While the Juniors fire the Carolina strike force, the Sophomores form the backbone of the team. This season saw minutes for 8 sophomores, those being Glen Long, Mikey Lopez, Jordan McCrary, C.J. Odenigwe, Boyd Okwuonu, Verneri Valimaa, Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler, and David Walden. Of those Lopez, McCrary, Okwuonu, and Valimaa could be considered regular starters, and they all play vital roles in the defense and midfield.
Luckily for the Heels, their miserly defense features two sophomores and a freshman, meaning that barring early departures, the Tar Heels can keep the 3 of the same brilliant defenders on the pitch for the next two years. The two sophomores Okwuonu and McCrary play as centerback and fullback respectively and have already treated Tar Heel fans to two years of silken perfection.
Last year’s centerback partnership was an image of contrast, as veteran Matt Hedges lined up alongside freshman Boyd Okwuonu, but to great effect as they averaged 0.67 goals against per game. Okwuonu was one of the top ranked recruits of 2011, and his pedigree of excellence extends beyond the recruiting rankings. He’s a veteran of the USMNT U-17, U-18, and U-20 teams and even missed the very start of his first collegiate season to play for the Stars and Stripes in the Northern Ireland Milk Cup. In 2012 he was exceptional both off and on the ball, a real virtue for a centerback. The Tar Heel system requires each and every player to be capable on the ball so as to enable the ream to play from the back, and Okwuonu was outstanding in this regard. Off the ball he was just as good, and alongside Jonathan Campbell he made crossing into the Tar Heel box a futile gesture.
Jordan McCrary is one of my breakouts for next season, though that’s not to say he wasn’t a top performer this year. The 2011 freshman All American continued his performances in the 2012 season, and was the very epitome of the attacking wing back. The 4-3-3 formation which the Tar Heels employ requires some attacking support from the fullbacks, and McCrary performed his job excellently. Complimented by the efforts of Jordan Gafa on the other side of defense, McCrary was able to get forward and at times function essentially as a spare flanking midfielder. His buccaneering runs may have resulted in only one assist on the year, but late on in the season he was in such attacking form that he often had more success attacking than did the wingers he was assigned to mark. If he continues in this vein he should be one of the top players of 2013.
The Tar Heel midfield is also held by two sophomores, those being Mikey Lopez and Verneri Valimaa. Though between them they only had two goals and two assists on the season, both are elite players who provided some lovely football on the year. Just like in the defense the two sophomores were joined by a freshman, in this case Raby George. I anticipate both being starters and elite collegiate players next year.
Valimaa was a transfer from George Mason after his freshman season, but the Tar Heels were sorry to have missed out on him the first time around as he provided 2 goals and 5 assists before becoming a Tar Heel. His first Tar Heel season may have resulted in only one assist, but anyone who watched him play could see the class evident in his performances
Lopez is the more highly touted of the two, and the former ACC Freshman of the Year was once again a key player for the Heels. Though his return diminished this year from 3 goals and 4 assists to 2 goals and 1 assist, he remained a dynamic force behind the forwards whilst still shielding the defense. He’s a Jack of All Trades type of player, and the type of box to box midfielder who the rest of the team can form around. Look for him to score a few more for the 2013 Heels as he’s given a more attacking role in the midfield. He is, after all, the man who single handedly took on a rather devious Clemson squad and won via a cracking goal from outside the box.
Joining this group of four starters are a stellar group of sophomores in the backup brigade. Chief among them are Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler and Glen Long, who are a pair of super subs if I’ve ever seen them. Both were highly recruited without being impact players, but both have served well. They have a combined 20 substitute performances on the season, resulting in a goal for Vandermaas-Peeler. Vandermaas-Peeler was a staple during the ACC season, and Long has played all across the field for the Heels in his day. These are two guys who can step into the first team without a hitch, and they give Coach Somoano plenty of options as substitutes or as starters.
Alongside them are C.J. Odenigwe and David Walden, who may have not made many appearances this season but still managed to make an impact on the team. Walden’s 3 appearances resulted in a goal, and Odenigwe looks to be fruitful addition to the team in the back line once he fully recovers from injury.
Soccer teams are often defined by this type of group. Players in the defense and midfield who play together season after season and consistently perform at a high level are literally the spine of any championship caliber squad. In the professional world, look at Mourinho’s Chelsea FC squad of the last decade. After the charismatic coach left his squad, it was the defensive partnership of Ashley Cole and Terry and the midfield of Essien, Ballack, and Lampard which powered Chelsea to a great many successes, even despite a revolving door of players and managers surrounding them.
These guys are the base, the solid foundation on which silverware laden seasons are built. Mikey Lopez and Verneri Valimaa are the type of classy players to make any midfield, and McCrary and Okwuonu are partners in the top defense around. Alongside their sophomore compatriots, they can be the group which powers the Heels to cup success in the next two years.