Charlotte soccer has shown time and time again that they can perform strongly and have the longevity to make it through the regular season and go far in the postseason as well. It seems that this year, Charlotte 49ers athletics are taking a big step forward all across the board.
Head Coach Kevin Langan and his crew expect only improvements this season and as many coaches and players often say that they’re taking it day by day. With a conference season-opener on the horizon against Kentucky no less, it may seem a tad daunting. It would be unrealistic to characterize it as just another game but when the Niners take on the Wildcats at home on Saturday, Sept. 15 it won’t the end-all-be-all no matter the outcome. Though Charlotte will be hopeful to start the Conference USA season off with a win, should they fall to Kentucky, they would correct mistakes, deal with the faults and it would be on to the next one.
The Niners finished last season with a 14-5-2 record after falling to Kentucky twice, once in the regular season and once in the C-USA Championship final. After the championship title loss, Charlotte made it the second round of the NCAA tournament following an exciting at-home win over Georgia State. They lost in the second round to Virginia Tech at 1-0 after outdoing the Hokies in both shots and shots on goal. The match against Kentucky is not the only game to focus on here, but it’s impossible to not draw attention to it for a few reasons. Charlotte is 4-4-1 against Kentucky, all four of their losses and one tie coming in each of the seasons since 2015. One of the best records the Niners have seen since 2012 came in the 2018 season. In 2012, the team finished with a record of 15-4-3, made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament and had their first win against the Wildcats in the first meeting between the two teams. The 49ers’ ability to maintain a certain momentum throughout the season will help determine how they fair following their home opener this season.
“We’ll hit the ground running and then get up to speed straight away. And then go on the road to another great team and then come back and start conference play with the reigning regular season and conference champions, it’s a wonderful marker for us early on; where are we, how are we looking, what do we need to do, so the key thing from that especially as we go into the season is to take it day by day,” said Langan. “But, with an urgency we have to get it right and we have to get flying straight out of the gates.”
The 49ers are 1-0 so far, also having won both exhibition games, and will have played High Point on Monday, Sept. 2. Games against Coastal Carolina and West Virginia also precede the conference-opener.
It’s a fairly full roster all things considered. Charlotte lost major players on the field after the 2018 season including Callum Montgomery, Daniel Bruce, Dean Rutherford and Tommy Madden. Bruce was Charlotte’s top goal-scorer while Madden and Montgomery were among the top goal-scorers and in assists as well. Each of these former Niners were integral parts of the season the team had in the 2018 season.
Of course, there’s still plenty of talent to continue to fall into place for Charlotte and naturally, there’s quite a bit among the current seniors now as well. Six seniors fill the Charlotte 49ers roster this season including goalkeeper Elliot Pannico and returning offensive forces, 2019 assist-leader in Teddy Chaouche and Maclean Holbrook who is coming back from off and on time away from the field due to injuries.
“We lost some really good leaders last year and really encouragingly for us, Pat, Teddy, and Elliot really stepped up in the spring and with the college soccer season, the way that the players come back early before school starts and we have to get prepared for the season…without the coaches’ instruction we have to lean heavily on the seniors to help,” said Langan. “We’ve got some incredible seniors, some really good people. First and foremost, great people that lead by example, lead by how they live their lives first and foremost and then we just encourage them to verbalize it, to put an arm around some of the newcomers to help them out as well.”
Along with returning upperclassmen are players like Preston Popp who emerged in the 2018 season as a potentially major goal-scorer for Charlotte and teammates Delasi Batse who contributed a lot of minutes and energy to the field. 10 freshman gives Charlotte an opportunity to build and further develop a solid but ever-improving program. Kameron Lacey, Axel Sigurdarson, Jaxson Watermann, and Carson Price saw minutes against Gardner-Webb and Lacey and Sigurdarson each contributed shots on goal.
“A key part of soccer is that we’re always going to change, we’re always going to bring in newcomers and players are going to graduate and that’s what makes it such an exciting, dynamic environment to be a coach in. Players like Preston who contributed greatly last year, the role is very different and the expectations of him are very different now,” said Langan. “And for him now, we’re going to look at him and rather than ‘what can the new guy give us and how is he figuring out’ it’s going to be ‘okay, this is what he will have to contribute to the team and how he’ll have to play.’ And that’s the same throughout the whole roster for a lot of players.”
As the team makes its way through the season, gearing up for conference play and preparing for a lot of tough competition against opponents, they also experience a good deal of competition on the practice field. Langan mentions quite often that Charlotte is a “development program.” This doesn’t mean that it’s all they’re good for, the No. 21 Niners certainly win games, but they also do it largely with players that begin and end their college careers as 49ers. Charlotte will have played three more games by the time it reaches CUSA play, but for the time being, they hit the field each and every day working to improve.
“The cool thing for a college coach is we get to watch these young men grow as people and as players through the program; we’re very much a development program. We don’t lean heavily on transfers or one-year players, etc. We love to bring in a freshman and we love to work with them day after day and watch them grow as players and as people,” said Langan. “So, the goal for them all is to be playing their best soccer and to be in the most control of their life going into their senior year.”