UNC starts national title defense

After a veteran-led charge to a national championship last season, there’s a fresh energy abuzz on the North Carolina men’s soccer team.

A youth movement has taken the Tar Heels by storm, with 15 fresh faces joining the team for the 2012 campaign.

“The freshmen came in the first day, they’re still trying to figure everything out, but I think they’re really catching on quickly,” senior midfielder Jordan Gafa said.

Despite losing key players from last year’s championship team, the younger Tar Heels will start the season Aug. 25 against Gardner-Webb from atop the national preseason poll.

While it would seem natural for the Tar Heels to play as if there were targets on their back, instead, they prefer to reverse the roles.

“We like to think the opposite, put the target on the team’s back that we’re playing,” Gafa said. “We really don’t think like that. We take every game one at a time and every game is just as important as playing an ACC team.”

Though last year’s team left a legacy of success, coach Carlos Somoano is quick to point out that the expectation for this year is not to duplicate the style of the previous squad.

“There’s a good amount of new players who have completely changed the dynamics of this team,” Somoano said. “We’re going to have to grow into and figure out our identity — this year’s identity ­— and not try to mirror last year’s team, not try to be like last year’s team.”

Leading the band of Tar Heel newcomers is midfielder Danny Garcia. The Dallas native earned the honor of U.S. Development Academy Central Conference Player of the Year for 2012 and has been a fixture on the U.S. U-20 team during the year.

Fellow freshman Nick Williams was also among players honored for standout performances during the club soccer season. Williams garnered all-conference honors for his contributions as a defender in the South Conference.

Though the Tar Heels lost the first National Player of the Year in program history, Ben Speas, to the MLS, Williams, Garcia and the rest of the highly touted freshman class join a group of returning players that racked up their own individual accolades last season.

Sophomore midfielder Mikey Lopez grabbed attention with his feisty and aggressive play, earning ACC Rookie of the Year honors. Lopez also joined Jordan McCrary and Boyd Okwuonu on the ACC All-Freshman team.

“I think we may be a little bit younger but, that being said, we have a pretty big core of leadership that’s really going to help drive the team this year,” senior goalkeeper Scott Goodwin said.

While the Tar Heels were working to develop this year’s squad, the sudden death of 2011 captain Kirk Urso left the team with heavy hearts during preseason training.

“We’ll do the best we can to honor him everyday,” Somoano said. “He was a wonderful example for us of what it means to wear the uniform and to be a student athlete at Carolina. We’ll try to follow his example.”

Though there are no concrete plans, tributes to Urso are in the works.

Despite losing many talented players, the influx of freshmen has injected new life into the Tar Heels and put the national championship back in their sights.

“It’s nice to have new guys who haven’t won a championship before,” Gafa said. “It’ll be their first time going for one and we’ll have a lot more hunger and a lot more fight coming from them this year.”

Contact the desk editor at sports@dailytarheel.com.

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