If spring is any indication, this fall’s ACC is certain to be as competitive as ever.
While the conference only had one representative at the College Cup last fall, there’s little doubting the likes of Maryland, Virginia, Wake Forest, and Duke are going to be among the best programs in the nation once again.
The reigning champs North Carolina know this, and enter the spring season with a clean slate, focusing on the rebuilding process the spring season allows.
“It’s a new season, we have to start from the beginning just like we do every spring,” head coach Carlos Somoano told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “Even if we just changed a few players, it’s a new team. And every time you change a few players, you have a new team dynamic, new group regardless. We take it from step one and we’re going to work as if we have everything to prove.”
Perhaps no team in the conference faces as significant a turnover as the Tar Heels, who lost starters like Enzo Martinez, Ben Speas, Kirk Urso, Billy Schuler and Matt Hedges to the pro ranks.
However, as usual, Somoano reloads with an excellent recruiting class (ranked No. 4 in the nation
), including FC Dallas standout Daniel Garcia, and returns plenty of talent, including defender Boyd Okwuono, attacker Robbie Lovejoy and midfielder Mikey Lopez.
One of UNC’s in-state rivals, Wake Forest, is in the opposite boat, having lost no starters. Even more importantly for head coach Jay Vidovich, he’s eagerly anticipating the arrival of this fall’s freshman class and the challenge they’ll pose to an already strong team.
“I think it will be tremendous with this incoming group, there are some strong players who are pretty ambitious who will force the older guys to play a little better and raise the overall quality of the game which should help our speed of play,” he told TopDrawerSoccer.com earlier in the year.
This spring, Wake will get a chance to matchup against the Tar Heels allowing both sides to see where things progress with each side.
Outside of North Carolina, the big names of the ACC are working feverishly to be ready come the fall. Maryland already opened up its spring season with a 2-1 win over Virginia Commonwealth on March 9, before dropping a 3-1 loss to El Salvador’s U23 team two days later.
The loss to El Salvador came in front of an audience of more than 5,000 at the nearby Germantown Soccerplex in Maryland.
“I was very pleased with just the whole event in general,” Terps head coach Sasho Cirovski told TopDrawerSoccer.com. “It was a fantastic spring event, a bonus game for us, incredibly valuable experience for everyone involved.”
Despite losing leading scorer Casey Townsend to graduation, Maryland has plenty of goal-scoring options returning, including Patrick Mullins, Sunny Jane and John Stertzer. Along with that, the team returned eight starters in all, and will lean on a strong senior class led by Stertzer and defenders Taylor Kemp and London Woodberry.
For that trio, who all had pro possibilities come up in the offseason, the goal is clear.
“I think they all had some talk [to go pro], none of them got the kind of offers that were going to pull them out of college,” Cirovski said. “All three of those guys are quite excited about coming back because I think they’re on a little bit of a mission to make sure they get to a College Cup, because they have not experienced a College Cup.”
The rest of the ACC will have plenty to say about those aspirations. Duke, which lost Hermann Trophy winning forward Andrew Wenger, can count on the return of standout freshman Nick Palodichuk, and Virginia is set to get forward Will Bates back after his ACL injury last fall. That’s without mentioning the growing programs such as Boston College and Clemson that will continue to work themselves into the mix.
However, for the time being, all eyes will be on the Tar Heels, as they carry the target of national champs, who have a firm spring target in mind.
“I think [our goal is] to have a better understanding of who we are, what our strengths our, which players can fulfill whatever new roles we may have,” Somoano said. “We may have a new system of play, we may not. And to try and get a better understanding of each player’s individual expectations of themselves and of the team.”ACC Players to WatchBoyd Okwuono, North Carolina:
The outstanding central defender paired well with the now departed Matt Hedges, leading to a dominant UNC back line. Okwuono, a product of the FC Dallas Academy, is going to have to adapt more of a leadership role in order to help his side build a dynasty.Alex Shinsky, Maryland:
“He’s coming off his best week of training and playing probably since he’s been here,” Cirovski said of Shinsky. “If he can keep building that momentum he can play a huge role in our team next fall.” Injuries troubled the former U.S. youth international in his freshman year last fall, but provided that he stays healthy, he’ll certainly have a breakout year at Maryland.
Nick Palodichuk, Duke:
The second-leading scorer on Duke’s roster last year, he’ll be thrust into the spotlight by Wenger’s departure. How he copes with the added pressure is going to factor significantly into the Blue Devils’ success.
Travis Clark is a staff reporter at TopDrawerSoccer.com. Follow him on or send him an email.