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Clemson Men’s Soccer Continues Dominating Start to Season

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Kent State v Clemson Photo by Todd Bennett/Getty Images

Clemson returned to action in soccer this week and frankly had a fantastic week. The Tigers started things out with a win over South Carolina and followed it up with a second win against Georgia Southern on Monday.

South Carolina (Friday 9/1)

Starting XI (4-3-3):

  • GK: Ximo Miralles
  • LB: Michael Melvin
  • LCB: Patrick Bunk-Andersen
  • RCB: Malick Mbaye
  • RB: Grayson Raynor
  • LCM: Oliver Shannon
  • RCM: Tanner Dieterich
  • CAM: Harrison Kurtz
  • LW: Robbie Robinson
  • ST: Jason Wright
  • RW: Diego Campos

The latest edition of the Clemson-South Carolina rivalry was rather uneven. The Tigers ran roughshod over an outmatched Gamecock squad, winning 4-1.

Clemson was electric in the early going, and the reintroduced 4-3-3 made the forward line look exceedingly dangerous. The formation, an old Mike Noonan favorite, is a break from the 3-4-3 seen in the season’s opening matches. I don’t expect to see the 3-4-3 disappear completely. The change does, however, signal a change in Noonan’s thinking about this team.

The 3-4-3 aligned with a conservative approach to personnel; Noonan was aware of the talent on the flanks at the beginning of the season. He was aware that he had two quality center midfielders and a trio of playable center backs. He didn’t know what to expect from his forwards, excepting Diego Campos. Harrison Kurtz only received two starts in the previous season, and Wright was transitioning from a program in which he was the sole real threat in the attack. Robbie Robinson and Kimarni Smith were freshmen who had never played a regular season match at the college level.

The 3-4-3 allowed this group of forwards to adjust to new roles in a fluid forward line. Campos, Kurtz and Wright developed chemistry as the three starters, and as the preseason went on they began to move across the width of the pitch with ease. Wright proved himself capable of providing both goals and holdup play, and he showed deceptive strength. He became the obvious point of the attack. Kurtz showed his eye for a pass. Campos continued to flourish, as he had for his entire college career. Robinson and Smith began to put their talents on display. Robinson, though tactically erratic at first, quickly developed into a tall, speedy threat with some nasty stepovers in his bag of tricks. Smith was a breath of fresh air whenever he stepped into the opponent’s half. His speed stretched the defense, and he began to show his technical ability as he spent more time out there. Noonan suddenly found a stable of starting-quality forwards at his disposal.

Recognizing the embarrassment of riches, Noonan chose to subtract a center back, move the fullbacks into more traditional roles and add a center attacking midfielder. The resulting 4-3-3 sacrifices some guaranteed width in the attack to overload the middle with talented attacking bodies. The center attacking midfielder, often Kurtz, links the two other midfielders with the forward lines. He also allows for passing triangles, and he provides a numerical advantage in the press. Defenders find space constricted when they try to play out of the back. Noonan’s high defensive line further constricts the space in which the opposition can work on the ball. The fullbacks squeeze the flanks and, ideally, are cautious in their forays into the attack. Overzealous fullbacks can stretch the back line, giving opposition forwards the chance to run behind in the counterattack.

Noonan’s 4-3-3 worked to perfection against South Carolina. Clemson put pressure on the Gamecocks from the start, and the Tigers were rewarded with a somewhat fortunate own goal. South Carolina’s Luca Mayr evened the score up with a goal of his own minutes later, taking advantage of Bunk-Andersen’s small hesitation and lack of lateral quickness to dart toward goal. Ximo covered the near post well, but Mayr found the back corner with a powerful strike. Jason Wright didn’t take too long to answer with a goal of his own. He pulled around a defender at the corner of the box and fired a wicked curler toward the far post. The goalkeeper had no chance. In the second half, Patrick Bunk-Andersen and Kimarni Smith added goals, and the match became a rout.

Clemson dominated possession—South Carolina barely touched the ball. Oliver Shannon was the pass master, and was seemingly everywhere. This was his best performance of the season so far. The presence of Kurtz ahead of him seemed to relieve some pressure. Meanwhile, Raynor and Melvin were disciplined, and provided a few timely runs to stretch the South Carolina back line. Diego Campos was at his pesky best, working the officials and getting under the skin of the Gamecocks with some tricks and probable dives. Noonan gave him a role that allowed him to roam about the final third, and he was a thorn in the side of the opposition defenders all night long. Robbie Robinson continued to show his worth in his first start, running the lanes between the center backs and fullbacks with speed. South Carolina couldn’t cope with the forwards, and it showed in the victory for the Tigers.

Georgia Southern (Monday 9/4)

Starting XI (4-3-3):

  • GK: Ximo Miralles
  • LB: Gian Scalise
  • LCB: Patrick Bunk-Andersen
  • RCB: Justin Malou
  • RB: Robert Campbell
  • LCM: Tanner Dieterich
  • RCM: Oliver Shannon
  • CAM: Harrison Kurtz
  • LW: Kimarni Smith
  • ST: Jason Wright
  • RW: Saul Chinchilla

After two days of rest and celebration, Clemson traveled to Statesboro to take on the Georgia Southern Eagles. Georgia Southern packed their relatively small facility with a record crowd of 1,237 vuvuzela-toting supporters. I don’t know who thought it would be a good idea to give away vuvuzelas, but I’d like to have a quiet discussion with this person about their poor decision. That invention, the plague of the 2010 World Cup, has the power to transform otherwise reasonable human beings into the spinning cogs of a monstrous noisemaking machine. May God help us all if we see its widespread return to the arenas of the sporting world.

The Tigers didn’t let the horror of the vuvuzela deter them, though. The starting XI in this match was a mixture of veteran regulars, solid bench contributors and young players looking to make a mark. Noonan appeared to use this match to rest the likes of Malick Mbaye and Diego Campos, though both players did see minutes as the match dragged into extra time. Justin Malou and Kimarni Smith, meanwhile, received their first career starts. Neither disappointed the Tiger faithful. Malou rose at the back post to give Clemson the 1-0 lead with 20 minutes to go in the first half. He looked strong in defense, if not spectacular. I need to see more of him, but he could be an important depth option in the center of the defense. Georgia Southern’s goal, which came on a penalty in the early portion of the second half, was not an indictment of his performance. Saul Chinchilla, receiving a start, committed a sloppy foul in the corner of the box, and Josh Bronstorph’s resulting penalty was unstoppable.

The equalizer set the stage for a match-winning performance from Smith. The freshman from England was magnificent from the moment the ball got rolling. He pressed relentlessly, and he created chances with his speed and his technical ability. Stylistically, he reminds me of Wilfried Zaha. He often looks like he’s about to lose possession, until his long stride kicks in and he makes a defender look silly. He pulled this magic trick against both South Carolina and Georgia Southern, but it mattered more in the tight match against the Eagles. When regulation ended with a 1-1 draw, supporters might have expected a a clutch golden goal from a more established veteran in extra time. At the end of the first extra time period, however, it was Smith who came bursting into the box to tap home after some neat play from Wright and Campos. The goal put a capstone on a tremendous weekend for the young forward. Teammates mobbed him, and the match ended in a 2-1 victory. Clemson remained undefeated.