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Dave Sarachan era at NCFC opens with ‘encouraging’ start to preseason

North Carolina FC head coach Dave Sarachan watches his team train on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019 at WakeMed Soccer Park. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

CARY, N.C. — As each year passes, Austin da Luz allows himself to be bit more indulgent at Super Bowl parties. One more wing, one more chip-full of dip.

The veteran midfielder, now in his 12th season as a pro — eight spent with North Carolina FC of the USL Championship — feels like he can be a little more carefree when perusing the buffet table while the big game is on TV, even if training begins the very next morning.

“The food was the only good thing about the game, to be honest,” da Luz said of Sunday night’s Super Bowl LIII. “It was a little disappointing.”

What wasn’t a let down for da Luz was the first day of North Carolina FC’s preseason camp under new head coach Dave Sarachan.

Whatever number of pounds da Luz gained while watching the Patriots beat the Rams 13-3 Sunday night, he likely lost Monday morning trying to stay with the pace of the youngsters. At 31 years old, he’s one of the older players in the NCFC camp, which features an infusion of youth.

“I’ve been waiting to get out here for a few months,” da Luz said. “It was an emphasis in the offseason to get young guys in here that can develop and take this organization forward. To have guys that are young but are also very high quality is a really great combination.

“It’s given me energy and motivation. I’ve got to keep up with these young guys now.”

About 30 players participated in Monday morning’s practice at WakeMed Soccer Park. For NCFC, 13 are signed to the club’s 2019 roster so far, five are there on loan, 10 trialists are attempting to earn a spot, and a handful of academy players rounded out the player pool for Sarachan’s first practice.

The players didn’t scrimmage or shoot at a goal Monday. For about an hour and 20 minutes, they went through technical and situational drills, featuring lots of running and passing.

Sarachan, who is the boss of a club team again for the first time in over a decade, was satisfied with the first day of training.

“There was no one I was shaking my head at,” the 64-year-old coach said. “We had a good start and a good attitude on the first day. It’s encouraging… I really need to spend some time getting to know the guys, but as far as the concentration and determination to show well today, it was very high. I was pleased.”

North Carolina FC players train on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019 at WakeMed Soccer Park. (Mitchell Northam / Pro Soccer USA)

After managing the U.S. men’s national team on an interim basis for about a year, Sarachan was hired as NCFC’s head coach in December. Aside from his stints with the national team, the Rochester, N.Y., native has also been an assistant for the LA Galaxy, head coach of the Chicago Fire and head coach of Cornell University, among other posts.

Sarachan inherits an NCFC team that missed the USL playoffs last year with 47 points and a 13-13-8 record. As head coach, he replaced Colin Clarke, who managed the club for eight seasons.

“I think all coaches have little things that they do differently,” da Luz said. “Dave is clearly a very good communicator in the way that he’s spoken to guys from the start. It’s going to be a very close-knit group. A community-oriented group I think, would be a good way to describe it.”

In addition to da Luz, the other returnees to the squad are Dre Fortune, Aaron Guillen, Victor Igbekoyi, Marios Lomis, Steven Miller, Graham Smith, DJ Taylor and goalkeeper Alex Tambakis. The newcomers include 6-foot-5 forward Robert Kristo, former Indiana Hoosiers Timmy Mehl and Austin Panchot, and New Zealand national team defender Sam Brotherton, who was absent Monday.

NCFC is hosting three players on loan from Czech side MFK Vyškov in Donovan Ewolo, Duval Wapiwo and Yamikani Chester. Ben Speas is at NCFC on an interleague loan from Indy Eleven, and Manny Perez is with the club on loan from Celtic FC.

Perez came up in NCFC’s academy, played at nearby N.C. State and just signed a professional contract with the Scottish Premier giants last week. He’s looking forward to helping out his hometown club until he departs for Scotland.

“I think it was good level today. Everyone came ready. The energy was up. The coaches were demanding a lot from us, but overall it was pretty good,” Perez said. “The team is looking good. I think it’s going to be a long process, but we’ll get there day-by-day.”

NCFC has five preseason games slated — three against local colleges and two against USL teams — before its first regular season campaign under Sarachan begins on March 9 at home against Louisville City.

Between now and then, more players will be added to the squad. Specifically, goalkeeper is an area of need for NCFC, as Tambakis is the only one at the position under contract. A trialist and academy player were working with him Monday.

A native of Greece, Tambakis, 26, began his U.S. career in 2016 playing with the Charleston Battery. In 2017, he played in an MLS match with Atlanta United FC. Last season, he started 34 matches for NCFC.

“(Tambakis) is certainly the incumbent,” Sarachan said. “We’re hoping to bring in another goalkeeper soon that will challenge. Competition is important. But he’s coming off a good year.”

The battle for positioning on the depth chart figures to be a fierce one over the next month for NCFC players. By hiring Sarachan, one of the most experienced coaches in any league of soccer in the U.S., it’s clear that the club has big ambitions for 2019 and beyond.

Missing out on the postseason again just won’t be good enough for this group.

“Not many have been around the game in as many capacities as Dave,” da Luz said. “So, to have that level of experience around here is raising the standards across the board for everyone, from the players to the front office.”

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