The Impact of Carolina Universities & Why CLTFC Should Shop Local
Written by: Charles Logan Shoaf
While the Carolinas are new to the Major League Soccer world, both states have a long history of supporting soccer. One shining example of this is the incredible soccer programs at Universities in both states. While schools like U.N.C., Duke, and Clemson might be best known for their success in basketball and American football, they and others in the region are also home to some of the best collegiate soccer programs in the country and have helped launch the careers of great players not only in MLS but around the world. With the MLS SuperDraft happening this Thursday, January 21st, now is a great time to talk about the impact that players from NC and SC universities have had on the sport in the past and are still making now.
In this first part of a two-part series, we will field a team using only players who played at either North Carolina or South Carolina universities. For part one, we will look at players who are still actively playing, while part two will field a second team comprised only of players who have retired from their professional careers.
(We will be using a 4-3-3 Formation)
1) GK- Brad Guzan (University of South Carolina)
Notable clubs: Aston Villa, Atl*nta United
Like Kasey Keller, Brad Friedel, Tim Howard, and Marcus Hahnemann, who came before him, Brad Guzan established himself in a historical legacy of American goalkeepers in the Premier League during his eight-season tenure at Aston Villa. Guzan earned 144 caps playing for Villa, including matches in the UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League). Guzan is also well known for his role with the US Men's National Team, where he was the back-up to the legendary Tim Howard for nearly a decade before becoming the USMNT's first-choice goalkeeper for a short spell. "The Polar Bear" (as his USMNT teammates referred to him) transferred to newly-promoted Middlesbrough after Aston Villa was relegated, but soon made a move again to Atl*nta, where he may or may not have won an MLS. Cup, US Open Cup, and Campeones Cup with the club. However, before any of that, he was a Gamecock, so we will look past his connections to "that city" this one time.
2) RB- Mark McKenzie (Wake Forest)
Notable clubs: Philadelphia Union, KRC Genk
I know. I know. I know. Mark McKenzie is out of position here, but the Center back depth on this team is so deep (wait until you see who's on the bench), and I just couldn't leave Mark McKenzie on the bench when there was such little overall depth at Right Back. Since being drafted by the Philadelphia Union in 2018, McKenzie has been an exceptional talent and a quality example of their commitment to playing young talent. After winning the Supporters Shield with Philadelphia, McKenzie just transferred to Belgian club KRC Genk, where he is their third-highest signing ever and is expected to immediately become a weekly starter. In defense of McKenzie's weird position choice, he did play RB on occasion under Tab Ramos with the U20 USMNT. I promise every other player on this list will be aligned positionally with where they usually play. Honorable mention to Chris Duvall, who is also of Wake Forest University and has been playing RB quite well for Portland Timbers as of late.
3) CB- Ike Opara (Wake Forest)
Notable Clubs: Sporting Kansas City, Minnesota United
Ike Opara has had a quality career for a MLS center back. He’s won MLS defender of the year twice at two separate clubs (2017 at Sporting Kansas City and 2019 at Minnesota United), won a US Open Cup final which he played the full 90 minutes of in 2017, and was on an MLS Cup winning team in 2013. With all that in mind, Opara is an obvious choice to start at center back in this group of players. Being from Durham and spending his college years at Wake Forest, he is also on a lot of Charlotte FC’s supporters wish list of players to sign when the club begins play in 2022.
4) CB- Walker Zimmerman (Furman)
Notable clubs: FC Dallas, LAFC, Nashville SC
Walker Zimmerman is only 27, but the Furman Paladin has been one of the best center backs in both the league and for the USMNT for quite some time now. The most notable part of Zimmerman's game is consistency, and consistency is exactly what gets you two Supporter Shield winning seasons for two different clubs (FC Dallas and LAFC). That consistency is why Nashville SC paid over $1 million to have him lead the backline for their first season in MLS. That move certainly paid off, as Zimmerman not only scored Nashville SC's first-ever MLS goal last year but won MLS Defender of the Year. Many people wrote off Nashville SC last season as Wooden Spoon candidates, yet he and his team were able to defy the odds and not only qualify for playoffs but knockout reigning Eastern Conference champions Toronto FC before suffering a second-round exit to eventual champions Columbus Crew SC. With the USMNT, Zimmerman has earned 13 caps and scored 2 goals, competing with the likes of John Anthony Brooks, Aaron Long, and Matt Miazga for minutes. With quality talent in the USMNT pool like Miles Robinson, Chris Richards, and Mark McKenzie also making their case to start, time will tell how much of an impact Zimmerman makes on the national team. Still, he certainly has the ability to do so for years to come.
5) LB- Eric Lichaj (UNC)
Notable clubs: Aston Villa, Nottingham Forest, Hull City
Because he is not playing in MLS and does not regularly feature for the USMNT, Eric Lichaj is a player who often gets forgotten by American soccer fans. However, the UNC Tarheel has made quite the career for himself in the Championship, the second tier of English football, playing for clubs like Nottingham Forest and Hull City. Before that, he made a few appearances in the Premier League, playing for Aston Villa. Perhaps the most significant moment of his career, however, was scoring a brace that knocked the reigning FA Cup champions Arsenal out of the tournament, including one absolute screamer. At only 31, Lichaj still has some time ahead of him in his career and is currently getting regular minutes for Fatih Karagümrük S.K. in Tukey's Süper Lig. Perhaps the return to the Carolinas would entice him to sign with Charlotte FC?
6) CDM- Dax McCarty (UNC)
Notable clubs: FC Dallas, New York Red Bulls, Chicago Fire, Nashville SC
Like Walker Zimmerman, Dax McCarty is another player whose quality has made him a top target for teams who are either struggling or looking to build quick. McCarty was drafted by FC Dallas, with which he played in all 120 minutes of the 2010 MLS Cup final but lost to Colorado Rapids. That would be his last game for Dallas before being traded to DC United and, eventually, New York Red Bulls. After winning two Supporters Shields with New York Red Bulls in 2013 and 2015, the rise of Tyler Adams made McCarty surplus to requirements as a Defensive midfielder, and he was traded to Chicago Fire, where he was desperately needed and helped the team make the playoffs in his first season with the club. Nashville SC has looked to him to help establish some midfield stability in their expansion side for the 2020 season. Even at 33 years old, McCarty is still one of the league's best defensive midfielders and a shoo-in to our starting eleven, especially considering his connections to the other midfield talents in the team.
7) CM- Brandt Bronico (UNC Charlotte)
Notable clubs: Chicago Fire, Charlotte FC
Joining Dax McCarty in the midfield is his former Chicago Fire teammate Brandt Bronico. Bronico and McCarty worked well together while McCarty was in Chicago, transitioning back and forth to help McCarty defend or complement the attack. The High Point, NC native also notably became the third player ever signed to Charlotte FC's roster on December 18, 2020, so obviously, he is a lock for this lineup. One would assume that Bronico will be loaned out for the 2021 season, though there is no word yet where he is expected to play.
8) CAM- Sean Davis (Duke)
Notable clubs: New York Red Bulls
Here is yet another former teammate for Dax McCarty to link up with in the midfield, Sean Davis was part of that New York Red Bulls squad who won the Supporter's Shield in 2015 but was an even more integral member of the squad who won the 2018 Supporter's Shield. Davis has made 160 appearances, scored seven goals, and made 13 assists for the team since being signed as a homegrown player in 2014. More notably, he was also named team captain at the beginning of the 2020 season.
9) RW- Tommy McNamara (Clemson)
Notable clubs: NYCFC, Houston Dynamo, New England Revolution
Both sides in the Hudson River derby have featured former players from Carolina universities, including NYCFC cult hero Tommy McNamara. It is not often that you see a soccer player play all four years at the university level, but McNamara played for five! After four years at Ivy League Brown University, McNamara went on to play an additional year at Clemson before being drafted by now-defunct Chivas USA. The folding of Chivas USA allowed him to be selected by NYCFC in the 2014 MLS Dispersal Draft. Being from nearby West Nyack, NY, and sporting easily distinguishable long hair, McNamara became a crowd favorite in his four years at the club. He now plays for former USMNT head coach Bruce Arena at New England Revolution. He has recorded over 100 caps and scored 15 goals in his six years in the league so far.
10) LW- Jack Harrison (Wake Forest)
Notable clubs: NYCFC, Leeds United
On the opposite side of the field from McNamara we have his former NYCFC teammate Jack Harrison. After being drafted first overall by NYCFC in 2016, Harrison impressed the league for two years playing under Arsenal/France legend Patrick Vieira before being bought by parent club Manchester City. He was immediately loaned out to Championship clubs, including legends of English football Leeds United. Under manager Marcelo Bielsa, Harrison has only missed two games in all competitions for Leeds since December 23, 2018. This heavy involvement made him an integral part of the team which won the Championship in 2020 and secured the club's promotion to the Premier League for the first time since being relegated in 2004. After that promotion, Harrison scored Leeds's first goal in the Premier League since 2004 with a wonderful display against Liverpool. It was also the first goal scored in the Premier League by a Demon Deacon ever. It looks as if Harrison will certainly have a great career ahead of him in the Premier League for a long time to come.
11) FW- Jeremy Ebobisse (Duke)
Rounding out the starting eleven is Jeremy Ebobisse, who, up until a leg injury last October, had not missed a single match for Portland Timbers since September 2018. In that time, he has played in 79 matches, scored 17 goals, made 6 assists, started in a MLS Cup final, and won the MLS is Back Tournament. At only 23, his best years as a striker are still well ahead of him, and he surely is on track for not only an exceptional MLS career, but probably some more call ups to the USMNT, who he has already earned one cap within the 2019 January camp.
Bench (Honorable Mentions): Clint Irwin (Elon University), Matt Hedges (UNC), Chris Duvall (Wake Forest), Sebastian Berhalter (UNC), Diego Campos (Clemson), Robbie Robinson (Clemson), Sean Okoli (Wake Forest)