CLEMSON, S.C. – On the heels of a pair of preseason tune-ups at home against Jacksonville and on the road at South Florida, the UCF men’s soccer team is ready to begin its inaugural season in the Sun Belt Conference with its season-opener at the No. 4/9 Clemson Tigers (Top Drawer Soccer/United Soccer Coaches) Thursday, Aug. 24.
The matchup represents the first time since the 2019 season that the Knights, picked to finish fourth in the 2023 Sun Belt Preseason Coaches’ Poll, kick off their season against an opponent nationally ranked in the top 10, when UCF traveled to then-No. 4 Wake Forest Aug. 30.
The Knights also begin their fall slate against a ranked team for the second straight year after opening their 2022 campaign against then-No. 15 Wake Forest Aug. 25. UCF is in search of the first win in program history against Clemson as well, as the two programs will meet for the third time overall and the first time since 1995.
As the Black and Gold embarks on a fresh challenge in its new conference, the squad looks to improve upon an up-and-down season that saw a 6-7 finish in 2022. The campaign represented a deviation from the expected norm set forth by the program under head coach Scott Calabrese, marking the just the first of his first six seasons in Orlando with a sub-.500 record. With a healthy mix of veteran returners and encouraging talent in its newcomers, UCF is looking for a return to form in its newest era.
In spite of the team’s 6-7 final record a year ago, the group showed promise in many different areas across the pitch that serve as reason for great optimism heading into the new season this fall. Offensively, then-junior forward Lucca Dourado led the charge with a team-best 11 goals and 22 points on 42 shot attempts and 21 shots on target.
The São Paulo, Brazil, native’s 11 goals ranked second-most in The American by just one, and 12th overall in the nation. He also slotted second in the AAC in shots on goal per game (1.62), shots per game (3.23) and points per game (1.69), and his 0.85 goals per game paced the conference and ranked second nationally. He enters the 2023 season within striking distance of a handful of personal milestones as well, currently holding a share of eighth place on the UCF all-time goals list with 28 in his career, and his career point total of 59 sits just two shy of a tie for 10th on the UCF all-time points list.
Dourado was joined by eight other Knights who found the back of the net at least once last season, including three others with two goals (Maël Haise, Lucas Mauro and Gino Vivi). Together, the team notched its fifth season in Calabrese’s first six at the helm with a top-50 scoring offense in the nation (1.77 goals per game, 46th). The Knights also ranked within the top 50 in the country last year in points per game, sporting a 5.15 mark that was good for 46th as well.
For their efforts, Dourado and teammate Anderson Rosa were both named to the Sun Belt’s preseason All-Conference Team. Rosa helped anchor a defensive scheme that allowed three goals just twice a year ago and also produced a pair of shutout victories. The senior defender was honored with his third straight preseason all-conference selection after playing in all 1,170 minutes for the Knights in 2022 and scoring a goal for the third consecutive season to begin his collegiate career.
After starting each of the Knights’ 13 matches between the goalposts as a freshman, netminder Juanvi Muñoz returns for his sophomore campaign as well. The Valencia, Spain, native impressed in his debut season in Orlando, ranking among conference leaders in total saves (48, 5th), saves per game (3.69, 5th), goals against average (1.462, 6th) and save percentage (.716, 7th).
The trio will lead the Knights against a Clemson team that finished 13-7-1 last fall, including a 3-4-1 mark in the ACC. The Tigers emerged victorious in each of their first six matches last season, outscoring their opposition by an aggregate 14-3 including four shutouts in that span. The team later authored a five-game win streak that led into the second round of the ACC tournament, but Clemson would see its 2022 season end with consecutive defeats to then-No. 3 Syracuse and UCLA in the ACC Championship and NCAA Tournament Second Round, respectively.
Though the Tigers did not see more than five goals from any one single player last season, the group boasted a balanced scoring attack with 15 players who found the back of the net at least once. Clemson does return its leading goal scorer in senior Ousmane Sylla as well, as the Dakar, Senegal, native paced the squad with five goals and seven assists throughout the campaign, translating to a team-leading 17 points.
The Knights will square off against the Tigers at Historic Riggs Field in Clemson, South Carolina Thursday evening, with the match’s start time slated for 7 p.m. ET.
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