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Former Clemson Tigers get a chance to shine For The Crown
2021 NCAA Champions George Marks and Quinn McNeill discuss their first MLS minutes with Charlotte FC
George Marks graduated from Clemson University with the third-most wins as a goalkeeper in school history. Along with his classmate, midfielder Quinn McNeill, he started in the final of the 2021 NCAA Division I Men's College Cup, bringing home the national championship in their last game together as Tigers.
On Saturday, they were back on the pitch together in Montréal earning their first MLS minutes for Charlotte FC due to the absence of multiple starters under COVID-19 protocols. Though the teams were tied at the half, Charlotte never found an equalizer after a second CF Montréal goal early in the second half. Still, the loss didn’t ruin the moment for Marks, told me in a postgame press conference “it was really fun,” and he tried to “take some positives out of it, just like the team is.”
Though it was Marks’ first MLS appearance, he had previously started in goal for Charlotte for two matches in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. Marks only conceded two goals in two Open Cup matches, including Charlotte’s 1-2 marathon extra time win in Greenville, and their 1-5 rout in Richmond (Richmond, incidentally, played Charlotte FC in the Open Cup just two weeks after facing McNeill, who started for the Charlotte Independence).
Against Montréal , Marks had a single save, and conceded 2 goals to an expected 0.76. After Saturday’s match, I asked him how Open Cup play prepared him to play 90 minutes against a MLS opponent:
“Goalkeeper is just an experience-based position, so the more games you get under your belt, the more you tend to see those performances go up. Today was obviously another step up that ladder, but I think going from Open Cup to this MLS debut was definitely a lot easier than if I would have had to go straight in from college ball. Making sure that I was seeing situations like I might see tonight [when I played] in Open Cup really benefited me.”
The other former Clemson Tiger, Quinn McNeill didn’t have had as many minutes as Marks – he came in as a substitute in the second half – but that didn’t make his MLS debut any less memorable:
“It was honestly a dream come true. Those are the things you dream about as a kid … I really enjoyed the moment, and I wish the result could have been better, but it’s something I’ll remember forever.”
Though Saturday was McNeill’s first start for Charlotte FC, he’s been on loan to the Charlotte Independence all year. McNeill told me he found MLS play “a little more physical and a little faster” than minor league soccer – against Montréal he both committed and suffered one foul, though avoided drawing any cards. “It’s still a professional atmosphere with the Independence, albeit at a lower level, but I think it has prepared me playing 90 minutes week in, week out with them.”
Since Marks had told us he was nervous going into his first MLS game as a starter, I wondered if getting his debut off the bench may have made things easier for McNeill.
“Yeah, I think for me the most nervous part was being on the bench before the game, taking in the atmosphere. When everything started and the game got going, the nerves kind of went away … when they called my name I didn’t have that much time to sit there and think, I just put my jersey on and my shin guards in, and next thing you know I’m getting instructions on the field.”
“The nerves weren’t too bad honestly when the game got going; the anticipation of it all is what gave me the most nerves, but when the game kicked off I felt pretty good going into it.”
McNeill had some good plays and good touches during the game. In 22 minutes of play he won a duel, made a nice cross in front of the goal, and only had two unsuccessful passes – all against the most challenging opponent he had ever faced. “I just played the game under the system that I’ve been training with [with Charlotte FC], I felt comfortable in it, and the guys on the field helped me … I had good support around me to help.”
When I asked Quinn who really stood out in terms of supporting the new players, he picked two: “I have to give credit to Brandt Bronico, he just played alongside me and coached me through the moment, and Anton [Walkes] behind me [on defense] was always vocal, just helping me out with little bits of information here and there … they helped me have a great debut.”
Marks, for what it’s worth, thought McNeill “left his stamp on the game.” McNeill returned the compliment, saying “It was really nice being able to share the experience with George and [Charlotte Independence defender Koa Santos]. George being a fellow Tiger, we’ve had a lot of games under our belts together, so it was really comfortable out there.”
It’s looking increasingly like Marks or McNeill may have another shot at MLS play during this week’s busy schedule. Charlotte has matches today and on Sunday, and the team is still dealing with pandemic protocols. “We have a few guys back, I don’t want to go too much into the names, but we have a few guys back,” said interim head coach Christian Lattanzio at a Tuesday press conference. “A few others we are waiting, but little by little I’m getting all the squad back.”
Charlotte FC’s next challenge is tonight at 7:00 PM where they’ll face an injured Austin FC under the lights at Bank of America Stadium.
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