Last December, Clemson was right where it wanted to be.
A year removed from making its first College Cup Championship appearance in 28 years, the Tigers were on the doorstep of returning to the College Cup Final Four for a second straight year.
Everything was in place. They were playing Denver in the Elite Eight at Historic Riggs Field, one of the best home field advantages in all of college soccer. All they had to do was just take care of business and they would have a chance to finish what they started in 2015.
However, as fate would have it, it was not meant to be. Denver outplayed the Tigers and with just one minute left in the match Denver played in a cross that found Korte Ford for the game-winning goal that sent Denver to the College Cup Final Four.
Eight months later, as the Tigers prepare to open the season on Friday against Cal State Fullerton at 5 p.m. on Historic Riggs Field, they can still feel the pain from the Denver loss.
“Oh it stuck. There’s no question about it,” Clemson head coach Mike Noonan said. “That’s something we definitely hope we learned from. You gotta give Denver a lot of credit, their game plan was good and they executed it well.
“We had chances to win the game but in a soccer game you’re going to see chances for both teams to win the game and we didn’t execute as well as Denver did. That’s stuck with us particularly the leadership of the team and the coaching staff since last fall. We can’t think about getting back to the elite eight we have to think about winning our first game. Also, think about continuing to be successful. If you look at the schedule it’s good and it’s going to be a lot of fun for the people here in Clemson because we have ten or eleven home games against the likes of Notre Dame, UCLA, and South Carolina. All the biggest games are at home.”
Though Noonan’s team is going to take the one-match-at-a-time approach, the expectations for the soccer program are similar to those just down the road at the Allen Reeves Football Complex. They want to win a national championship, and they believe they can.
Clemson enters the season ranked No. 5 in the preseason soccer poll, and for a third straight season it is expected to contend for an ACC Championship and a national championship as well.
“I think that the expectations are that we are going to have another successful year,” Noonan said. “The coaches and the players want that. I think the mentality of the team is we want to stay grounded in being the best team that we can possibly be. It’s Clemson vs. Clemson. I think that’s the most important thing.
“Yes, we’ve had some success but every team is different. You’re an injury away… You don’t know what’s going to happen and where the hurdles are going to come so we just encourage the players to be the best person and player that they can be and so we can be the best team we can be. Stay grounded in their process and let the wins come to us.”
The Clemson program is a far cry from where it was when Noonan took over in 2010. A superstitious man, Noonan will not shave his heard from the start of preseason camp until his team gets its first victory. He has been doing this every year since he became a head coach and in that first year he admitted the beard got way too long for his liking.
The Tigers finally beat Furman, 1-0, after a 0-3-1 start that season – six weeks after the start of preseason camp.
“I thought I was never going to get it cut that year,” Noonan joked.
Times have changed. Noonan, whose beard could use a nice trim these days, expects his team to play well and he is confident he will be able to cut his beard sooner rather than later.
Noonan has shaved his beard after the Tigers’ first game for five straight years as they own a five-game winning streak in season openers. However, the mission these days isn’t so much about cutting the head coach’s beard as much as it is getting Clemson back on the top of the mountain, which they have been so close to accomplishing the last two years.
“That was the mission when we took over,” Noonan said. “When I was growing up playing college soccer in the 1980s Clemson was one of two or three teams that everybody talked about. There’s a lot more parity now but we want to be considered one of the elite teams in the country and we want to be in the conversation for championships whether it’s in the ACC or the NCAA.
“I don’t feel like we’re there yet, but I don’t think if we win three championships in a row I’ll feel like we’re not there yet. I’ll still think there’s more to do, but I’m proud of the work my staff has put in and the players before this point. We’re just going to keep trying to add to the tradition that is Clemson men’s soccer.”
–Photo courtesy Clemson Athletic Communications