With most of the non-conference games out of the way, the Charlotte 49ers men’s soccer team (4-2-1, 0-0-1 C-USA) looks to start the remainder of their conference schedule out on a good note against South Carolina tonight at home. After a near 10 year hiatus from Conference USA, this is Charlotte’s first season back playing in one of the strongest soccer conferences in the nation. The Niners have looked strong thus far and will be looking to make it to the NCAA tournament for the third year in a row this season. I got a chance to sit down with head coach Kevin Langan and ask him a few questions about the 2013 season:
You guys started out the season with a somewhat disappointing loss to UNC Greensboro, but have been playing really well since then.
Yeah, in the Greensboro game, they’re a local rival. I don’t feel we’ve ever- in terms of performance or chances- dominated a game like we did. That can sometimes happen in soccer. If you don’t get it right at both ends, but you give up an easy goal and you don’t score, then you lose games. But in terms of performance, that’s probably the best we’ve ever played against them. You know it’s a local rival, they want to make it tough and they’re going to be motivated for it. Last year we tied 1-1 and I think we played a lot better this year and we lost 1-0, which can sometime happen. It was disappointing [that it was] at home, that was the big thing for us.
You brought in some talented freshmen and transfers in the offseason–how have they blended in with the team so far?
Monbo Bokar (junior, transfer from NC State) joined us last Christmas and he had a wonderful spring. He really is getting to terms with what we do here with the accountability and working hard. For Conor [Agnew] (sophomore, transfer from NC State) and the freshmen who have come in this fall, it’s a transition to come in for a fall sport. They’ve all done very well, though, and they’re great players. We’re excited for their future here. We’ve had such an established group here for the last few years now, so they’re going to have to play really well to break through. The good thing is they get the chance to learn and grow behind some great players, so when the chance comes I’m sure they’ll take it.
With so many seniors and juniors on the roster, have any of them stepped up as the clear cut leader on the team or is it just a collective group effort for the upperclassmen?
It’s a collective group, definitely. I think they all bring different leadership styles to the team. Thomas [Allen], Klay [Davis], and Aidan [Kirkbride] are kind of quiet off the field and aren’t very vocal, but they lead by example. And then there’s Tyler Gibson, who again leads by example. He’s so professional with his approach, he watches video, and he has great training habits. He lives the life of an ultimate athelete- he never takes a minute off. He just gets out there and sets the tempo for us. And then you have Will [Mayhew] and Anthony [Perez] who are a bit more social and vocal off the field. They can get the team together and organized. They all bring good leadership qualities to the group. We haven’t announced a captian- these six are the captains. On any given day they wear the armband and they’re all leading the group for us. The good thing about them is, first and foremost, they’re good people. They haven’t let the power go to their heads and they aren’t doing it for the wrong reasons. They genuinely want this program to be successful and they’re working hard for that.
You guys seem to have the experience, talent and team chemistry this year, which is important for a successful season. Do you feel like you guys have a good chance at getting back to the tournament this year and stringing some wins together once you get there?
That’s our goal, yes. We’re in a unique position–this is our first year in Conference USA. We had really figured out what it took to be successful in the A-10. At the beginning it took us a while to transition and then we figured it out and we won two regular season championships in the last three years. So for us we’re going to figure out Conference USA this year.
We play a tough schedule with five on the road and four at home. We go to New Mexico (currently ranked 25th), Tulsa (currently ranked 15th), Florida (FIU and FAU), and we already went to UAB who were ranked eighth in the country at the time we played them. So we have a real tough schedule, which is what we want, but the goal is to win as many games as we can and see where we’re at. We host the Conference USA tournament this year so first we want to get there, and then we want to win some games. We have great experience, the players have been through this before and they know what it takes. Now they just have to go out there and do it.
People always talk about the great spirit Charlotte has, but spirit is such an intangible word. So for us it’s the great accountability that we hold on each other, the work we demand on each other, the performance we demand on each other. That’s what translates as spirit I think. To me, spirit is just accountability of people working for each other and working hard for each other. The team is certainly good enough to have a run this year, but the team on paper is only one part of it so we’ve still got to get it done.
So you aren’t worried about the switch to Conference USA this year where the talent level is higher compared to the A-10?
I think if you worry about it then you’re looking at the challenge the wrong way. You get excited about it and motivated by it. This program’s been primed and ready for the top tier of college soccer now. We’ve done it coming out of a not top tier conference for the last four years. Now we’ve put ourselves in a top tier conference, and with the team we have, we’re primed to be a national power we believe. We’re not worried about it–we’re excited about it and look forward to get started.
You were an important part of the team that went to the national championship game in 2011, and then became the head coach the season after and led the team to 15 wins, being ranked all year, and returned to the NCAA tournament. How have you kept the program going and staying successful?
I think Coach (Jeremy) Gunn (former Charlotte coach, now the head coach at Stanford) left behind a great culture, but we were all very much a part of that…it wasn’t just a one man show, it was a great team effort. He left behind a great environment for the program. I think we’re playing my style now–I’ll be a little biased here–but a little more attractive style of soccer. It’s a little more complex style of soccer. I think the way we played in ’11 was what we needed to do to get there, and now there are a lot more ways to attack. I think last year we had the second best year in terms of goals against. So for me it’s been a wonderful experience. It’s a unique position to take over the second best team in the country. Not a lot of people get that chance. It was something that really motivated us and excited us.
These past two years we’ve had such a great core and experienced group. This program is set up to be one of the top teams in the country–with the facilities, the support we get from the administration, the support staff we have–and we’re right at the top of college soccer here. It’s up to us to keep it going.