Charlotte 49ers men’s soccer coach Kevin Langan warns his team that its No. 23 national preseason ranking is a celebration of last year’s accomplishments. With the departure of seven starters from a team that won the Conference USA tournament and reached the NCAA tournament, he may have a point.
But in the past five years, Charlotte has built a reputation for reloading instead of rebuilding, and become one of the most respected programs in the country. The 49ers have reached the NCAA tournament the past three years and four of the last five.
Langan says Charlotte prepared for the exodus of last year’s players by bringing in solid recruiting classes in 2013 and 2014. This season will be their time to support a team that returns 15 letter winners.
“I think we already prepared to lose that great class (with the recruiting class) two years ago,” said Langan. “So we overlap players; players that are probably good enough to come in and play had to sit and watch a little bit (last year). We had some freshmen and sophomores who in other programs may have gotten in there and played.
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“We train them hard and they get to watch some of the best college soccer players in the country. But also they were pushed every day. I think we were prepared to fill those holes. In college soccer, you lose great players every year.”
This year’s recruiting class, which features 10 freshmen, was ranked 15th in the country by College Soccer News.
The 49ers finished 12-6-3 overall and 4-3-2 in the tough Conference USA last season. As host of the conference tournament, Charlotte defeated Tulsa in the final on senior midfielder Tyler Gibson’s penalty shot in the 88th minute.
Gibson, an Academic All-American, was among Charlotte’s losses from last year. Fellow seniors Thomas Allen, a defender, and Aidan Kirkbride, a midfielder, were named to the All-South Region teams as was junior forward Giuseppe Gentile.
Gentile, a former national freshman player of the year, was drafted by Major League Soccer’s Chicago Fire in the waiver draft. His 27 career goals is 10th-most in school history.
Three of this year’s returning players landed on C-USA all-conference teams. Kyle Parker, now a junior forward, made the All-C-USA third team and was a co-winner of the conference’s first Golden Boot Award, given to the player with the most goals in league play.
Parker, a Marvin Ridge graduate, led Charlotte with 11 goals overall, three more than Gentile. His 25 points also led the team.
Midfielder Brandt Bronico and defender Luke Waechter, both returning starters, were named to the C-USA all-freshman team.
Charlotte’s other returning starter is junior defender Biko Bradnock-Brennan.
Defender David Mayer and midfielder Robby Thomas, both seniors, and redshirt junior defender Nick Barnhorst (Ardrey Kell) started a combined 22 games a year ago. Junior midfielder Conor Agnew, senior forward Monbo Bokar, and sophomore forward Hans Honer (Vance High) were among the top reserves.
“I think there will be a little bit of change (in style of play) just from personnel,” said Langan. “We’ll still have the same principles … that mobile, compact soccer where you’re defending everyone from the front to the back, everyone putting in shifts for the other, looking to press the opponent in all areas so they will play at a speed we’re comfortable at.
“We’ll play through teams quickly, looking to score on every attack, looking to use that dynamics we have. That will be the same.”
Charlotte is coming off a season in which its schedule was one of the 10 most-challenging in the country, based on RPI, a nationally recognized index for ranking teams.
This year, the 49ers will play six teams that reached the NCAA tournament in 2013, including Coastal Carolina – which knocked out Charlotte in the first round – Sept. 5.
“It was a team we beat earlier in the season, and it was a game that we almost expected to win,” said Parker. “When you get to the tournament, there’s no game you can overlook, and I think that was a lesson learned.
“There are a lot of returning guys. I think this time around, if we make it to the tournament, we’re not going to overlook anyone.”