This was Clemson's most successful season in a long time and culmination of Coach Noonan's time here. The Tigers over came some early season struggles to finish the season as one of the hottest teams in the country. Clemson finished the regular season on a 5-0-1 run. Clemson had an amazing run through the ACC tournament, winning all three of its games in overtime. The best one was the title game against Louisville. Paul Clowes scored the tying goal with just a few seconds left on the clock. Ara Amirkhanian then scored the winning goal in the second overtime. Clemson was unable to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament, losing in the round of 16 to a good UNC team.
In the preseason, I set some expectations and benchmarks that I wanted the Tigers to reach and believed that they could achieve, so lets take a look to see if they did.
- Beat South Carolina- Unfortunately, Clemson lost to South Carolina 2-1 in OT. Clemson had some early season struggles and this game was part of that. South Carolina was shown a red card fairly early in the match and Clemson was able to dominate possession and take a 1-0 lead. Clemson should have been able to score a couple more goals but there were struggles in the attacking third. Clemson went down to 10 men when Ara Amirkhanian was shown a ridiculous second yellow. The ref was pretty poor in this game. Clemson didn't help matters by committing some mistakes that allowed South Carolina to win.
- Average 1.5 goals per game after a 1.38 rate in 2013. Clemson actually did better than this with a 1.68 goals per game average. Multiple players stepped up to fill the shoes of Thomas McNamara. Austin Burnikel came on late in the season and led all scorers with 5 goals. 6 Tigers had 3 goals a piece. Manolo Sanches and TJ Casner led the team in points, each with 3 goals and 6 assists.
- Concede 0.9 goals per game. The Tigers gave up .95 goals per game. An increase in goals allowed isn't optimal and Clemson had a tendency to give up goals at the worst times in games they either lost or tied. Often times it seemed like Clemson was playing with an early deficit. On the whole, the large increase in goals scored makes up for the smaller increase in goals conceded.
- Go undefeated at home. Clemson lost two regular season home games (Charlotte and Syracuse) and one post season game (UNC).
- Finish in the top four of the ACC. This one revolved around getting a bye and a home game in the ACC tournament. It came down to the wire but the Tigers achieved it.
- Win a 1st Round NCAA Tournament game. After a great ACC Tournament run, Clemson won its first round game against Coastal Carolina 2-1.
Goal Keepers: Clemson was fortunate to have two very good options at keeper, Chris Glodack and Andrew Tarbell. Tarbell was the keeper for ACC games and Glodack was the keeper in most non-conference games and in penalty shootouts. Glodack had two great shootout wins in the ACC tournament. Glodack had a higher goals conceded average but that is most likely because he played more in the OOC part of the schedule when Clemson was struggling. I would not be surprised to see Glodack transfer sometime soon. Tarbell, although a year or two younger, is clearly the first choice goal keeper for the majority of matches. Not only that, but Glodack just received his degree and is a quality player in his own right and deserves a chance to start somewhere.
Defender: This was one of Clemson's strongest positions heading into the season with a ton of experience and talent on the back line. The center back pairing of Kyle Fisher and Phanuel Kavita played all 22 games this season. They each scored a couple of goals, with Fisher proving a dangerous target on free kicks and corner kicks. They were rocks at the back, especially Kavita. He always found a way to win the ball back without fouling and will be sorely missed next season. At the full back position, seniors Amadou Dia and Ara Amirkhanian were also reliable and great options getting forward. Both have winger backgrounds and it showed in their attacking prowess. Both were also solid defensively. Amirkhanian was the more aggressive of the pair, but that fit in well with the team's style and persona. Amirkhanian had the highlight of the season when he scored the overtime winner in the ACC title game against Louisville.
Behind, Amirkhanian and Dia were freshmen Saul Chinchilla and Michael Melvin. Chinchilla saw more playing than Melvin, but the Costa Rican also played in the attacking midfield. Chinchilla brings a bit more flair to the position than Melvin but both will be important for next season since Dia and Amirkhanian are both graduating. Alex Happi also saw time at fullback throughout the season and it will be interesting to see if he moves to the back line or sticks around in a crowded midfield. Another possible contributor next year is Joseph Amon. He played extensively in a few games in the early part of the season when Dia was out.
Holding Midfield: This was a position of strength for Clemson throughout the season and a big reason for the Tigers' defensive success and ability to dictate possession. Paul Clowes and Oliver Shannon were the two main starters in the holding midfield, with Iman Mafi and Thales Moreno splitting time in both attack and defense. Alex Happi saw time hear as well. Clowes scored the tying goal against Lousville in the ACC title game. The goal was well deserved for Clowes, who was one of the most consistent Tigers throughout the season. He was a deep-lying playmaker that was able to hit long, diagonal balls for the wingers and overlapping fullbacks. Clowes was also stout defensively. Clowes's ability to sit deep in the midfield and still influence the game allowed Shannon, and the other holding midfielders, to push forward with the attacking midfielders. Shannon was a late addition to the roster but he played well beyond his years. Both are very talented and tactically smart players who are engines in the midfield.
With turnover elsewhere on the team, especially the back line, Clowes and Shannon will be important for team continuity and defensive structure as new players are worked in.
Attacking Midfield: The main contributors here were TJ Casner, Manolo Sanchez, Iman Mafi, Thales Moreno, and Saul Chinchilla. Sanchez often times would not start but he was one of of Clemson's most dangerous players. He played almost exclusively on the right side and was very effective in linking up with Amirkhanian. I was hoping that Sanchez would score a few more goals this season but he did tie for the team lead in assists (6) and total points (12). TJ Casner was tied with Sanchez in goals (3), assists, and total points. Casner was dangerous with delivery on corner kicks and free kicks. He should be a centerpiece of Clemson's offense moving forward next year.
Iman Mafi and Thales Moreno were great compliments to Casner and Sanchez in the advanced midfield. They didn't have quite the attacking creativity as the other two but they scored 2 and 3 goals respectively. Mafi was more of a workhorse who also saw time in the holding midfield, while Moreno was a better attacker but weaker in defense. The two compliment each other very well and will only continue to get better since they have two more seasons of eligibility left apiece.
Saul Chinchilla saw time out on the wing as a true freshman and will continue to see even more with the departure of Manolo Sanchez. Chinchilla brings a lot of creativity and flair to the team that some of the other players are lacking. He was a bit smaller than Sanchez and not as physical as some of the other guys on the team, which is expected from a true freshman.
Forward: Like I thought in the offseason, the forward position was a committee position this year. Towards the end of the season, Austin Burnikel came on very strongly and was able to score 5 goals in only a few games of meaningful action. Freshman Diego Campos saw significant playing time as well, tying Burnikel in points (10) with 3 goals and 4 assists. Before Burnikel really emerged Kyle Murphy saw some good playing time as well. Murphy had not done all that much prior to this season so it was good to see his hard work pay off, with appearances in 19 games total. A fourth member of the forward rotation was co-captain Bobby Belair. Belair had two goals late in the season and even spelled Kavita at center back in the preseason. Amazingly, Belair played the entire season with a torn ACL. He is the only departing member of the group, which should look to be even better next season.
I wanted to specifically highlight the 2014 team's two captains, Phanuel Kavita and Bobby Belair. Kavita was a rock at the back over the course of his career, starting every single one of Clemson's 71 games. When watching games you could tell that this was Kavita's team. He was always in position and instructing the rest of the team. He had an uncanny ability to win the ball back without fouling even the shiftiest of forwards and wingers. Belair did not get as much playing as hoped because of his injury. He played the entire season with a knee brace and a torn ACL, which is just remarkable. That type of effort and heart is really inspiring and you can tell that the team embraced and fed off that by their crazy run through the ACC tournament.
Even though losing to UNC in the Sweet Sixteen was a disappointment, the season as a whole was a success. Clemson won its first ACC title in years and the program is in a strong position to have sustained success with Coach Noonan at the helm.