Junior defender and team captain Boyd Okwuonu will anchor the Tar Heels back line in 2013

In chronicling the powers of North Carolina Tar Heels athletics, men’s soccer isn’t necessarily the first sport to spring to mind. But in that increasingly competitive arena, North Carolina has become an annual mainstay in the national rankings and a landing spot for aspiring blue chip talent.

The No. 4 ranked Tar Heels opens its 2013 season this weekend when it hosts the Carolina Nike Classic at Fetzer Field in Chapel Hill. Carolina faces Monmouth on Friday at 7:30 p.m., then No. 13 Coastal Carolina on Sunday at 7 p.m.

North Carolina has finished in the Top 5 of the National Soccer Coaches poll for five consecutive years. And after the departure of 22-year head coach Elmar Bolowich following the 2010 season, all successor Carlos Somoano has done is win the 2011 NCAA College Cup—becoming only the second men’s soccer coach in NCAA history to win a national title in his first season—and compile a 37-6-6 record over two seasons as a gaffer after spending 15 years as an assistant at Virginia Commonwealth and UNC.

In addition to multiple All-America honorees, UNC boasts the last two ACC Freshman of the Year in Mike Lopez (2011) and Danny Garcia (2012). Moreover, eight players from Somoano’s 2011 and 2012 squads have made the jump to Major League Soccer or Europe.

However, the bittersweet smell of the Tar Heels’ success—and the state of soccer player development in this country—can first be found in the fact that neither Lopez nor Garcia remain Tar Heels. Indeed, the 2013 campaign sets up as another year for North Carolina to rebuild … or reload?

Gone from the squad that appeared during the loss to Indiana last November in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Tournament are seniors Jordan Gafa, Martin Murphy, Cameron Brown and goalkeeper Scott Goodwin, along with Lopez, who left school early after being taken in the MLS SuperDraft. However, three other losses are more unexpected and equally detrimental.

According to Somoano, forwards Andy Craven and Rob Lovejoy are likely lost for the 2013 season due to injuries.

“Andy Craven has an extra bone in his foot that chipped off, so it’s going to have to be take out,” Somoano says. “Robbie Lovejoy tore his groin a while back, but it hasn’t healed and he’s probably going to have surgery.”

Craven was the Tar Heels’ leading goal scorer last year with six goals (along with five assists) over 22 games. Lovejoy, who contributed seven goals during the 2011 national championship campaign, also missed the first half of the 2012 season due to injury. However, he returned to net five goals in just 11 matches. Somoano says both players will be eligible to play next year as redshirt seniors.

Meanwhile, Garcia was slated to return for his sophomore season after a freshman debut that included four goals and a team-high six assists. However, Somoano says he began to suspect that Garcia might not return to school after he made the U.S. U-20 Men’s National Team roster for the FIFA U-20 World Cup. Garcia didn’t enroll for UNC’s Spring semester, although he did travel with Carolina to Brazil in May for its quadrennial international trip allowed by the NCAA.

However, in mid-June Garcia signed a Homegrown contract with FC Dallas of MLS, ending his college career.

Carlos Somoano enters his third season as head coach of the UNC Mens Soccer program

“We held out hope, but once all these outside influences come in it becomes very confusing,” Somoano says. “Everybody wants to tell Danny what he should be doing. So, you’ve got 300 people telling him what he should do and it becomes very confusing. In the end, we only had him for a semester.”

As a result, the triumvirate that was to spearhead the Tar Heels’ attack has vanished before the opening match.

“Our top seven goal scorers from last year are gone,” Somoano adds. “Our leading returning goal scorer had one [in 2012]. So I guess that leaves you with some offensive questions.”

Carolina’s revamped front line will instead feature Cary native Cooper Vandermaas-Peeler, senior Josh Rice and junior transfer Tyler Engel, a star newcomer who led Southern Methodist University in goals and assists last year. Other hopeful contributors at forward include sophomore Nico Rittmeyer and freshman Marco Sunol, a Greensboro native who has had a very good preseason, according to Somoano.

Confidence grows toward the middle of the formation. Sophomores Alex Olofson and Raby George will team with freshman Omar Holness in the midfield, which Somoano contends in the team’s strongest line right now. Indeed, Holness, a key contributor to the Jamaican youth national setup, looks poised to assume the midfield mantle of Garcia, Lopez and Enzo Martinez.

Carolina led the nation in shutouts last year, and a key reason was Goodwin, who graduated as the program’s all-time career saves leader. Somoano says the competition for Goodwin’s replacement at goalkeeper has boiled down to junior Brendan Moore and sophomore Sam Euler.

Nevertheless, UNC’s defense returns the most experience and stability. Buoying the back line is team captain and All-American candidate Boyd Okwuonu, who enters his junior season as one of 34 players on the Hermann Trophy watch list. Joining returning starters Jonathan Campbell and Jordan McCrary will likely be redshirt freshman Nick Williams, who looks to replace Jordan Gafa at right back.

Either way, the compressed men’s soccer schedule—which packs 17 regular season matches in just over two months—doesn’t afford much opportunity for acclamation or experimentation.

“You have to be sharp about picking what you think it right for your group, sticking with it and getting better at it,” Somoano asserts. “We’ll drive ourselves crazy if we keep trying different things, and we’ll probably end up getting nowhere.”

Most college programs would clamour for UNC’s upheaval woes if coupled with its perennial infusion of new talent. However, Somoano says this aspect of his team’s success becomes wearying.

“The year we won the [national] championship in 2011 we had seven new starters,” Somoano remembers. “Then last year we had six new starters. This year, we have six new starters [after injuries]. I have no problem with that, but to be honest, I don’t want to do that every single year.

“Is this team capable? Absolutely. But there’s also a lot of questions to be answered. Which is the fun part.”

Sure, but do you have a College Cup quality team?

“To be determined,” Somoano says with a smile.