Men’s soccer reflects on 2018 success

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The SVSU men’s soccer team’s 2018 season ended in the Round of 16 at the hands of Ohio Valley University, a 1-0 defeat that sent the Cardinals home and left the team wondering what could’ve been.

In the eyes of most players and coaches, the year ended too soon, and the team very realistically could have made a run toward the NCAA national championship game.

“Now that we’ve had a couple weeks, I’m still wishing we could’ve made it farther,” sophomore midfielder Alex Gloshen said. “We did make it to the Sweet 16, though, which is a good run, but I’m hoping to go farther next year.”

Junior midfielder Pablo Ortiz agreed.

“Two weeks of just sort of reflecting makes you realize how close we were from a final, especially with how other results turned out,” he said. “I’m excited for next year and extremely proud to be a part of a program that is so consistently successful.”

Team first, passion, trust

The fact that a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA playoffs is almost considered a disappointment is a testament to the soccer powerhouse the program has become over the past eight years.

The season marked head coach Andy Wagstaff’s best finish during his tenure at SVSU, but only by a slim margin, as the team has been at or near the top of the GLIAC and has qualified for the NCAA playoffs in each of his first four seasons at the helm.

“This year’s team was a little bit less about superstars,” Wagstaff said. “We had some very, very talented players that would be superstars on most teams, but the way that we approached the team from a coaching standpoint was such that we didn’t want to put anyone a pedestal above anyone else.”

While 2018 was yet another season in which SVSU had superstar-caliber players on its roster, it didn’t model years’ past in which the Cardinals had one or two goal scorers and point-getters far ahead of the rest of the roster.

Wagstaff attributed this newer style of play to a culture and mindset change in the program over the past year. Part of this culture change was a focus on the program’s “Three Trademark Behaviors:” team first, passion and trust.

“We didn’t really talk about wins and losses as much; we talked about what it’s going to take to be a champion, and a champion could mean a variety of things,” Wagstaff said. “It was more about the culture this year, and then we designed a style and a philosophy that I think is more in line with who I am as a coach.”

Continued success

Instilling a new philosophy and style can be a slow process, especially at a program that reached an extremely high level of success shortly before Wagstaff’s arrival. However, that success is still fairly new in the history of SVSU’s program.

Prior to the 2011 season, the men’s soccer program at SVSU was average at best, typically finishing between fourth and sixth in the GLIAC and never qualifying for the NCAA playoffs. However, that all changed under former head coach Cale Wassermann, who led the Cardinals to their first ever GLIAC Championship in 2011. The success of the program only grew from there, when in 2012, the team again won the GLIAC and made a run all the way to the national championship game.

“You have to look at what Cale did with a program that was shy of big wins and championships, and he really turned SVSU into a top program,” Wagstaff said. “I have to take my hat off to Cale, who is a phenomenal coach and really laid the foundation. I think I’ve jumped into his vision with my own vision and my own style, but they’ve complimented each other extremely well.”

Wagstaff said taking a team of players predominantly from the state of Michigan to an NCAA final is unprecedented in college soccer. Following a Sweet 16 trip in 2014, Wassermann took his talents to Michigan State University, where he serves as an assistant coach.

After taking over for Wassermann in 2015, Wagstaff has further cemented the program as one of the top in the Midwest. Following a second-place finish in the GLIAC during Wagstaff’s first season, the team has since won two of the past three conference titles. The team has also qualified for the NCAA playoffs in each of Wagstaff’s first four seasons.

“Knowing what this program has achieved, I’m very proud to be a part of it,” Gloshen said. “Most importantly, I want to help add on to that success in my next two years.”

In addition to the team success, which has included six trips to the NCAA playoffs in the past seven years, the program has turned in an impressive resume of individual awards. Wagstaff was named GLIAC Coach of the Year during each of his first three seasons at the helm. Many other Cardinals were named to various All-Region teams over the past four years, and even more have made All-GLIAC rosters.

Most recently, six Cardinals this year were named to All- GLIAC teams, including senior defender Omar Sinclair being named GLIAC Defensive Player of the Year and goalkeeper Lukas Betz being named GLIAC Freshman of the Year. Sinclair was named to the CCA All-Midwest Region First Team, while senior midfielder Michael Shaikly and junior forward Azaad Liadi earned second team honors.

“Each year showed different challenges, and we overcame them all on each occasion.” Sinclair said. “Talent wise, we obviously would have liked to win more, but at the end of the day, we were nationally ranked and made it to four consecutive NCAA tournaments.”

Additionally, five Cardinals were named to the United Soccer Coaches All-Midwest Region teams. Sophomore forward Michael Hamilton joined Shaikly and Sinclair on the first team, while Liadi was named to the second team. Betz earned third team honors.

Sinclair’s accolades didn’t end there, however, as last week, he was named to the United Soccer Coaches NCAA Division II All-America Third Team. Sinclair is the seventh player in program history to achieve All-American honors.

The defender said he found out about the All-American honors indirectly. Prior to a class, Sinclair was texting teammate Joe Wright, who told him congratulations. When Sinclair asked what he meant, Wright explained to him that he had received the honor.

“I’m proud and thankful for my teammates who made it possible for me to achieve this award along with the coaches and trainers,” Sinclair said. “I’ve met some of my best friends in the last four years, friends who I will never forget, and I am forever thankful for the opportunity (Wagstaff) gave us all in recruiting me to play for this fantastic program.”

A global reputation

All indications are that Sinclair certainly won’t be the last All-American to come through the SVSU program. As the program has developed, it has also expanded its ability to recruit across the country and around the world. While Wassermann typically fielded teams of predominantly Michigan-based players, Wagstaff’s original roots in England along with his coaching experience at a variety of levels in the United States have allowed him to build a large network across the globe, including Europe, South America, Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand.

“First of all, you have to look at the school,” Wagstaff said. “It’s a university that is very, very strong. From a school standpoint, it’s got a little bit of everything. On the soccer side of things, the success that the program has had previously continues to poke the interest of the top players that are out there looking for a place to play.”

Another sign of the immense talent the program attracts is the attention its players receive from professional teams around the world.

Wagstaff said multiple players on the 2018 squad are drawing interest from the professional ranks. That level of exposure has created a domino effect that continues to bring top-tier talent to SVSU.

Despite all of the success the program has had over the past four years, it is still looking to reach and exceed the level achieved by the 2012 national runner-up.

Wagstaff admitted that he spent time contemplating whether this was a feasible goal, but continued success has convinced him that the program absolutely has the capability to win the nation’s top accolade.

“Just consistently being in the NCAAs, consistently winning GLIAC championships and consistently turning out players that are All-Region has given me the belief that this is now way closer than I ever thought it was going to be,” Wagstaff said. “Next year, I genuinely feel like if we continue with the culture that we’ve got right now, we will get success, and if things fall our way, we can do better than this year.”

While the program celebrates and looks back on one of its most successful seasons, it remains partially unsatisfied and convinced that it is capable of more.

“Since the team is young in general, it’s going to be very experienced for the next couple of seasons,” Ortiz said. “I think a Sweet 16 won’t be enough from here on out, so a further run is expected.”

With many young players returning next season, 2019 may just be the year that the SVSU men’s soccer team takes another step toward its ultimate aspiration: a national championship.

“The sky is really the limit for the program,” Liadi said.