FORT MILL -- South Carolina men's soccer coach Mark Berson encounters two fundamental questions with the start of the 2011 season just over three months away.
* Who will be the goalkeeper?
* Who will score the goals?
If USC wants to repeat as Conference USA tournament champion and reach the Sweet 16 for the second straight season, Berson must find players capable of filling both critically important roles.
Whoever they are, they have large shoes to fill.
The Gamecocks lose their top two scorers from 2010 in forward Blake Brettschneider (7 goals, 10 assists, 24 pts) and central defender Will Traynor (six goals and 13 points), as well as goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer, a four-year starter, forward Sam Arthur and forward Mike Lindsay.
Together, that quintet served as the backbone of the USC program for the past couple of years.
"Last year was a great year," USC head coach Mark Berson told Gamecock Central recently. "Academically, the guys had the best GPA (3.49) in the country. Winning the conference, they did great. Getting to our fifth Sweet 16 appearance was a real thrill. But we know we have a lot of shoes to fill. We lose seven key guys that really played a big role for us over the last four years."
With Brettschneider now playing for DC United in Major League Soccer, filling the scoring load will fall initially to rising sophomore Bradlee Baladez (6 goals in 2010), who scored the Golden Goal in overtime to beat Duke in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Baladez scored five game-winners during his freshman season.
"Bradlee has the chance to be a very special player before he leaves South Carolina," said Berson, the only head coach USC has ever had in 33 years and the winningest Div. I active head coach with 441 career wins. "He had a great spring. Bradlee is going to have to carry a lot of responsibility."
USC finished last season with a 13-7-2 record and a final regular season ranking of No. 12 in the NSCAA Top 25 poll. The 13 wins were the most by the Gamecocks in a single season since 1998.
"The big question for us is going to be goals," Berson said. "I think we have a lot of guys that can help us in that regard."
Replacing Maurer won't be easy considering he concluded his USC career with a stellar 1.05 goals against average and posted 28 shutouts to rank second all-time in Gamecock history.
The top candidate is rising redshirt sophomore Alex Long, a 6-foot-2, 213 pounder from Cary, NC.
"Alex has been in a backup role for two years and he's a very talented goalkeeper," Berson said. "I have a lot of confidence Alex will be just fine. Like the entire team next season, he's just going to lack experience. Talent-wise, he's going to be pretty good."
Junior Mike Mangotic and senior Danny Cates return as the outside defenders. In the middle, USC will miss Traynor and Evan O'Dell.
Kevin Stam appears ready to take over as a central defender, while Eric Martizez looks to bounce back from injuries. Sixteen-year old freshman Mahamoudou Kaba from Ypsilanti, Mich. possesses talent that belies his age.
In the midfield, all-Conference performer Stephen Morrissey returns for his senior season, while fifth-year senior Vance Benson has bounced back from a broken leg suffered in the Clemson game last September.
Sophomore Chipper Root and J.P. Rafferty will also roam the midfield. Root broke his leg early in spring practice, but is expected to return in August when he'll have to play catch-up.
"We have a lot of guys with some pretty good experience that I think will be key guys," Berson said. "But we have to hope for some better luck with injuries. The last two years, we've had three season-ending injuries each year. We've had three broken legs. I don't think we've had four total in the last 34 years. We have to avoid the injury bug. That's very important."
USC signed nine players to letter of intent, including GK Robert Beebe, the 2011 Gatorade Player of the Year in South Carolina.
Snoop Davidson (Rome, Ga.), the 2011 Gatorade Player of the Year in Georgia, should earn playing time as forward in his first year with the program. Midfielder Niklas Kidinen from Finland is a member of the U-18 team for his home country.
Irmo's Emmett Lunceford was the 2010 Gatorade Player in South Carolina as a junior. Ryan Freiburger and Dan Traxler could redshirt.
Possibly the most intriguing freshman prospect could be Asa Tryst, a standout football player for Fort Mill and solid all-around athlete.
"The freshman class coming in is definitely going to help because we've lost such big numbers," Berson said. "We have a very good incoming freshman class that is really going to be important for us. Not just because some guys may have to step in and play right away, but to give us depth. In Conference USA, the schedule we have to play and the travel we have to endure is very difficult. The league is very spread out from Lexington (Ky.) to Miami to Tulsa. Depth is very important because of the wear and tear."
The 2011 home schedule includes attractive home matchups with ACC rivals North Carolina, NC State and Wake Forest. But the Gamecocks must face conference foes SMU and Tulsa on the road.
"It's a very good schedule that gives us some extremely tough out of conference games," Berson said. "That should help us with the RPI to get into the tournament and with our experience."
USC was 4-1 against ACC opponents in 2010, including a 2-0 win over Clemson and the 1-0 OT win over Duke in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
"Our fans are pretty sophisticated when it comes to soccer" Berson said. "The Atlantic Coast Conference is a great soccer conference. I think we have some pretty good teams in Conference USA, but everybody loves the ACC matchups because their good teams."