It’s hot. It’s humid. Class is back in session. That means it is time for football season to start at Clemson. The Tigers are coming off an exhilarating 2015 season that ended with a defeat in the national title game to the national player of the year.
No, I’m not talking about the gridiron Tigers, I’m talking about the other football team at Clemson.
The men’s soccer team had an amazing run to the national title game this past season. The program has improved in every season since Coach Mike Noonan was hired in 2010 and this past year was no exception. Even though Clemson was unable to retain the ACC crown, the Tigers still finished higher than they had in quite a long time. The loss to the Stanford Jordan Morrises, I mean Cardinal, was certainly disappointing, especially the 0-4 scoreline, but Clemson has finally reestablished itself as a national powerhouse. The years of wandering in the college soccer wastelands are, hopefully, over.
Clemson will have to replace a number of key players from the national title run.
The biggest loss, at least in my opinion, is the graduation of midfielder Paul Clowes. Clowes only had two goals and an assist in 2015, 9th on the team, but he was the central cog in Clemson’s offense. Every bit of possession and attack flowed through him. In Clemson’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, Clowes was one of the deep central midfielders, one of the “two.” He sat back in possession, pulling the strings. His positioning allowed Clemson’s fullbacks to get forward in attack, and it gave Clowes the opportunity to break up any opposing counterattacks. Clemson won’t immediately be able to replace Clowes. There is not a player on the roster that has his mix of talent and experience. Junior Oliver Shannon comes close, but he is better as a box to box midfielder. Because of Clowes, Shannon was able to venture forward offensively and use his naturally aggressive play style.
The second biggest loss was the early departure of goalkeeper Andrew Tarbell to the MLS. Tarbell was an absolute rock between the pipes for Clemson over the past few seasons. He always balled out in key moments and never lost his cool. He had good command of his area and was never afraid to rush off his line to smother an attack.
TJ Casner is a major loss for Clemson due to his attacking skill. Casner led the Tigers with 10 goals last season. He had the ability to play all across the attacking midfield, was a tremendous team leader, and dangerous on free kicks. However, Clemson has developed enough attacking options over the past couple of seasons to not be crippled by Casner’s graduation.
Another large departure was the graduation of Kyle Fisher. Fisher was the only returning member on Clemson’s back line in 2015 and he was absolutely vital in the run to the national championship game. Fisher was the complete package at centerback. He was good with the ball at his feet, strong going into tackles, and dangerous in the air on set pieces.
Clemson’s fifth departure in the offseason was senior forward Kyle Murphy. Murphy was a good option off the bench for the Tigers and was second on the team in goals with 8. Murphy was always able to bring energy and intensity off the bench.
Goalkeeper: Clemson has yet to settle on a starting goalie. Freshman Ximo Miralles, a former Valencia academy player, started the win against South Carolina. Redshirt sophomore Brady Allardice started the win over Providence but he was chipped by a shot from midfield. Miralles and Allardice are both talented options so it will be interesting to see who Coach Noonan goes with.
Defender: Sophomore Aaron Jones is the starter at right back. Jones is a dangerous option going forward and scored the winning goal against South Carolina. Sophomore Patrick Bunk-Anderson is one of the starters at centerback. The Dane started last year as a true freshman and, while he was prone to some lapses, is a moder, ball-playing centerback that can get forward. In playing style and build (tall and skinny) he reminds me somewhat of Manchesteer City’s John Stones. Freshman Tanner Dieterich has been the choice at the other centerback position. Dieterich has been a youth member of the National Team ranks for the past few years and was a top 20 recruit. The kid is a stud and should start the rest of the season. Senior Iman Mafi was the starter at left back last season and should be the starter this season but he has yet to play in the first two games of the season. Hopefully this is not a long term injury issue because Mafi led Clemson in assists last season with 8. In his absence the Tigers have turned to graduate transfer Kevin Fielden. Expect Mauriq Hill and Michael Melvin to feature in the starting back line at times throughout the season.
Midfield: Clemson is absolutely loaded at midfielder. The Tigets have quality depth at each midfield slot and quite a few guys that can play multiple roles. Seniors Alex Happi and Thales Moreno are the most likely starters at the holding/defensive mid slot. Moreno is the most likely of the two to go forward, much like Oliver Shannon did when Shannon and Clowes were a starting duo last season. Andrew Burnikel, Austen’s younger brother, has also seen playing time here at the beginning of the season. Juniors Saul Chincilla, Oliver Shannon, Grayson Raynor, Michael Melvin, and freshman Michael Swift should all see significant minutes in attacking midfield roles. It appears that Shannon has primarily moved into a more advanced role but I would not be surprised to see him drop deep from time to time. Thales Moreno could also be pushed into this grouping if the situation calls for it.
Forward: Senior Austen Burnikel is Clemson’s main option at forward. Last year I compared Burnikel to Chelsea and Ivory Coast legend Didier Drogba and I stand by that comparison. Burnikel is a physically imposing player that can boss around opposing centerbacks and still make runs in behind with his quickness. Junior Diego Campos will see significant minutes at forward and out wide as an attacking midfielder. The Costa Rican is a much flashier player than Burnikel. He excels at drawing fouls in dangerous positions. Campos scored both goals in the win over Providence.
The ACC is consistently the strongest conference in the entire nation but it is even more of a gauntlet this season. Clemson starts the season ranked #3 in the country, the highest ranked team in the ACC. The conference has six teams in the top eleven and seven ranked overall with Clemson at #3, Wake Forest at #5, ‘Cuse, who lost to Clemson in the College Cup last year, at #6, North Carolina, the preseason conference favorite, at #8, Notre Dame at #9, Boston College at #11, and Virginia at #17. Notre Dame is the only one of these ranked teams that Clemson does not play but the Tigers get #7 Creighton, #19 South Florida, #21 Coastal Carolina, and #22 Charlotte in out of conference games. That is eight ranked opponents in the regular season, an absolute murderer’s row.
Clemson has an embarrassment of riches offensively but the Tigers will have to quickly work on some defensive shortcomings. Clemson had major losses, all of which were down the spine of the team. I am also not quite sold on the Happi-Moreno pairing in the holding/defensive midfield. Clemson will have a trial by fire; the next three games are against Creighton, North Carolina, and South Florida. The Tigers were picked to finish first in the Atlantic Division. Since Wake Forest and Syracuse travel to Riggs Field, I think Clemson has a good shot at winning the division. However, if things go poorly, Clemson could finish third or fourth in the division. But my money is on Clemson’s numerous veteran attacking options and Coach Noonan. The ACC will be an absolute dog fight this year and much of the conference season will simply depend on what team gets hot at the right time.
If the Tigers get hot, can overcome defensive lapses, and get the most out of their offense then this team could once again make a deep postseason run.