balance amongst the classes, and there’s a way that we’re doing it that people have to understand and then can teach in turn. Those are all intangible characteristics that a coach looks for when he’s trying to develop and form a team. So I’m very pleased with that.”
As for what’s taking place on the field, Noonan says he’s working from a blueprint devised in the spring.
“On the field, and coming off of last spring, there’s a way that we want to play,” he said. “The players know the way that we want to play. Is everything working yet? No. Just four days in, we really hadn’t worked on the offensive side of the ball yet. But the competitive level in practice has been unmatched since I’ve been here. Those are all the positive things.
“On the other side, I just think that putting the pieces together is going to be a lot more difficult and challenging for me. It’s a matter of what’s the best system. We have two or three, but we can’t know which will work the best until we get some of the new personnel involved. Are we going to play better in a three-man midfield, or a four-man midfield? Are we going to play better in a two-front, or a three-front, depending on personnel? But those are good problems to have that we haven’t had in the past, though logistically it’s going to take time to put it all together. So that’s pretty much what I’ve seen over the first few days.”
The new personnel includes three freshmen from a nationally dominant club team (Montverde Academy Eagles in Orlando, FL), and a fourth who was a local prep standout.
“The freshmen are capable of competing to play,” said Noonan. “Thales Moreno and Alex Happi are both legitimately pushing starters for their spots. Mauriq Hill has had a little bit of a shin-issue, so he was shut-down for a couple of weeks before preseason, but in the last couple of days has gotten sharper. He gives us great depth in the backline.
“Up-front, Austen Burnikel, who’s from Greer and played for CESA, is a physical presence. We’ve got to get his speed of play and recognition of certain things a little bit quicker, but he has some ability.”
A pair of graduate student transfers from Brown (where they were previously recruited by Noonan) have already given a lift to the program by providing experience and leadership that’s been influential both on and off the field.
“The two big additions are Bobby Belair and Thomas McNamara, the two graduate students from Brown, who’ve already impacted the team,” said Noonan. “They’re both mature and outstanding players, and they’re valuable for their leadership. McNamara, for instance, can play any place in the attacking five or six players. He can play as a No. 10, or as a wide-left or a wide-right player. Depending on the system, we can plug him in, so a lot will revolve around where he is.”