Fixing what wasn’t broken

Andrew Bucholtz
Andrew Bucholtz

The last few years have been a period of unpredictability for the men’s soccer team, and their 2-0 loss to the Laurentian Voyageurs on Wednesday in the first round of the OUA playoffs only continues that trend.

In 2006, the team had a tremendous regular season, finishing first in the OUA East division with a 10-3-1 record. They scored 25 goals during the season and only conceded 11, and head coach Al MacVicar was named the OUA East Coach of the Year. The team came up short in the playoffs, though, winning their quarterfinal match against the Trent Excalibur but falling to the Western Mustangs and Brock Badgers in the Final Four to finish fourth in Ontario and miss out on nationals.

After the heights of 2006, things seemed certain to go downhill for the Gaels when MacVicar stepped down one month before the start of the 2007 season for personal reasons. He was replaced by Chris Gencarelli, who played on the 2006 team and had only limited coaching experience. Gencarelli brought in a new system as well, switching the team’s formation from an offence-oriented 4-4-2 lineup to a more conservative 4-5-1 formation with only one striker. From the outside, the situation appeared to have the makings of a disaster.

The Gaels stepped it up, though, and the season turned into a great success. They finished third in the OUA East with a 6-4-4 regular-season record, a step back from 2006, and only scored 22 goals while allowing 16. The difference came in the playoffs, though, where the conservative offensive style proved just what the team needed. They knocked off the Ryerson Rams at home and then stole an upset victory on the road against the University of Toronto Varsity Blues, clinching a spot in the OUA Final Four. There, they dropped a close 1-0 semi-final to the powerful York Lions but rebounded with a win over the number-one-ranked Carleton Ravens to claim third place.

This year, the stage was set for renewed success. The team lost some key veterans to graduation, including All-Canadian midfielder Nick Milonas, but their core was still largely intact. With an extra Ontario berth available in the nationals thanks to Carleton hosting, it looked like this might be the Gaels’ year to compete at the next level.

In a surprising move, though, the team again underwent a coaching change just prior to the season. Carlo Cannovan came in to replace Gencarelli, and the pendulum swung back. The high expectations weren’t met as the team stumbled to a 4-6-4 record and a sixth-place finish in the OUA East. They only recorded 18 goals while allowing 16, despite returning to the offence-oriented tactics of yore, and they lost in the first round to the Laurentian Voyageurs. This isn’t surprising, considering how long it often takes teams to adapt to a new philosophy.

Throughout the season, the Gaels played technically solid offensive soccer and created vast numbers of scoring chances. The problem was that they never seemed to quite have the finishing touch of gold. The buildup was there, but the execution wasn’t. There were spurts of brilliance and plenty of inspired moves, including increased utilization of defender Andrew Nador’s aptitude for long throw-ins, but the ball didn’t find the back of the net nearly enough and the results didn’t show up on the scoreboard. It’s disappointing that a talented group of players wasn’t able to go farther, and that’s partly as a result of trying to fix what wasn’t broken.

This year’s failure should not be placed on Cannovan’s head, though. He was put in a difficult position from the moment he accepted the job in August with only a month to prepare. It takes time to adjust to a new program, especially when your coaching experience comes from other levels. We haven’t had the chance to evaluate his recruiting yet thanks to his late appointment, but his systems and tactics showed promise, particularly towards the end of the season when the team seemed to start to adapt to them. There’s every chance that he’ll lead the team to further success in the future.

The problem is the lack of continuity. Three coaches and three different systems in three years is just too many, particularly when two of those coaches come in just before the season starts. CIS success is not immediate in any sport; it often takes years and sometimes decades. We’ve seen this at Queen’s over the years, where many of our most successful programs have been guided by the same coach for at least a decade. That philosophy wasn’t applied to men’s soccer over the last few seasons, and that should change in the future.

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