South Carolina - Four And A Half Star Recruiting Class - Put the Gamecocks in the "wait and see" category heading into the 2013 season. South Carolina is always a dangerous opponent to face particularly when you have to tangle with them at Stone Stadium which is also known as "The Graveyard."
When it comes to wins and losses there are sufficient unanswered questions on both sides of the ball to make it difficult to sort out how this bunch is going to shake out in 2013. The fact that the Gamecocks were picked to finish first in the Conference USA Preseason poll last year but ended up with a 5-11-2 overall record and a 2-5-1 mark in conference play adds to the uncertainty. Expectations are always high at South Carolina where veteran head coach Mark Berson has built a program with a history of being in the NCAA Tournament field so anything less than that is a disappointment.
What we do know for sure is that the Gamecocks will return seven starters from the 2012 squad and Berson will welcome a very impressive recruiting class to Columbia that includes four players ranked by College Soccer News as among the top one-hundred recruits in the high school class of 2013. Several of the newcomers appear to have what it takes to make an immediate contribution.
One of the biggest challenge that South Carolina faces in 2013 is replacing forward Bradlee Baladez (4g, 3a), an All-CUSA selection for three seasons, who elected to forgo his senior season to take his game to the professional level. Baladez's decision to turn pro created a gap, as he was an integral part of South Carolina's offense. Berson also has a big void to fill on the defensive side of the ball due to the graduation of backs Kevin Stam, Eric Martinez and Mike Mangotic and goalkeeper Alex Long. Long will play at Duke University in 2013 where he is enrolled in graduate school.
The Gamecocks, who have a long tradition of talented goalkeepers like Brad Guzon and Henry Ring who are a cut above the rest, look to be in good shape between the pipes heading into the 2013 campaign. Redshirt junior Robert Beebe returns in goal along with freshman Marco Velez who was the starting keeper for the IMG U-18 Soccer Development Academy.
Change is the name of the game for a Gamecock backline that requires major rebuilding. South Carolina is pretty much starting all over in the back due to the graduation of Stam, Martinez, and Mangotic.
Berson has addressed the gap that exists in the back in part by moving junior Braeden Troyer (3g, 1a), a 2012 All-Conference USA selection who has two very impressive seasons of starting experience in the midfield, to the central defender role where he will team with junior Mahamoudou Kaba who brings a ton of athleticism to the pitch. Troyer and Kaba gained valuable experience playing together during the spring season which bodes well for the 2013 campaign.
The outside back positions look to be up for grabs. Senior Jason Chapman and redshirt sophomore Dan Traxler who had surgery during the off season and sophomore Trent Rieflin (0g, 2a) are among returning players who will vie for playing time in the back. Berson also has the option of calling on several very talented freshmen in Andrew Davis , Trey Gill, Ive Burnette and Koty Millard to shore up the defense.
It remains to be seen who will be able to separate themselves from the pack and claim the starting positions in the back. The Gamecock defense has the potential to be very good but inexperience will likely create a learning curve the length of which could be problematic in the early going.
There is less ambiguity in the midfield which could be a team strength with sophomore center mid Ryan Arambula (1g, 2a), sophomore Jeff Torda (2g, 3a), and sophomore Devin L'Amoreaux returning with the benefit of a year of playing time under their belts. Redshirt junior Stephen Anderson (1g, 0a) is among other returning players who should play a significant role. Redshirt sophomore Ryan Freiburger (0g, 1a), transfer Joey Hutchinson from Florida Gulf Coast and newcomer Kurtis Turner who hails from Sheffield, England should also compete for playing time in the midfield.
South Carolina lacks a clear go-to guy up-top heading into the season but that may change once the season gets underway. Right now junior Asa Kryst (1g, 1a) who had a very productive spring season looks to be Berson's top option for offensive productivity. Senior J.P. Rafferty, junior Hunter Wyer (2g, 2a) and sophomore Wesley Eads (1g, 1a) are among other returning forwards who should be in the mix up-top. Freshmen forwards Hamilton Carlin and Eli Dent are highly regarded goal scorers with the speed and power to be difference makers once they gain experience. The entire group of forwards could end up having the opportunity to get plenty of work.
As in the past, the Gamecocks have a very competitive 2013 schedule that includes nine teams that participated in the NCAA Tournament last year. South Carolina will have to hit the ground running with a daunting early season schedule that includes games on the road against rival Clemson, St. John's, Rutgers, and Coastal Carolina. The Gamecocks will learn a lot about themselves in those contests. While the outcome of those early games are important, this team will ultimately be measured by their performance in Conference USA play which will being on October 6 when they host a talented Tulsa team.
There is always reason for excitement at South Carolina heading into the start of a new season. The Graveyard will no doubt once again be an exciting place to watch a college soccer game and a difficult venue for opposing teams. However right now, you need look no further than the Gamecock defense, to see that there are a lot of unanswered questions. Several stalwarts have departed but the promising news is that a very talented bunch of youngsters will be coming on board. At the end of the day the ability of the newcomers to make an impact on both sides of the ball could be the X-Factor for the Gamecocks in 2013.
Koty Millard - Midfield - Columbia, South Carolina - Cardinal Newman - Rated by CSN as the number 80 player in the class of 2013. NSCAA High School All-American. U-18 National Team Player Pool.
Andrew Davis - Defender - Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina - Wando High School - Played for South Carolina Academy. ODP Region III Pool. South Carolina ODP team.
Hamilton Carlin - Forward - Daniel Island, South Carolina - Wando High School - Played for South Carolina Academy. Rated by CSN as the #36 player in the class of 2013.
Eli Dent - Forward - Charleston, South Carolina - Charleston County School of Arts - Rated by CSN as the number 66 player in the class of 2013. Plays for South Carolina United Academy.
Marco Velez - Goalkeeper - Sarasota, Florida - IMG Academy - Starting goalkeeper for the IMG U-18 Soccer Development Academy team.
Ive Burnett - Defender - Brandon, Mississippi - Real Salt Lake - Rated by CSN as the number 27 player in the class of 2013. Played for Real Salt Lake Academy. U-17 Men's National Team Residency Program.
Trey Gill - Defender - Nashville, Tennessee - Montgomery Bell Academy - 2013 Tennessee Gatorade Player of the Year. All-State selection. Played for FC Alliance.
Joey Hutchinson - Midfield - Bradenton, Florida - Manatee High School - Sophomore transfer from Florida Gulf Coast University.
Kurtis Turner - Midfield - Sheffield, England - Played for Barsley FC.