Nobody is happier about the start of a new season than South Carolina men’s soccer coach Mark Berson.
After watching his Gamecocks win five games last season — the lowest total in his 35 seasons as the team’s only head coach — he was ready to flip the calendar to get a fresh beginning.
He realizes the 5-11-2 record — the fourth losing season in his USC career — could have looked a lot better if his team could have turned around a handful of its seven one-goal losses.
“In men’s collegiate soccer, there’s so much parity,” Berson said. “We beat the No. 2 team in the country (South Florida) on the road last year. And the games we lost, we were in them. The problem was we lost a bunch of one-goal games that we needed to win. That was the balance between having the season we wanted to have and having the season we had.”
The down season came after two straight NCAA tournament appearances as well as a Conference USA tournament championship in 2010 and a conference regular-season title in 2011. He knows the margin for error is thin because the Gamecocks play a demanding schedule every season for RPI purposes that can help their chances to reach the postseason, where Berson has led the Gamecocks 20 times.
Nine of this season’s 18 regular-season opponents reached the NCAA tournament last year, and four are ranked in this year’s coaches Top 25. Even with eight incoming freshmen and a lot of positions to sort out, Berson remains confident this team can play with anyone.
“It’s going to be a string of one-goal games, and we’re going to be right there,” he said. “If it’s like two years ago, we’ll win the conference, and if it’s like last year, it’s going to be a disappointment. Realistically, that’s where we are. We’re going to be competitive.”
Besides a couple of key losses to graduation, USC also lost forward Bradlee Baladez and his 17 goals over three seasons to the professional ranks. Goalkeeper Alex Long, forward Snoopy Davidson and midfielder Niklas Kivinen all transferred out, while defender Eric Martinez did not return for his redshirt senior season.
But Berson likes a freshman class led by defenders Koty Millard and Ive Burnett and forward Hamilton Carlin. And he looks at a large group of returning players led by junior defender Braeden Troyer, who was named preseason All-C-USA, and believes they can avoid second-half breakdowns that occurred last season.
Practice began Wednesday, when Berson got his first look at his new club, and the first exhibition comes Sunday against Mercer at Stone Stadium.
“We’ve got some guys who can figure in the mix and do a pretty good job,” he said. “We’re just going to have to see how some of those guys can step and really take on more responsibility.”
The midfielders will include sophomores Jeff Torda, Devin L’Amoreaux, and Ryan Arambula, junior Stephen Anderson, and freshman Kurtis Turner. Vying for playing time at forward are senior J.P. Rafferty, juniors Asa Kryst and Hunter Wyer, sophomore Wesley Eads and Carlin.
Sophomore Robert Beebe and his 6-foot-5 frame are being counted on to take over in goal after serving as Long’s apprentice. Troyer, who is being moved from the midfield, where he produced seven points on three goals and an assist, to the back line, will now have to lead from the center back spot.
“We may lose a little bit of his attacking punch, but his leadership and the way he sees the game in the back will give us a lot,” Berson said.
Troyer, a former Hammond standout, is ready to make the switch.
“I’m comfortable back there,” he said. “I definitely have to communicate and let everyone know what the game’s going to be like. I have to keep everybody on the same page as the center back.”
Mo Kaba will also line up at center back, while Millard, Burnett, Jason Chapman, and Dan Traxler will battle for the other back line spots. Millard, a former Cardinal Newman star who was the top recruit in the South Atlantic region and a member of the Under-18 national team player pool, could make an immediate impact.
“He has the ability, and most importantly, he has the mental toughness and the attitude to be a starter,” Berson said. “What he doesn’t have is the experience, and that’s going to be the thing.”
Millard is excited about his opportunity and this team’s chances to bounce back.
“I’ve got big dreams. I want to win a national championship by the time I leave here,” Millard said. “I think we’re going to do a lot better this year. We’ve got the skill and the talent to do it.”
|Aug. 30||East Tennessee||7 p.m.|
|Sept. 2||at Clemson||7 p.m.|
|Sept. 6||High Point||7 p.m.|
|Sept. 10||at Coastal Carolina||6 p.m.|
|Sept. 13||at St. John’s||8 p.m.|
|Sept. 15||at Rutgers||2 p.m.|
|Sept. 20||South Florida||7 p.m.|
|Sept. 22||Dartmouth||1:30 p.m.|
|Sept. 27||At Charlotte||7 p.m.|
|Oct. 1||Presbyterian||7 p.m.|
|Oct. 6||Tulsa||1 p.m.|
|Oct. 13||at Kentucky||1 p.m.|
|Oct. 16||Florida Atlantic||7 p.m.|
|Oct. 19||at Marshall||7 p.m.|
|Oct. 26||New Mexico||7 p.m.|
|Oct. 30||at Fla. International||6:30 p.m.|
|Nov. 3||at UAB||3 p.m.|
|Nov. 9||Old Dominion||7 p.m.|
|Nov. 13-17||C-USA tourney in Charlotte|