Gamecocks in the thick of things as season winds down
With four games left in the season, the South Carolina men’s soccer team sits at 5-5-4, but it has yet to face the toughest part of its conference schedule.
Three of the Gamecocks’ final four matches are against the top three teams in Conference USA, including No. 10 UAB and a matchup this Saturday against No. 25 New Mexico.
The good news for South Carolina is that it faces the Lobos at home this weekend, where the Gamecocks have fared better. At home, South Carolina is 4-1-2, compared to 1-4-2 on the road.
Head coach Mark Berson said Saturday’s game against New Mexico (8-3-2) will be a challenge, but it’s one the Gamecocks are prepared to face.
“They’re a very strong team from one place to the next on the field,” Berson said. “We’ve tangled with a number of strong teams, so that’s not an issue. What it’s going to come down to is execution. When we get our chances, we need to capitalize on them.”
Berson said he does not expect creating strong chances will be a problem because the Gamecocks have done a good job of that so far.
He added that he hopes his team can finish on its opportunities because against a team like the Lobos, the chances will not be as prevalent.
The scoring has been spread out for the Gamecocks this year, and some goals have come from unlikely sources. It starts with the Gamecocks’ leading scorer, junior defender Mahamoudou Kaba, who has netted five goals. Junior center back Braeden Troyer has also contributed on offense from the back line, putting in two goals thus far.
Berson said many of those two players’ goals have come off set pieces, which has given the team a lot of confidence in those situations now.
There have been some ups and downs, particularly on the road, but Berson said he expects as much on a team with only two seniors.
But behind the leadership of players like senior forward J.P. Rafferty, Berson said the team has grown a lot.
“As we get towards the last four games of the season, it’s almost like freshmen aren’t freshmen anymore,” Berson said. “They’ve got almost a whole season of playing under their belt, so they’re playing more like upperclassmen because they have some experience.”
The key for the Gamecocks’ progress is the team’s ability to learn from their mistakes and mental errors, according to Berson. He said he would be worried if they were not making those corrections, but that the coaching staff spends a lot of time on the mental aspects of the game.
The record may not suggest it at first glance, but all of South Carolina’s goals at the beginning of the year are still intact. One is unlikely: winning the regular season title. UAB and Old Dominion are ahead of the Gamecocks by three games in conference wins.
With those two teams unlikely to fall off drastically, the next goal for South Carolina is winning the Conference USA postseason tournament to get into the NCAA tournament. The top seven teams in the conference make it to the postseason tournament, and currently, South Carolina is fourth.
With four games left, there is enough time for USC to make a push for the top of conference — or to fall apart and miss the playoffs altogether.
Berson said that anything can happen in the conference tournament and that he believes his team has what it takes to beat the higher ranked teams.
“We have two games at home, two games on the road, and we have the top three teams in the league yet to play,” he said. “So we’ve got some real work to do, but we have the mentality that there’s a lot of opportunity there.”
The match against the Lobos is set for 7 p.m. on Saturday.