Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Camarati/UNC Athletics
By AVI CREDITOR
Repeating as national champions in men's college soccer rarely happens these days. No team has gone back-to-back since Indiana in 2003 and 2004, and the only team since then to even reach the title game in consecutive years was Akron in 2009 and 2010.
That's not stopping North Carolina from dreaming big, even after the departures of a number of key players from the 2011 championship squad.
Led by the U.S. Under-20 quartet of midfielder Mikey Lopez, centerback Boyd Okwuono, left back Jordan McCrary and freshman attacking talent Danny Garcia, a highly rated recruiting class and senior goalkeeper Scott Goodwin, the 2012 edition of UNC is out to create its own identity while maintaining its place among college soccer's elite.
To do that won't be easy, though. In trying to replenish a lineup that lost star forward Billy Schuler to a pro career in Sweden and Kirk Urso, Matt Hedges, Enzo Martinez and Ben Speas to MLS, second-year coach Carlos Somoano has some work to do to mold a winner. That, of course, is his second-toughest challenge after trying to guide the program through a tragic time following Urso's sudden death earlier this month.
"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't difficult for us as a staff, and as a team and as a community here at UNC," Somoano said. "It's been painful. I think as a coach you always want to fix the problems and solve things, and it's not a fixable issue or a solvable issue.
"It's a bitter part of life, but we have no choice but to accept it and try to remember the great things that Kirk meant to us and the things that he did to our university and program. I thought so highly of Kirk. He was very close to us and to the university. We just keep moving the program forward and keep him in mind as we do it."
North Carolina's players will wear patches on their sleeves with Urso's No. 3 this season to honor his memory, something that will serve as an inspiration as they play with heavy hearts.
"(Urso's death) had a major impact on us," said Lopez, a central figure as a sophomore for UNC and a potential Generation adidas candidate. "We know that he's looking out for us now, and we just have to take that into mind and play with him in our hearts. It was a tough time. It made us more of a family I guess, brought us closer together. I don't think it was that much of a distraction, because we got right back on it because we know how Kirk was. He would've wanted us to get better."
The team, ranked preseason No. 1 in the NSCAA poll, is beginning to turn the page, and the next step in that process is Saturday night, when the Tar Heels take to the field against Gardner-Webb. While the schedule contains its annual degree of difficulty considering the ACC opposition, it is forgiving in one way: Eight of the team's first 10 games are at home, including a tough non-conference test against West Virginia on Aug. 31.
That should help the team's bevy of young players ease into the new season while cultivating their own style and expression on the field. Of the team's 34 players, 24 range from freshman to redshirt sophomore.
"We'll find our own identity," said Okuwono, an FC Dallas academy product. "We have our own team, but we're going to find our own identity, and we're going to find it very quickly."
Of the highly touted recruiting class, perhaps the most pressure falls on Garcia, another FC Dallas academy product, to produce immediately and help fill the attacking void left behind after junior forward Robbie Lovejoy underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum this summer.
Somoano said that Lovejoy, whose seven goals and five assists were most among returning players, is not currently participating in soccer activities while he goes through rehabilitation and that "there's an outside chance he could return toward the end of the season."
The puts the onus on the likes of Garcia, and sophomores Lopez, Okwuono and McCrary, who will all be under the spotlight from both pro scouts and U.S. U-20 coach Tab Ramos and his staff with U-20 World Cup qualifying commencing this February, to become young leaders and produce. With individual expectations riding high and team expectations of a repeat being thrust on the program, Somoano has a new challenge ahead of him as opposed to inheriting last year's experienced group and molding them into champions.
"A big part of our job is managing expectations," Somoano said. "If you'll allow other people's expecations to be yours, they might not meet up.
"We'll define ourselves through the year, and I'm 100 percent positive this year something will go wrong, and I'm 100 percent positive things will go well. How we handle the good times and the bad times and how persistent we are and how disciplined and focused we remain will ultimately decide the full course of the year."