Game on.... Spartans ready to kickoff 2007 season
GREENSBORO, NC - Even when a team with as storied a history as UNCG loses five of its top six scorers from a group that went to the NCAA's Round of 16 three straight years, you would think there would be concern for a drop-off in the team's offensive production, right?
Take that a step further by considering that five includes two All-Americans and a player who was named the SoCon Tournament MVP each of the last two years.
On paper, you would think the 2007 edition of the highly-successful men's soccer program would have to be more defensive-minded. But that hasn't been the case in the pre-season as the Spartans prepare to open the season against Georgetown in Harrisonburg, VA on Friday evening.
UNCG, ranked No. 23 in the NSCAA's pre-season Top 25, tied 12th-ranked Clemson, 2-2, and topped Winthrop, a team on the outskirts of the Top 25, 2-1 in two exhibition matches. In those two matches, UNCG head coach Michael Parker played a lot of players, commenting after the Winthrop win that he hadn't had his top 11 players on the field at the same time, yet. In fact, goalkeeper Nate Berry, who played more than 2000 minutes last year, only played the first half against Winthrop -- a match that saw the Spartans play 21 different players, including three goalkeepers.
While it isn't time to clear space for more trophies in the glass case (the Southern Conference coaches picked UNCG second in their pre-season balloting behind Furman), there is reason to believe that UNCG will be making yet another serious post-season run when the SoCon Tournament visits UNCG Soccer Stadium in mid-November.
Defenses keyed on All-Americans Scott Jones and Randi Patterson the last few seasons. Further, it looked like UNCG's offense took another serious blow when Henning Jonasson returned to his native Iceland to attend to a family illness.
However, there seems to be a significant balance to this year's squad so far. Thomas Campbell, a junior who played on the same club team as Patterson back home in New Jersey, had a hand in three of the Spartans' four pre-season goals. Campbell had two goals and an assist in UNCG's two exhibition matches. In addition, Travis Young, who came to UNCG from Kentucky prior to last season, is expected to move from the shadows to the forefront this season.
But it was three newcomers that really caught some eyes this pre-season. The speed of freshman Nirav Kadam and the transfer duo of Tebatso Manayama and Tim Masters may be the pieces that really open up the frontline of the offense. Kadam, the shortest player on the field most of the time, will likely be the fastest one, too. Several bursts past the defense late in the Winthrop match showed the potential problems that his speed could present for the opposition. He showed why he was a high school All-American at Northwest HS in Germantown, MD.
Manayam, a native of South Africa who transferred from NAIA powerhouse Auburn-Montgomery, showed off some nifty footwork that will make defenses mark him a little tougher. He had an assist on Campbell's goal at Clemson and then set him up for his assist against Winthrop.
Masters, meanwhile, transferred up I-40 from UNC Wilmington and has shown the ability to become a significant offensive threat, as well. If Kadam is one of the smallest on the pitch, Masters will be one of the tallest. He tallied double-digit points in each of his first two seasons with the Seahawks and has the potential to continue that with the Spartans.
The other end of the pitch is where UNCG returns a solid nucleus. Berry is now a seasoned veteran after playing more minutes than any other freshman keeper in school history. He returns All-American candidates D.J. McCurry, David Worthen and Jokull Elisabetarson in front of him. McCurry and Worthen will anchor the back line, while Elisabetarson returns to solidify the midfield. The Icelandic sensation did not play in the first half of the Clemson match as he had just returned from playing for Iceland's national team and reported to camp less than 48 hours before. But when he did hit the field, his impact was felt immediately.
Pre-season prognostications usually don't mean much. Lots of things can happen to a team during the course of a season - injuries, bad luck, chemistry. But one fact still stands out - Michael Parker, the winningest active coach in Division I men's soccer, has never had a team suffer a losing season.
And this group doesn't look like its ready to change that trend.
- UNCG -