The 49ers have won 24 games, captured three regular-season tournaments titles, reached the finals of the A-10 Tournament and been nationally-ranked over the past two seasons. What are your thoughts on the direction of the program? I’m just really excited about the upcoming season. The first year was an unknown quantity and we had such a thin squad that it was mostly about performing the best that we could and we did very well with that. In the second year we had a lot more players and we had a tremendous season. We fell a little bit short at the end of the year after we had performed so well, but we suffered many injuries and ran out of some steam - especially due to relying on so many freshmen. Now I feel that we are going to have the strongest squad depth and the most experience since I have been at Charlotte so hopefully we can set the sights real high.
The 49ers return nine starters and 15 letterwinners off a 2008 team that appeared in several national polls. What are your thoughts on the depth of this year’s squad? Our depth will be a big help this year. In the past I didn’t feel as if we had enough options at certain positions. I’m really hoping that this year I will be losing sleep over our depth chart unlike the last couple of years where selections were pretty straightforward. This season I feel we will have competition at every position. So the hope is as we go through this season that players can really compete for minutes which will keep the whole squad fresher and a little bit hungrier.
After winning 12 games in each of the last two seasons, what are your goals for this season? At the end of the season we always want to be in the Atlantic 10 Tournament so that we can contend for the Championship and a bid to the NCAA Tournament. But our main focus is to take one thing at a time and the first thing will be to have a good preseason that will set a good foundation for the season. Then we want to perform well in our non-conference games, hopefully giving us momentum heading in A-10 play. After every game you reassess your goals and you always hope that they go up instead of going lower. We need to make sure we are peaking at the end of the season.
The 49ers men’s soccer program has made five appearances in the NCAA Tournament and Charlotte reached the 1996 College Cup. What steps do you think the program needs to take return to the NCAA Tournament? It is as simple as winning games and outscoring your opponents. We showed last year that when we are playing very well we can play with anyone; especially in some of the early season games when we had our best lineups on the field. Even after we took some key injuries we took Maryland, the 2008 National Champions, to overtime on their home field, so we showed that we can compete with absolutely anybody in the country. I think the main focus for us will be keeping healthy and staying hungry and with the tough schedule we will have to be mentally tougher than in years past.
What are your thoughts on the 2009 schedule which features games against national powers Clemson, Furman, UNC Greensboro, South Carolina, Wake Forest and Winthrop as well as the A-10 foes. The A-10 sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament last season? I think it’s fantastic. I was looking through the media guides from about 15 years ago and that’s how the schedule looked back then, and those teams were always ranked. When I came to this program I said that we want our team to always be nationally recognized and compete with the very best in the nation. When you look at the schedule compared to a couple years ago it is night and day. The A-10 schedule is always extremely tough with three teams from the conference making the NCAA Tournament last season and we could have very easily been a fourth. Going into the season there are two nationally-ranked teams in our conference. The conference schedule is always going to be very difficult, but what we have changed is the non-conference portion of our schedule as we play a number of highly ranked teams. Every game on the schedule will be a tough challenge this year.
How will the 49ers tough non-conference schedule effect the 49ers play in Atlantic 10? I think it is going to make us very tough because by changing the schedule we are on the road a little bit more which always stacks the odds against you. Not only are we playing a tougher schedule than previous years but we are also playing more road games which is going to be a tough test for the guys. The reality is that if we can weather the storm and keep making progress throughout the season by the time we reach A-10 play we will have answered a lot of questions and concerns. We need to stay confident, knowing no matter what happens in the first half of the season we are going to be ready for a really tough conference battle.
The 49ers will be without the services of Chris Salvaggione, a semifinalist for the Hermann Award and the A-10 Offensive Player of the Year, who was a senior last season. However the 49ers return several talented forwards led by junior Andres Cuero and A-10 All-Rookie team selection Evan James. What are your thoughts on the forwards? With every team you have you must figure out how you are going to adjust to compensate for the players you have lost. You also have to decide what your new strengths are based on your new squad. Salvaggione led the team up front and set the pace where he relied on getting great passes from Andres Cuero so he will be sorely missed. However, I think that we will have the best group of forwards that we have had since I have been at Charlotte. If they are all healthy we have incredible options. Last season, Andres had a tremendous year until he got injured. He has the ability to score as well as create for other people so he will certainly be one of the keys to our attack. Evan James, who showed flashes of brilliance last year, is extremely hungry and I think that he can double his goals total from last season. T.J. Beaulieu, who transferred from Old Dominion, was our leading scorer in the spring and has some of the same qualities as Chris. He is going to frighten defenses and I guarantee that he will score goals. We are also looking at Josh Norwood playing up front. He is a very physical presence and extremely hardworking . He is great at harassing defenders. Jennings Rex could also see time up front after showing really well in the pre-season.
What are your thoughts on the midfield led by returning starters seniors Adam Gross, a preseason All-Atlantic 10 selection, and Luke Exley and sophomores Jason Hawes and Isaac Caughran? We should be very strong in the midfield with Luke Exley and Jason Hawes expected to play major roles. Freshmen Steven Saballos and Tyler Gibson are wonderfully skilled players and will bring some flare into the midfield to compliment some of the blue collar work. Owen Darby, who redshirted last year, is going to be push for playing time. He has a great combative style. This season, we have five central midfielders to pick from which really gives us depth. On the right side, we have Adam Gross who had a tremendous last year scoring goals as well as creating. He also had a standout season in the PDL this summer, and has really developed into a complete player. Julien Brown-Latham, who redshirted last year due to injury, was able to get going in the spring and is very attack-minded. On the other side we have Isaac Caughran who had a tremendous freshman year for us. He can possess the ball and has become more assertive going forward. Local product Donnie Smith, a left-footed left midfielder, is expected to add to the midfield. He showed his class during the academy season and was named the MVP of the North Carolina East-West All-Star Game.
The 49ers defense recorded six shutouts and limited 12 foes to a goal or less in 2008. Anchoring the defenders are returning sophomore starters Isaac Cowles and Charles Rodriguez, an A-10 All-Rookie team selection. What are your thoughts on the 49ers defense? In the central positions, we have Charles Rodriguez and Isaac Cowles returning after stellar seasons last year. Their aerial ability and maturity was beyond their years. Nathan Mathers started every game as a freshman and sophomore but struggled a little last year and didn’t really get to fight for a position. He will be back more determined than ever and will afford us three first choice center backs. Newcomers Nate Badke is an upcoming center back, and Anthony Perez can play either centrally or at full-back. Hopefully both can compete with the older players to get on the field. At right back position, we will have to find a way to replace the creativity of Ryan Swaim. Alexander Deitz played consistently through the spring and will be pushing to make the position his. Freshman Robert May will also compete for time there. Redshirt freshman Justin Tucker has showed great defensive qualities and composure at left back. He has slotted in perfectly. Tyler Duncan, who started for two seasons, should return from knee surgery to push to claim his spot back. We have also added Kyle Griffin, who has shown that he has a very bright future in the program.
Senior three-year starting goalkeeper David Martin returns to the 49ers lineup. Martin has recorded 19 shutouts in his first three seasons at Charlotte. What are your thoughts on the goalkeepers? David Martin has had a tremendous career at Charlotte. Last year he was so consistent and made big saves at important times. He is our number one choice and plans to finish his career as a champion. Behind David we have three excellent understudies competing for time. Sophomore Robert Propst, freshmen Patrick Eavenson, who graduated from Charlotte Catholic, and Klay Davis, from the North Carolina coast, will be pushing for playing time in goal for us.
What should someone expect to see out of a Jeremy Gunn coached Charlotte 49ers men’s soccer team? Hopefully just like last year we will play exciting soccer. It sounds clichéd, but we stand behind what we say. When we are in tune the players and the ball move so quickly. Fans at Transamerica Field see fluent passing movement with a purpose. We are always looking to score. A criticism of soccer is that it isn’t direct enough and there is not enough scoring, but for us that isn’t true. Last year we ranked among the nation’s leaders in points scored (sixth), and some of the goals were just breathtaking. Fans that come to see our team play are going to be entertained by quality passing, good ball movement, and tremendously skilled players always creating chances. If we attack well we won’t have to defend as much.