The South Carolina’s men’s soccer team finished 7-10 overall in 2018 and hasn’t qualified for the NCAA Tournament since 2016, but this year’s team is different, signaled Gamecocks assistant coach Justin Cook. “One word: attitude,” he said. “That’s it.”
While the team finished on the short last season, the players worked hard in the spring and the summer, according to head coach Mark Berson. After months of practice, South Carolina competed against Duke, Wofford, and UNC-Wilmington in preseason play spanning from August 17 to 25, where they finished with one win, one loss, and one tie.
The preseason is crucial to building a successful season, Berson said. What would’ve been practice time is substituted for exhibition matches, which the South Carolina coaching staff uses as a testing ground for its soccer players.
The highlight of the performance may have their 2-2 tie with the Duke Blue Devils in Durham on August 17, who were ranked 10th overall in the United States Soccer Coaches preseason poll. During this time, they can not only test new tactics, but train and evaluate players, whether they are an incoming freshman or an outgoing senior. “You generally sacrifice results,” said Berson. Yes, winning is important, but there’s another, more important mission: conditioning the players and finding out which group of players performs best together.
Similarly to football, South Carolina’s schedule isn’t easy. The Gamecocks open up for business Friday night at 7:00, and will set up shop at Riggs Field the home of arch rival, Clemson. It’s a game that soccer fans in the state fans annually mark their calendars for, Berson said.
Both schools have a rich tradition in the sport and have been consistent contenders for national tournament throughout their respective histories. With strong fan support, both schools regularly finish in the nation’s top ten in average attendance, nearly guaranteeing an electric atmosphere.
That’s just the beginning for South Carolina, an affiliate member of Conference USA. The conference happens to be one of the nation’s toughest, according to assistant coach Tyler Kettering.
The reason for this is simple, according to Cook. While the majority of teams in most conferences only run one style of play, teams in the C-USA run both styles of soccer strategy: possession-based and attack-based.
Kettering previewed two teams that could be particularly challenging for the Gamecocks.
Kentucky finished 19-2-1 in 2018 and is ranked eighth in the preseason national rankings. The Wildcats attacked with strength in 2018, as they found the back of the net on 49 occasions. Their strong suit was also defense, Kettering said. “If you send too many attackers forward, you can end up leaving yourself vulnerable,” he said. That’s because the Wildcats defended well when opponents drove deep into their territory last season.
Charlotte was 14-5-2 in 2018, and is ranked 21st in the preseason poll. Kettering said that the 49ers challenge opponents physically and try to force mistakes from opponents in the opponent’s half of the field. To combat it, “our passing, out tempo, our time on the ball, has to be really, really quick,” he said.
Along with its conference rivals, South Carolina is improving defensively. The Gamecocks gave up an average of 1.13 goals per game in 2018, finishing 76th in the nation. While South Carolina gave away 20 overall goals to opponents, it was a steady rise from 2017, where they allowed 31 goals. Kettering said that the progress was encouraging, but the coaching staff wanted the Gamecocks to trim that number to 15 or less this season.
On the attack, junior Mitchell Myers leads South Carolina with five assists. His favorite target is Luca Mayr, a senior midfielder who accounted for four goals and three assists in 2018, is expected to lead the charge for the Gamecocks offense. Maya is speedy, quick off the ball, and powerful, according to Kettering.
Both Mayr and Myers will be slowed with early season injuries, though. South Carolina inked 12 signees in the spring, many of which will be asked to step in for the Gamecocks this fall.
Kettering said that there was a lot of turnover on the Gamecocks roster in the offseason, but they’re ready to move forward with a group that features freshmen and transfer players. “We have 50 percent of our roster that are brand new players, that have never put on a SC uniform,” Berson said.