For the first time in three years there won’t be any changes in the 12-school ACC men’s soccer lineup. Former Big East members Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse have played in the league for two years now, and Louisville came on board last season to replace Maryland. But the conference’s coaches have tinkered with the ACC tournament format again.
For the second year in a row, the tournament will comprise the top 10 teams from the league’s two divisions. However, all tournament games will be played at campus sites of the higher seeds, including the championship. That’s a big departure from past practice, when the semifinals and final were held at a predetermined site.
The big reason for the change was attendance. Given the ACC’s reputation as one of the best and most competitive leagues in the nation, the coaches want to turn the championship into an event commensurate with its status.
“We didn’t have anyone at our final,” N.C. State coach Kelly Findley said of last year’s ACC tournament, because fans had to travel too far. The semifinalists at WakeMed Soccer Park in Cary were tournament champion Clemson, Louisville, Notre Dame and Syracuse. The games drew barely 2,000 fans for the weekend, and only 784 for a thrilling double-overtime final.
The other big change in the ACC is a new coach at Wake Forest. Bobby Muuss, a former Deacons assistant (2001-07) and University of Denver head coach (2008-14), succeeds Jay Vidovich, who left for to be head coach of the third-tier USL Pro team T2, an affiliate squad of Major League Soccer’s Portland Timbers.
Who should contend for the ACC championship? Round up the usual suspects.
Virginia, which won its seventh NCAA title last fall, must replace five starters but boasts the No. 2 recruiting class in the nation and is ranked No. 2 nationally in the preseason coaches poll. The Cavaliers also benefit from what might be the easiest ACC schedule, playing only three of the top six opponents. No. 4 Notre Dame, No. 5 North Carolina, No. 11 Clemson, No. 15 Syracuse, No. 18 Louisville, Wake Forest and Duke have veteran teams. All of those except Duke made the NCAA tournament last year, and six ACC teams – all but Wake Forest – advanced at least to the round of 16 in the NCAAs.
N.C. State could make a big jump in the ACC with its latest top-25 recruiting class, although the Wolfpack has more holes to fill than previously anticipated because of offseason transfers.
Much of the jockeying in the standings could result as much from which schools don’t meet in the regular season. Under the unbalanced schedule, each school plays only eight of its 11 league opponents. This year that means there will be no UNC-N.C. State or Duke-Wake Forest meetings in the regular season.
The ACC men’s season officially kicks off Friday with all three area teams in action. Duke hosts the John Rennie Nike Invitational, with Elon and DePaul playing at 5 p.m., followed by Duke and Saint Mary’s at 7:30. On Sunday, Elon takes on Saint Mary’s at noon, with Duke and DePaul playing at 2:30.
UNC hosts Florida International at 7 p.m. Friday, while N.C. State plays Furman at 5 p.m. in Charleston, S.C. UNC returns to action at 7 p.m. Sunday against visiting Santa Clara, and N.C. State is at College of Charleston for a 2:30 p.m. match.
Here are previews of the three ACC Triangle teams:
Coach: John Kerr (70-51-18 in 7 years at Duke, 151-110-31 in 16 years overall)
2014 record: 9-9-1, 4-4-0 ACC
Finish: 3rd in ACC Coastal, 7th ACC overall, no NCAA bid
Preseason ranking: Unranked
Starters returning: 6
Key losses: M Sean Davis (1 goal-10 assists-12 points), F Nick Palodichuk (4-2-10), M Seo-in Kim (transfer to Cal-Santa Barbara, 2-1-5), D Nat Eggleston (2-0-4), M Jack Coleman (1-1-3), M Matt Slotnick (2-1-5), D Chase Keesling (0-0-0), So. GK Joe Ohaus (2.00 goals-against avg., 1 shutout)
Key returnees: Jr. F Brody Huitema (5-5-15, So. M Cameron Moseley (5-1-11), So. M Brian White (2-3-7), So. F Jeremy Ebobisse (2-3-7), Sr. M Zach Mathers (2-1-5), So. D Markus Fjortoft (1-1-3), Sr. F Luis Rendon (0-0-0), So. M Cody Brinkman (0-0-0), So. M Bryson Asher (0-0-0), So. D Kevon Black (0-0-0), Gr. GK Wilson Fisher (1.25 GAA, 1 SO)
Top newcomers: Gr. GK Mitch Kupstas (1.04 GAA, 6 SO at Brown), Gr. D Tyler Hilliard (3-1-7 at Syracuse), Gr. D Jared Rist (1-1-3 at Georgetown), M Ciaran McKenna, D Oliver Spring
Won’t play: Boston College, Louisville, Wake Forest
Overview: “Focused” is the watchword for the Blue Devils, whose goal this fall is a return to the NCAA tournament, which they have missed for the past three years. Despite the tough competition in the ACC – six nationally ranked teams, including three in the top five – Duke is well-armed for a postseason run.
“This is the deepest team we’ve ever had, since I’ve been head coach,” said John Kerr, entering his eighth season at his alma mater. Kerr has a solid cast of veterans returning, some promising freshmen and an influx of graduate transfer students who could make an immediate impact at positions where the Blue Devils need help.
The biggest concern is on defense, which Kerr said got “a mandate” to shore things up after allowing 34 goals last season.
The goalkeeper situation was already up in the air before sophomore Joe Ohaus, who started 13 games last year, decided to leave the team last week. Graduate student Wilson Fisher performed well in six late-season starts after Ohaus was injured, but he is being pushed by graduate transfer Mitch Kupstas, who turned in six shutouts as Brown’s starting goalkeeper in 2014. The third candidate is senior Wade Clement, who has not seen any game action in three seasons at Duke.
There is precedent for a grad transfer to start in goal for the Blue Devils. Two years ago, Alex Long started in his one season at Duke after transferring from South Carolina.
Coach: Carlos Somoano (61-17-13 in four years, all at UNC)
2014 record: 15-5-2, 5-2-1 ACC
Finish: 2nd in ACC Coastal, T-2nd ACC overall, advanced to NCAA quarterfinals
Preseason ranking: No. 5
Starters returning: 5
Key losses: D Boyd Okwuonu (0-0-0), F Andy Craven (15-5-35), F Tyler Engel (8-5-21), F Rob Lovejoy (5-8-18), M Verneri Valimaa (5-2-12), F Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler (transfer to Elon, 3-4-10 in 2013), GK Brendan Moore (0.85 GAA, 9 SO)
Key returnees: Jr. M Omar Holness (2-7-9), Sr. M Raby George (2-3-7), Sr. M Alex Olofson (0-2-2), So. F Alan Winn (3-4-10), Jr. M Nyambi Jabang (4-1-9), R-Sr. D Jordan McCrary (1-2-4 in 2013), Sr. D Jonathan Campbell (1-2-4), So. F Zach Wright (1-5-7)
Top newcomers: D Alex Comsia, D Frej Enberg, M Sean Wilson, D Will Campbell, M Dominic Jensen, M Zack Olofson, M Martin Salas, F Jelani Peters, Fr. F Alex Moztarzadeh
Won’t play: Boston College, Clemson, N.C. State
Overview: The Tar Heels came close to playing for a national championship a year ago, bowing out in the NCAA quarterfinals to eventual finalist UCLA thanks to an untimely, and perhaps unwarranted, red card and an uncharacteristic loss in a penalty shootout.
For UNC to make a run at a third NCAA title, coach Carlos Somoano will have to meld a 10-man recruiting class that was ranked 10th nationally and three redshirt freshmen with a solid core returning from last year. Somoano originally signed 11 freshmen for this year, but midfielder D.J. Mason of Panther Creek High opted to turn pro with the Carolina RailHawks of the NASL.
“We have a nice balance of players and good quality on all three lines,” Somoano said. “Now we have to iron (out) which are the best combinations.”
The combinations needed the most are replacements for the high-scoring forward trio of Andy Craven, Tyler Engel and Rob Lovejoy as well as the two linchpins on defense, central defender Boyd Okwuonu and goalkeeper Brendan Moore.
Another question mark is the goalkeeper. Senior Sam Euler has logged only 23 minutes of action in his career. Euler’s time in the program gives him an advantage over redshirt freshman James Pyle, but Somoano is giving both a long look and might even open the season using two goalkeepers if there isn’t a clear-cut starter.
Coach: Kelly Findley (32-33-10 in four years at N.C. State, 108-80-25 in 11 years overall)
2014 record: 7-7-4, 1-4-3 ACC
Finish: 5th in ACC Atlantic, 10th ACC overall, no NCAA bid
Preseason ranking: Unranked
Starters returning: 8
Key losses: D Conor Donovan (1-1-3, turned pro with Orlando City, MLS), M Michael Bajza (transfer to South Florida, 4-4-12), F Nick Surkamp (4-3-11), M Matt Ingram (0-4-4), D Ryan Metts (0-0-0), D Moss Jackson-Atogi (0-0-0), M Roland Minogue (transfer to Charlotte, 2-1-5), F Israel Evans (transfer to UNC Pembroke)
Key returnees: Sr. M Holden Fender (1-4-6), So. F Travis Wannemuehler (3-4-10), So. F Ade Taiwo (0-1-1), Jr. M Yanni Hachem (4-1-9), Jr. D Reed Norton (3-0-6), So. M Zach Knudson (4-2-10), So. D Caleb Duvernay (0-1-1), So. D Matias Fracchia (0-0-0), Sr. GK Alex McCauley (1.21 GAA, 6 SO)
Top newcomers: F Tanner Roberts, M Julius Duchscherer, M-D Ben Locke, D Aidan Wixted, F Clayton Sparks
Won’t play: Pittsburgh, UNC, Virginia Tech
We’re getting better every day, a week from the season starting.
NC State coach Kelly Findley
Overview: The Wolfpack showed enough resolve last year to overcome a rash of injuries that sidelined two starting forwards and two starting defenders for long stretches of the season. Yet State stayed competitive and managed to qualify for the ACC tournament, no small achievement in this league.
However, the Wolfpack’s return to the top echelons of ACC soccer probably hinges on its improved depth and overall health.
“We’re getting better every day, a week from the season starting,” coach Kelly Findley said recently. “We’re still managing some injuries they came in with.”
Matias Fracchia, one of three freshmen who started on defense last year, is out for several weeks with a broken metatarsal. Freshman defender Martin Bohmer is also due back in a few weeks from a broken ankle suffered last spring, but freshman forward Stephen Elias is out for the season with a left ACL tear.
In goal, senior Alex McCauley returns after an outstanding campaign in his first year as a starter. His 12-save performance in a 2-1 victory over Louisville earned him ACC player of the week honors and was a season highlight. However, the two players who backed him up last year are gone. Joe Mills decided not to return for a fifth year, and Marcus Heislitz transferred to College of Charleston after redshirting as a freshman.