Last year’s College of Charleston men’s soccer campaign ended with a Southern Conference Tournament thud at Patriots Point against lower-seeded Appalachian State, closing the book on a veteran squad that featured three senior stars.
It also heralded an off-season of change for the young Cougars. The College left the comfortable but increasingly football-centric SoCon for the more urban, Mid-Atlantic environs of the Colonial Athletic Association. In the spring, the team’s returning underclassmen clawed their way through a challenging scrimmage schedule, and earlier this month the Cougars began integrating their new influx of talented freshmen and transfers into Coach Ralph Lundy Jr.‘s system.
“We’re building right now, that’s for sure,” Lundy said after practice earlier this week. “It’s kind of a new team in some senses. Keepers and the backs and three of the midfielders were here in the spring, but the other midfielders and the forwards were not. So we’re trying to put that together.”
With their season-opening “Futbol Friday Night” against perennial powerhouse Akron University just a day away, that’s not a lot of time to assemble an awful lot of pieces. But Lundy is beginning his 37th year as a head coach and his 26th year at the helm for the College. He has one of the most respected young assistant coaches in the College game in Troy Lesesne, and a proven track record when it comes to spotting and developing young talent.
He’s quick to praise, but the man in the floppy, broad-brimmed hat is never shy to stop the action and demand better. Loudly.
You don’t have to study this program for long before the schedule jumps up, smacks you around, and demands your attention.
Last fall’s non-conference schedule featured home games against No. 40 Stanford, No. 39 Dayton, No. 1 Maryland, and No. 2 UNC. They also traveled to face No. 19 Monmouth and No. 17 Coastal Carolina.
This fall the Cougars will host non-conference opponents No. 8 Akron (Friday, 7:30 p.m.), Xavier (on Sunday at 2:30 p.m.), Vermont (Friday, Sept. 13, at 7 p.m.) and No. 13 Coastal Carolina (Tuesday, Oct. 8 at 7 p.m.). They’ll travel to Stanford (Sept. 20), California (Sept. 22) and Winthrop (Oct. 1).
“Our schedule poses a challenge of aspirations, because it is heavy,” Lundy said. “The expectation is that we have to play to a certain level in this schedule. There are no easy games… The aspiration is to win the majority of these games in a tough schedule. And if we do, we’re going to be Top 40 or better. Top 20.”
Playing so many top opponents is one way to draw attention to your program, but it’s also a good way to wind up with a lot of losses. Lundy balances that risk with the reward of a higher Ratings Percentage Index come NCAA tournament selection time.
“You can get into the NCAA tournament two ways,” he said. “Win your conference, or have a high RPI. In 2010 we lost in the conference tournament but our RPI was so high… we got in the NCAA tournament, and then we actually got a high seed and hosted the first and only NCAA tournament contest that the College of Charleston has ever hosted.”
And despite the daunting task ahead, Lundy expects his team to contend for the national tournament. “Darn right. Absolutely. That’s why we put that schedule together. ”
Before that happens, the Cougars will have to dive into a conference schedule full of teams their fans barely know yet.
The Colonial Athletic Association
So what’s the difference between the CAA and the Southern Conference, Coach Lundy?
This conference is tougher. Higher RPIs. Real tough.
I’m not extremely familiar with them. But they’re tough. Three teams went to the NCAA tournament last year: Northeastern, Drexel and (Old Dominion University), but ODU left for football. The year before, four teams got in. Hofstra’s really tough. Northeastern won it last year. Drexel’s good. You know, Wilmington beat us last year when we were playing real well, and we played actually very good against them, and didn’t get a goal. We had a great win over Memphis up at Furman and then on Sunday felt real good, and Wilmington beat us.
William and Mary’s been in so many NCAA tournaments. James Madison has been in so many NCAA tournaments. Over the last 20 years I’d say both of those programs have been in 10 times, which is more than us. So tough league.
I like it, though.
Whether he’ll like it so much three months from now is another question. The eight-team conference’s preseason poll picked Charleston to finish 7th behind Northeastern, defending regular-season champion Drexel, James Madison, Hofstra and UNC-Wilmington. CAA coaches liked the Cougars to finish ahead of Delaware.
To put that in something of a larger context, 2012 CAA champion Northeastern finished 25th in the nation and led the three CAA teams into the NCAA tournament. Only Elon represented the Southern Conference by automatic bid. Charleston finished 3rd in the SoCon table.
The biggest difference Cougars fans will notice Friday night are the faces they won’t see at kickoff, particularly longtime starters Ralphie Lundy, Shawn Ferguson and Sean de Silva.
De Silva went on trial with the San Jose Earthquakes before landing a job as a seldom-used sub with Minnesota United FC of the NASL. Lundy and Ferguson joined the Charleston Battery as preseason trialists, but Lundy’s winter was cut short with a knee injury that required surgery. Ferguson made the regular season roster, appeared in 10 matches, and scored one goal in the regular season. He is a likely choice for Friday night’s 18 as his Battery take on the Orlando City Lions at the Florida Citrus Bowl in the semifinals of the USL PRO playoffs.
“So that changes our style some. Of course, De Silva was an amazing player, amazing 1-v-1 player, amazing striker of the ball. Ralphie played the ball all over the park, especially to de Silva. Ferguson was a monster center back. And then there were other very good players like George Khoury and Tyler Vukoder and Robbie Benson who played the majority of their careers. So that’s the big difference. New faces.”
There will be some familiar names on the pitch, though. Dutch Goalkeeper Kees (pronounced “Case”) Heemskerk has recovered from a winter kneecap injury that cost him the spring season, and is a 2013 CAA preseason all-league pick for his senior year. Fellow internationals Tam McGowan (Scotland) and Daan Brinkman (Netherlands) both return to the back line, along with Clay Tanner, a junior who can also play up top.
With most of his senior leadership along the back line, Lundy says it’s no surprise that his defense is ahead of his offense at the moment.
Despite the changes, the Cougars’ style of play will remain largely the same, but with customizations based on the strengths and weaknesses of his players.
Their formation “kinda looks like a 4-5-1 defensively that turns into a 4-3-3 attacking-wise,” Lundy said. “So we bring people back and play five in the midfield, but when we get the ball, two of them go up high and wide. That fits our personnel this year. Last year we played kind of a 4-4-2, but de Silva ran everywhere.”
That one-forward scheme puts a lot on Jake Currie, a junior college transfer from Sheffield, England. “He’s a distributor of the ball, with vision, (who) can knock it around the park, lay it off. So Currie’s a different type player (than the players he replaces), but Currie can strike a ball and beat the keeper. So they’re somewhat different.”
And Currie is only one of several incoming players who are expected to dive right in as contributors. The reinforcements arrive in waves, including three freshmen from Mount Pleasant, two players from Trinidad and Tobago and a graduate of the Seattle Sounders U-18 Academy.
Erik Clark, midfielder: A decorated central midfielder who won two national high school Player of the Week honors, Clark has missed some time in the past week as he recovers from an injury. Despite that, Lundy sounds enthusiastic about Clark’s potential.
“He has started solid and strong. The first scrimmage, didn’t start the game, brought him in, and he was so good and solid. Center midfielder, distributor of the ball, sensible, strong, on the ball, good decisions, real composed. Real happy with where he is.
Clark is joined by two of his teammates from the Wando High School varsity team that posted a stellar regular season before crashing out of the State Championship Tournament in an upset: Defender Brock King “had a great scrimmage this past Saturday night against ETSU, ” and midfielder Christian Jablonski has played well in both scrimmages.
Lundy has had a player from Triniad on his roster for 26 consecutive years, the result of relationships he developed early in his career. This year’s additions are Adan Noel, a 5-9 forward, and Xavier “Xavi” Raipaul, a 5-7 forward/midfielder. Both are starters for Trinidad and Tobago’s U-20 national team. Raipaul’s work rate is tremendous, but he’s adjusting to the college game, Lundy said (“although he can handle”). But Noel “has really made his mark, shaking-and-baking in the attacking half of the field.”
The coach also called out Ike Crook, the Seattle Sounders product out of Federal Way, Washington. He and Currie are already considered starters heading into Friday night’s season-opener, but all of the players Lundy mentioned are expected to contribute immediately.
The result is that “we’re much deeper and we have a greater assortment of attacking players,” Lundy said. “We grew in the spring, and now it’s continued to grow with the addition of these talented players.
Starting at the top: Akron
The Akron University Zips shoved their way to the top echelon of NCAA soccer, but they’re essentially an unknown quantity headed into their first year without head coach Caleb Porter since 2005. Porter is now the head coach of the MLS Portland Timbers, and his assistant, Jared Embrick, takes the helm in Akron. The Zips start the year ranked No. 8.
“We’re playing what many people think is one of the Top 3 programs in the country, year in and year out,” Lundy said. “You look at every year of the top 20 (Major League Soccer) draft (picks) in the country, probably three or more will be Akron players.”
The match is the nightcap in Friday’s Nike/Aaron Olitsky Memorial Tournament, preceded by Furman at Xavier at 5 p.m.
The Cougars play their second match of the tournament on Sunday, when they take on Xavier at 2:30 p.m.
TOP IMAGE: Cougars Coach Ralph Lundy Jr. speaks to freshman during a break in the action in a Monday afternoon scrimmage. Dan Conover photo.