Aug. 29, 2005
The South Carolina men’s soccer program ushers in a new era in 2005. This season will mark the Gamecocks’ first as an associate member of Conference USA. Head coach Mark Berson, who ranks No. 5 in wins among all active Division I coaches, returns nine starters and 14 letterwinners from a team that compiled a 12-7-1 record and made the school’s 17th appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The 2005 Gamecocks hope to carry that momentum into this season and build on the success a youthful squad achieved a year ago.
“In 2004, our team jumped out to an 8-2-1 record and had a great start to the season,” Berson said. “As we hit the middle part of the season, we didn’t get some bounces, and we had a little bit of misfortune here and there. The guys fought through it. One of our main goals was to finish the season strong last year, which we did, in winning three of our last four games, including wins against No. 13 Duke and No. 21 FIU. That earned us an NCAA Tournament bid, our third in four years.”
Carolina compiled an impressive resume last season. In addition to victories over Duke and Florida International, the Gamecocks picked up wins over a number of quality opponents, including William & Mary, Portland, Wake Forest and Clemson.
“We achieved our goal of getting into the NCAA Tournament and also of finishing strong,” Berson added. “Unfortunately, we did not win that tournament game at home. We lost in a very close game to College of Charleston. We would like to go further, and that’s our objective for this season. We have a very demanding schedule this year which will present us with a lot of chances to prove ourselves.”
Carolina will have a solid corps of veteran players on the roster this season, and a talented group of newcomers should provide the depth that was missing from a good group of veterans a year ago. A quartet of seniors, Josh Alcala, Greg Reece, Eric Szeszycki and Ryan Deter, will bear much of the leadership responsibility in 2005.
“As we head into the season, the strength of this team is that we have veteran team, and I think we have a lot of good depth in our incoming class,” Berson said. “Our goals are to win the regular season Conference USA Championship, win the Conference USA Tournament and get an NCAA bid. After that, the objective is to advance in the NCAA Tournament.”
Szeszycki, a midfielder, finished at the Gamecocks’ second-leading scorer in 2004 with 14 points on five goals and four assists. Alcala, who has made the move from defender into a midfield/forward position this season, was fifth with 11 points on three goals and five assists a year ago. Reece returns to anchor the defense. He helped the Gamecocks collect five shutouts last season and scored seven points on three goals and an assist.
USC will start the season without Deter’s services. He is expected to be out up to eight weeks after a foot injury he sustained over the summer. As a junior, Deter finished with 14 points on five goals and four assists to tie with Szeszycki for the second-most on the team.
Carolina will have to fill the role of leading scorer with a different player this season. Sebastian Lindholm led USC with 16 points on six goals and four assists as a freshman, but will miss the season with a torn ACL.
The Gamecocks will have holes to fill, and the most glaring loss is in the goal. All-American Brad Guzan, who played every minute of the 2003 and 2004 seasons between the posts, opted to forgo his final two seasons of eligibility to enter Major League Soccer. Guzan was the No. 2 pick, becoming the highest goalkeeper every drafted into the MLS, of expansion team CD Chivas USA.
“The loss of Brad Guzan in the goal is a huge. It’s a loss that we’re going to have to work to compensate for by working hard to improve in other areas,” Berson explained. “Everyone is going to have to pull a little bit harder to make up for the fact that we lose Brad Guzan.”
Berson expects a wide open race to replace Guzan with four new goalkeepers on the team. Geoff del Forn, a transfer from Division III Piedmond College in Georgia, and a trio of freshmen, Mike Gustavson, Ryan Jenkins and Matt Mierley, will be contending for the position.
“We know that no matter who earns the position, they will be lacking experience at this level,” Berson added. “Clearly that is going to affect the way we play and the way we design things as a team. We want to try to keep things as solid as we can to enable our goalkeeper to develop back there in the position.
Del Forn has joined the Gamecocks after playing one season at Piedmont College in Georgia.
Gustavson, a high school All-American, completed a successful high school career at South Aiken High School in 2005 by helping the team to the 4A State Championship.
“Mike has good size, good range and excellent reach,” Berson said. “He reads the game well and distributes the ball very well.”
Jenkins is one of two Gamecock freshmen from Maryville High School, joining high school teammate Kyle Franklin. He was three-sport athlete in high school, playing football with Cade Thompson, a freshman quarterback on the USC football team.
“Ryan Jenkins has good size and a good range,” Berson notes. “As he focuses on soccer in college, he will be an exciting player to watch.”
Mierley comes to Carolina from Weston, Fla.
“Matt has a lot of experience as a winner at both the club and high school level,” Berson said. “That confidence and ability to win are very important.”
“It’s going to be a battle right down to the wire to determine who is going to come out as our No. 1 goalkeeper and No. 2 goalkeeper and so forth,” Berson said. “Clearly, that’s going to be a main focus of our preseason is to come out and get an idea who is going to be our leading candidate in the goal.”
Carolina returns a number of players who saw time in the starting lineup on defense last season, and Berson expects this to be a solid position for his team.
“Across the backline we have depth and experience and that is going to need to be a strong area for us,” he said.
Greg Reece, a two-year starter, returns as a center back.
“Greg has good size, he’s good in the air and has been a starter for us throughout his career. He’s led us to two NCAA Tournaments,” Berson noted. “He’s got the ability and experience to be a leader for us in the backline.”
Junior Ryan Leeton is back in action after undergoing surgery on his knee last season. Injury hampered Leeton in 2004 as he appeared in just six matches, making five starts.
“Ryan has good mobility, he’s a fierce a competitor,” Berson said. “He wins a lot of balls in the air and on the ground. He’s a good organizer.”
Sophomore Daniel Upchurch will also be competing for a spot at the center back position. Upchurch played in 15 matches with 14 starting assignments in 2004.
“Daniel played a lot of last year as a freshman when Ryan Leeton was down with injury,” Berson said. “He played well for us, and he’ll certainly be a guy who will contend for some time at the center back position.
B.J. Neilsen spent the 2004 season as a redshirt and will make his collegiate debut this year.
“B.J. needs experience, but had a very good off season,” Berson said. “He will certainly be pushing to earn time.”
On the left side, Ray Paracat returns as a sophomore. He appeared in 15 matches and made 10 starts a year ago.
“Ray played off and on last season. Once he gains consistency with his play and concentration, he should be able to assume more responsibility over on the left side,” Berson said.
Brennan Williams, a freshman from Columbia, could also see time on the left side.
“He has good speed and is a good athlete, but just lacks experience on the left-hand side,” Berson said of Williams.
On the right side, juniors Stephen Sprague and Makan Hislop return. Sprague joined the Gamecocks for his sophomore season after playing at Loyola (Chicago) in 2003. He played in 18 matches and started nine of those.
“Stephen played well last year after entering our program as a transfer,” Berson said. “He’s got experience, and he’s very athletic. He’s got good speed and reads the game well.
Hislop, a member of the Trinidad & Tobago Under-20 National Team, is a two-year starter for the Gamecocks.
“Makan has good ability at both the right back and center back position. He can push forward very well, and he’s good in the air,” Berson noted. “He strikes the ball extremely well and serves a good ball.”
The Gamecock midfield features also features a good blend of returning players and good depth.
Szeszcyki, who served as a team captain in 2004, will be the natural leader of the midfield corps.
“Eric has played a tremendous role on this team through the years,” Berson said. “He was one of our top goal scorers (last season). He’s very mobile, comes forward well and is a tireless worker for us.”
At the center midfield, Carolina has three players with significant experience in juniors Ralph Pace and Rob Charest and sophomore J.D. Moon.
Pace and Charest both transferred to South Carolina from UMass at the beginning of the spring semester, and enjoyed a productive spring season with the team. Moon saw time in every match as a freshman, and scored the game-winner in a 1-0 victory at No. 13 Wake Forest.
“Both Ralph and J.D. can play in the middle, along with Rob Charest,” Berson said. “Rob is good playmaker, reads the game well and has a very high work rate. He’s a good distributor of the ball.”
Sophomore Jeff Gross and junior David Ross, another transfer, both will provide support in the midfield, as will sophomore Matt King.
“We’re looking for improvement and development from Jeff to see how much responsibility he can take this fall,” Berson said. “As Matt gains experience, we will look for him to assume more responsibility.”
Ross transferred in from Appalachian State for the spring semester last year.
“David can play in the middle of the midfield, on the right and on the left,” Berson said. “He had a very good spring and should help us.”
Spencer Lewis, an incoming freshman from Irmo, will also be in the mix.
“Spencer is a very good passer, reads the game well,” Berson notes. “He can hold the ball well and distribute the ball well. He just needs to gain experience with this group at the college level.”
At the forward position, the Gamecocks took a blow this summer with the injuries to Sebastian Lindholm, the team’s leading scorer a year ago, and Deter.
Lindholm tore his ACL during the week leading up to USC’s NCAA Tournament match. He tore the ACL again after being cleared to play and was operated on during the summer. Lindholm will miss this season. Deter’s foot injury will keep him out at least eight weeks.
“Clearly, Sebastian’s presence will be missed,” Berson said. “He is a player we were counting on to help us. Ryan’s return is possible, but we just don’t know what the likelihood of that is or what kind of form he would be in when he returns. Ryan’s a senior and has had a great career here. I know how much he was looking forward to coming back and playing this year. We have high hopes that he will be able to return and contribute to our attacked as he has in the past.”
Luckily, the Gamecocks return three players that are proven scorers in Ayo Akinsete, Mike Sambursky and Josh Alcala.
Akinsete led Carolina in scoring during his freshman season in 2003. He scored five goals and added two assists for a total of 12 points in 2004.
“Ayo had a good year last year,” Berson said. “He needs to be more consistent, and if he can be more consistent in his production up front, he has all the tools to be a very good forward at the collegiate level. He’s a guy that can be a major impact player for our team.”
Samburksky finished as the Gamecocks’ assist leader with six last season. He also scored three goals for a total of 12 points.
“Mike had a tremendous year for us last year,” Berson added. “He is very explosive up front and he can play wide on the right. We need to put him in a position where he can run at players to create opportunities. He is very fast, very strong and has a great workrate. He’s a tireless worker up front for us”.
In addition to Akisnete and Sambursky, senior Josh Alcala will play in attacking role for the Gamecocks.
“Josh is a senior and a player that has played extremely well throughout his career for us,” Berson notes. “He’s got good agility and balance and tremendous skill on the ball. He passes the ball well and comes forward very well in the attack. With those three, that’s the group of forwards that we are going to rely on to give us experience and goals in big-game situations.”
Behind a group of veterans, USC has an exciting group of young players in freshman Kyle Franklin, Kevan Hawkins and David Smith.
It will be important for them to develop so that we can get some depth at the position, having lost Ryan and Sebastian. Kyle Franklin can play as a withdrawn forward or up top,” Berson said. “He has good strength and makes very good runs and reads opportunity to open things up well. He just lacks experience at the position.”
“Kevan Hawkins can play wide or as a forward up top. He has a good shot, and is very good on the turn. H reads game well and maintains possession well in first third of the field.”
“David Smith can also play up front or in the midfield, and will probably be used at both positions,” Berson said. “He’s very good at getting crosses in and has a good shot. He’s very comfortable on the ball.
The Gamecocks will feature a good blend of youth and experience, and that’s something Berson feels good about.
“I think we have a good blend of youth and experience,” he said. “At every position on the field, we should have some experience returning. Obviously, we will be lacking experience in the goal, which is a critical position. Every person on this team will have to work exceptionally hard to pull up the extra slack so we can let that person in goal develop and become the top flight goalkeeper that we need. That position probably won’t be decided until we move through the season a little bit. It’s possible that whoever emerges as the leader in preseason will maintain that spot, but it’s also possible that the goalkeeper may change as we move through the year. This is just one of the things we’re going to have to live with this year.”
Carolina’s four seniors should set the pace as the program competes in Conference USA for the first time.
“I think, from a team aspect, we’re very excited about the foundation that has been laid by this senior class,” Berson said. “We’ve been to the (NCAA) tournament three of the last four years. We’ve had significant wins over excellent programs during that period.”
The Gamecocks are ready for the adjustment to playing in a conference for the first time since 1994. USC had been an independent for all but two seasons of the program’s 27-year existence.
“As we enter Conference USA, we’re very excited about the new opportunities; we’re very excited about the new rivalries. At the same time, we know it’s going to be a challenge to go to places we’ve never been and play teams we don’t know anything about, and begin to establish this conference identity that I think will be a real plus to soccer program over the years. The competition in this league is excellent. It will certainly be one of the top conferences in the country based on its RPI and the performance of the teams in the past. We welcome this as a great opportunity, and we accept it as a great challenge for our program. We also understand that we’re going to be on a little bit of a learning curve as we adjust to new teams, new places, new rivalries. It will be an exciting period, and it gives us an excellent goal to shoot for as we try to compete for the conference championship in our first year back in a conference.”