Louisville soccer has righted the ship with three straight wins heading into tonight's big match against Clemson. A win tonight would go a long way towards securing the Atlantic Division title, as Louisville is in a three-way tie with Syracuse and Clemson at the top (full standings can be found here). For the official preview of the match from Louisville, click here.
Despite a heartbreaking football loss at Clemson, Louisville fans have seemed to forge a friendly relationship with our friends down in South Carolina. It's carried over to the wide world of sports blogging too, so we're back with Shakin' The Southland (Clemson's home at SB Nation) to talk a little bit about tonight's match at Lynn Stadium. It's the perfect thing to talk about to get our minds off of Jameis, even if it only lasts five minutes. STS's Spencer York stopped by to give us some perspective from the other sideline. My answers are up at Shakin' The Southland right here.
CC: Clemson soccer has a storied history (two national championships, a host of College Cup appearances, ACC titles, etc.), but the team made its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2006 last season. What’s been the biggest difference that’s gotten them back to tournament contention?
STS: I think a lot of Clemson’s recent resurgence can be attributed to Coach Mike Noonan. The team has improved each year that he’s been here. His first year, 2010, was the first time Clemson had reached the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament since 2005. Another Quarterfinals appearance happened in 2011, followed by semifinal appearances in 2012 and 2013. Another factor would be the talent level, and Coach Noonan has had a direct impact on this. Clemson produced USMNT-level talent in the early 2000's with Stuart Holden and Oguchi Onyewu. After that, the talent dropped off. Coach Noonan has brought it back through recruiting and key transfers. Thomas McNamara was Clemson’s best player last year and he was a grad student transfer from Brown. One of this year’s starters, Iman Mafi, was an all-conference player as a freshman at Gardner-Webb last year. A lot of Coach Noonan’s recruits have youth experience with large clubs or national team programs.
CC: Looking at this year’s squad, what are their strengths and weaknesses?
STS: Clemson’s main strength this year is its back line, especially center back, and goalie. Clemson normally starts 3 seniors and 1 junior across the back. One of those seniors is captain and center back Phanuel Kavita. He has started every game at Clemson since he stepped on campus as a freshman. Clemson has two options at goalie, Andrew Tarbell and Chris Glodack, both of whom are very solid. Typically, Tarbell plays conference games and Glodack plays non-conference games.
One of Clemson’s main weaknesses is a lack of a true goal scoring threat at forward. McNamara was Clemson’s main goal scorer last year, but he played out of the midfield and at times the team became too reliant on him. Since Clemson doesn’t have a dominant center forward, Coach Noonan likes to rotate different players and at times the team will have lots of possession but very few scoring opportunities. Sophomore Austin Burnikel has started the past two games at forward and has scored in both games ,so hopefully his increased level of play continues. They have also broken long shutout streaks for Top 25 teams Virginia and Coastal Carolina recently, so hopefully the increased scoring continues as well. Another Clemson weakness, similar to Louisville’s, is lapses in concentration and focus that have really hurt the team. Clemson has had a somewhat worrying tendency to concede PKs and cheap goals. This has essentially lost us games against South Carolina, San Diego State, North Carolina, Syracuse, and Charlotte. Clemson has a very stout defense when it cleans up its mistakes. Just like with Louisville, the strengths are greater than the weaknesses.
CC: What will the starting lineup look like and who are the most dangerous players on the field for the Tigers?
STS: Just like Louisville, Clemson uses the en vogue 4-2-3-1. From left to right the back line is Amadou Dia, Kyle Fisher, Phanuel Kavita, and Ara Amirkhanian; Holding midfield of Paul Clowes and Iman Mafi; Attacking midfield of Saul Chinchilla, Thales Moreno and TJ Casner; forward is a grab bag with Austin Burnikel being the likely choice. Amadou Dia missed some time in the middle of the season so Saul Chinchilla and Joseph Amon have logged times at right back also. Oliver Shannon and Alex Happi have seen time at holding mid, and Shannon’s playing time has increased over the last few games. At attacking mid, Manolo Sanchez comes off the bench to log significant time on the wing and Mafi can push up there as well. Like I said earlier, the forward position is basically a crap shoot when it comes to playing time. Austin Burnikel has been really increased his level of performance lately, but Diego Campos, Kyle Murphy and Bobby Belair have also seen plenty of playing time.
Even though he doesn’t start, Manolo Sanchez is Clemson’s most dangerous weapon offensively. He was one of the leading scorers last year but didn’t score this season until recently. However, he is very involved with attacking play when he is in the game. Right back Ara Amirkhanian is one of this team’s leaders. He was moved to fullback this season from attacking mid and he loves to get forward to swing crosses into the box. He’s very physical as well. TJ Casner is excellent on free kicks. Paul Clowes is a deep lying playmaker who is very adept at playing long diagonal passes for the wings to run onto.
CC: When Clemson is playing their best soccer, what are some of the hallmarks of their style?
STS: When they’re at their best, the attacking mids are rotating with one another, the forwards and wings are making dangerous runs to get behind the defense, and the fullbacks (both are converted wingers) are bombing forward to make crosses into the box. The attacking 4 will link up and pass their way around the defense. Chinchilla and Campos play in the Costa Rican national team program and like to use their individual skill to beat defenders. When they’re off their game, there is a lack of dangerous and creative runs so the ball movement slows down or stops all together. The Tigers get stuck passing it around the back line. They’ll hold onto the ball but won’t create any clear chances.
CC: After watching this team all year, how do you see the end of the season, ACC tournament and NCAA tournament playing out for Clemson in 2014?
STS: This team is starting to heat up at just the right time. Clemson has won three in a row, including two straight against top 25 teams that had long shut out streaks. Clemson is starting to create more chances, score more goals, and still maintain their stout defending. Before the season, I expected the team to compete for a top 4 ACC spot. Losing McNamara and his goal scoring would hurt, but I knew these team had the talent. Here we are at the end of the season with a chance to do it. If this hot streak continues, I think the Tigers can make some noise once again in the ACC tournament. Noonan’s teams have always played well in the tournament, so I think another semifinal appearance at the least isn’t too much to ask for. We should have the RPI to get in the NCAA tournament, and I’m hoping for a first round win. I would like for us to host a game but I don’t really see that happening.
Thanks again to Spencer York and Shakin' the Southland. Head to Lynn Stadium tonight for Senior Night honors and a great match. We'll talk about all of it on Monday at the usual time with a Weekend Soccer Update.