University City

49ers build on experience, losing only one senior

Yes, certainly some of the fans who came to Transamerica Field for the Charlotte men's soccer game on Aug. 21 were there to see the 49ers' opponent that day, third-ranked UNC Chapel Hill.

But more than 4,000 people showed up, a team record.

They came for an exhibition. The game didn't even count.

Even coach Jeremy Gunn agreed there might be a bigger buzz about this year's team than in years past. Charlotte is ranked nationally in the preseason for the second straight year (23rd in College Soccer News) and was selected by the Atlantic 10 coaches to win the conference championship.

The 49ers started this regular season with two straight wins, including their official home opener with UNC Wilmington on Sept. 4, which drew a crowd of 1,595, pretty good for a Labor Day weekend.

Now in his fifth season, Gunn is coaching his first team that consists entirely of players he fully recruited. Just as important, Gunn followed through on a promise he made five years ago by making the 49ers a more offensive and up-tempo team.

The reformation showed its first major signs in 2009, when Charlotte cracked the national rankings, reaching as high as ninth. The 49ers earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, its first postseason berth since 1997.

Last season, Charlotte began the season ranked in the top 25 in the country, but lost its season opener at UNC Greensboro and two of its first three games. The 49ers rebounded to have a fine season, at one point winning eight in a row.

They finished with a 13-5-1 overall record and a regular-season conference championship. The season finished abruptly, however, with an A-10 tournament loss to Xavier and a failure to reach the NCAAs again.

For Gunn and the 49ers, though, establishing consistency from year to year is most important. That has come through a ball-control style of play and the creation of more scoring opportunities.

"The first couple of years, teams were going to have the ball more than us," Gunn said. "The other team would play the ball for a couple of minutes, try and have a go at it, and we would counterattack for five seconds, so it was real hard work. It was kind of smash-and-grab soccer."

Charlotte lost its top goal scorer from last year, Andres Cuero, but he was the only senior who graduated. In the early season, senior Evan James has shown promise of taking charge offensively.

A preseason all-Atlantic 10 selection, James scored both goals in Charlotte's season-opening 2-1 victory over Coastal Carolina. He doesn't see much difference between last year's and this year's teams.

"We're just Charlotte last year, 2.0," he said.

Nine starters return including a couple who were recognized as the best at their positions in the Atlantic 10 last year: senior defender Charles Rodriguez and redshirt sophomore midfielder Tyler Gibson.

Rodriguez was named to this year's watch list for the Hermann Trophy, college soccer's player-of-the-year award.

"What (Gunn) has done with the program in four years has been phenomenal," said Rodriguez, one of two senior starting defenders.

"How far we've come, being in the national rankings pretty much year in and year out and establishing a style of soccer that's pretty much fun to watch. I love being a part of this program."