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August 13, 2014

Men’s soccer preview: Gamecocks promise to be tough on defense

There’s nothing like the high hopes at the start of a new season, and USC opened its training camp Wednesday with plenty of them.

There’s nothing like the high hopes at the start of a new season, and USC opened its training camp Wednesday with plenty of them.

The Gamecocks return 18 lettermen and nine starters from a team that finished 7-7-5, but missed an NCAA tournament bid for the second consecutive season. The players and coaches like the look and feel of this year’s club.

Senior centerback Braeden Troyer, an All-Conference USA second team selection last season, believes the Gamecocks can play all season like they did in an 11-game stretch a year ago when they went 5-1-5 from late September to early November.

“We’ve got a lot of core guys coming back and we were already clicking at the end of the spring (practices),” Troyer said. “And we’re bringing in a lot of great prospects. We have great energy and some of the new guys are already clicking with the core guys.”

Two late losses last season ended the campaign abruptly, but coach Mark Berson viewed it as a learning experience for his younger players.

“The group really grew and went through the school of hard knocks last year.” Berson said. “They’re back, and we have a very good recruiting class coming in. I’m really excited about those guys. If everybody comes back healthy because they played summer league ball, and they’re all ready to go, we’ve very optimistic.”

Troyer, the Columbia native and former Hammond standout, anchors the back line with senior Mahamoudou Kaba, an All-Conference USA first-team choice last season.

That pair played a key role in USC’s six shutouts a year ago, along with defender Ive Burnett.

Kaba also scored a team-high five goals as a set-piece specialist.

It helps that the team has a pair of experienced goalkeepers in redshirt junior Robert Beebe, who went down with an injury after four matches last season, and sophomore Marco Velez, who stepped in for Beebe and played well.

“Some young guys were really thrown right into the fire, and Marco Velez did a great job in goal for us as a freshman,” Berson said. “He hadn’t played a minute of college soccer, and, by the end of the year, he was really getting a great feel for it. Marco and Robert are very, very good. It’s a good situation to have two really good goalkeepers.”

The midfield features sophomore Kurtis Turner, who had one goal and a team-high five assists last season, senior Jeff Addai, a skilled transfer who missed last season with a knee injury, junior Jeff Torda, who scored five goals a year ago, and sophomore Koty Millard, a sparkplug who moves up from the back line.

Berson hopes to sport an improved attack after scoring 25 goals in 19 games last season. Turner, a native of Sheffield, England, noted that offense became an emphasis in the spring.

“The tempo is really high,” Turner said. “We changed a bit in the way we play (in the spring) and it was looking good. We just need to build off that now.

“This year, it’s going to be really exciting.”

Returning forwards include sophomore Eli Dent (three goals) and senior Asa Kryst (two), with newcomer Mikkel Knudsen of Denmark also looking to play a prominent role.

“The objective is to improve in the attack. Last year we were very strong defensively and very determined,” Berson said. “The guys showed a lot of grit, but we needed to put more games away. So our focus is to score more goals.”

As he begins his 37th season as the program’s only coach, Berson, who has compiled a 451-200-68 record with 20 NCAA tournament appearances, is ready for the season to start.

“We have a really good staff. They do most of the heavy lifting. That enables me to coach and really enjoy what we’re doing,” he said.

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