Clemson had a banner year in 2014, winning the program's first ACC title in over a decade. Even though the season ending loss to North Carolina in the Sweet Sixteen was a disappointment, the Tigers ended the season on a hot streak, one that will hopefully carry over to this season. The Tigers have some big holes to replace but they have the talent to do so.
An incredibly important group of seniors departed this past season. These players were vital in the ACC title run and the rebirth of the program.
- Ara Amirkhanian: Not only did Amirkhanian score the winning goal against Louisville in the ACC title game, he was the epitome of the modern fulllback. Having played in an attacking midfield role for most of his career, Amirkhanian had no problem getting forward. He was also a stalwart defender, even if he was a bit too aggressive at times.
- Amadou Dia: Dia, now playing MLS with Sporting KC, was another important part of the backline. Like Amirkhanian, Dia came to the fullback position from an attacking background, and was a strong option both in attack and defense.
- Phanuel Kavita: To say that Kavita was the cornerstone of Clemson's backline and entire team would be an understatement. The captain started every single game for the Tigers this season. His departure will be the hardest to replace, both on the field and off.
- Manolo Sanchez: Even though Sanchez did not start many games, he played major minutes in nearly every single game. He had a certain creativity and flair to his style of play. Sanchez was one of the team's most important attacking options over the last couple of seasons.
- Bobby Belair: The other captain, Belair may not have seen a great deal of playing time but that was due to his injury; Belair played the entire season with a torn ACL and a knee brace. Even though he may not have been playing a great deal, Belair was still one of the team's inspirational leaders and will be missed tremendously.
- Chris Glodack: Even though Glodack did see minutes, some very vital, he was the second choice to Andrew Tarbell. Glodack elected to turn pro, and currently is on the roster of the Tampa Bay Rowdies of the NASL
- Andrew Tarbell: Tarbell is now the unquestioned starter at goalkeeper and will seek to build on a strong 2014 season
- Kyle Fisher: Now that Kavita has graduated, Fisher will need to be the leader and rock of the Clemson backline. As he is the only returning starting member of backline, Fisher will be vital to Clemson's success this season.
- Paul Clowes: Not only does Clowes orchestrate possession from his holding midfield position, he only provides vital cover for the centerbacks will the fullbacks bomb forward in attack. Clowes fills both of these roles exceptionally well.
- TJ Casner: Casner helps to set up Clemson's attack, even if he isn't racking up goals and assists from his attacking midfield position. He is one of the senior members of the Tigers' attack and will be vital to the success of this season's high flying offense.
Season Goals and Expectations
While Clemson's defense, led by an experienced backline, was the strength of the team the past two seasons, the attack will be the Tigers' strength this season. Not only does Clemson lose 3 starters from the backline, but they also return most of their midfielders and forwards. Hopefully any regression at the back will be offset by gains in the front.
- Beat South Carolina. The Tigers lost a controversial game in Columbia last season, but are the better of the two programs. At home this season for the game, Clemson should win.
- Improve on goals per game. Clemson scored 1.68 goals per game last season, and with all of the talent coming back I fully expect the Tigers to improve.
- Keep goals conceded per game consistent with last season. Last season, the Tigers gave up .95 goals per game. While I think the Tigers will take a step back in defense, hopefully they will be able to cut back on the goals that happened early in games and seemingly occurred because of lapses in concentration.
- Dominate the Home Schedule. Clemson should be the favorite in nearly every game they play at home this season, the notable exception being the preseason conference favorites the Louisville Cardinals. Coastal Carolina, a top 25 team, should provide an early season challenge the week after South Carolina.
- Finish in the ACC top 4. Clemson has now reestablished itself as one of the ACC's top programs so a top 4 finish should be expected pretty much every single season. A top 4 finish guarantees a bye and a second round home game in the ACC tournament. The Tigers are fortuitous in that they miss out on playing North Carolina and defending national champions Virginia, two of the other top teams in the conference. The Tigers do have to travel to Notre Dame and Syracuse, but Clemson does have a relatively light schedule in the nation's toughest conference.
- Reach the NCAA Tournament. Reaching the NCAA tournament should also be a yearly goal for the Tigers. Hopefully the Tigers can once again reach the sweet sixteen or even advance further this time around.
The ACC is arguably nation's toughest soccer conference, with the Pac-12 and Big-10 coming in a close second. The conference has 3 teams in the top 5 (#2 Virginia, #4 Notre Dame, and #5 North Carolina) and 4 in the top 11 (Clemson is #11.) Syracuse (#15) and Louisville (#18) give the ACC 6 teams in the top 25, and Wake Forest is widely considered to be a top 30 team as well. What is interesting is that Louisville was voted by the coaches to win the conference. Clemson misses out on Virginia and North Carolina, but they do play #4 Notre Dame, #15 Syracuse, #18 Louisville, #17 Charlotte, #21 Coastal Carolina, and top 30 Furman and Wake Forest. That is not a schedule to take lightly.
Now I'll give a break down of how each position group is shaping up with regards to depth and playing time. This can be a little bit of a crap shoot at times, since the roster Clemson has on the website can be unreliable at times, with players missing or positions labeled incorrectly. The early season exhibition games can also be a bit unreliable, since Coach Noonan will rest starters and play some completely out of position, such as playing forward Bobby Belair at centerback in one exhibition. I'm also not sure where some of the freshman, particularly in midfield, will play this season, whether it be holding or attacking. So basically what I'm saying is that quite a few of these guys I mention might not even see the field substantially.
The unquestioned starter is junior Andrew Tarbell. Tarbell was actually one of 4 collegiate goalies invited to participate in the College ID Camp for the National Team in preparation for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Backing him up are Michael Zierhoffer, Brady Allerdice, and Nolan Lennon.
Kyle Fisher has now gone from the young guy to the old man on the back. He is the only returning starter from last year's backline. As for the center back who has the mountainous task of replacing 4-year starter Phanuel Kavita, new arrival Patrick Bunk-Anderson has a good shot at starting. Andrew Burnikel and Tyler Rider are possibilities as well.
Clemson loses both starting fullbacks from last season, Ara Amirkhanian and Amadou Dia. Junior Georgia State Transfer Aaron Jones will most likely be the starter at one of the spots. Sophomore Saul Chinchilla and Michael Melvin both saw playing time at fullback last season, but I think Chinchilla will be used more in the midfield this season. Alex Happi saw spot duty as fullback but his primary position is holding mid. Mauriq Hill is in his 3rd season in the program and I expect him to compete for playing time, as well as freshman Trey Langlois. Langlois is an interesting prospect, because even though he is listed as a defender, he was an absolute goal scoring machine during his time in high school. The fullback position battle will probably be hotly contested but decided early on, since like the offensive line in football, the backline in soccer works best when the same group gets time together consistently.
Clemson has this position completely locked down with Paul Clowes and Oliver Shannon. The English duo performed very well throughout the season. When Clemson had the ball in the other team's half, Shannon would often bomb forward at times to get closer to the box, with Clowes hanging back, Both players, but especially Clowes, did a good job of switching possession and picking out runners with diagonal long balls. While they have the starting positions locked up, Alex Happi, Iman Mafi, and Thales Moreno all spent time as holding mids last season when Shannon and Clowes needed a rest. This position will be vital this year in providing cover for a relatively young backline
Clemson is incredibly deep with its attacking trio. TJ Casner usually plays out of the center and is an unquestioned starter. Iman Mafi, Thales Moreno, Saul Chinchilla, and Michael Melvin have all seen time along the wings in the attacking midfield, and Mafi and Moreno can both shift inside. All of these guys are incredibly versatile, an attribute that is vital in modern soccer. Not only do the need to show attacking prowess but they also need to show tenacity and determination in defense to help out the younger fullbacks.
Once again, the position will be a forward by committee, but there will likely be a bit more consistency this season. Kyle Murphy performed well in his spot duties as a starter and sub last season. Diego Campos is entering his second season and should only improve. Austin Burnikel came out of nowhere towards the end of season, becoming the teams leading goal scorer and helping the team catch fire at the best possible time. Talented freshman Michele Bottari will most likely enter the mix as well this season. All four of these forwards should see playing time, with Burnikel being the nominal starter in my opinion.