May 8, 2014
There is style and there is substance.
In certain instances, the two are deemed mutually exclusive.
But when an athletic unit is thriving, the two elements can be symbiotic, each serving as a complement to the other.
Toward the end of the 2013 men's soccer season Villanova head coach Tom Carlin and his staff shifted to a more aggressive tactical approach that differed from the model that had helped launch a 12-win campaign in 2012. While the core values of the program remained intact, the on-field "style" offered a new dimension for a Wildcats' team that had watched the bulk of its starting unit graduate in the spring of 2013.
Now, in the wake of a productive spring season and six months of training, head coach Tom Carlin believes the fresh twist will give his team added substance as it looks forward to the 2014 campaign.
"That's who we are now," states Carlin. "It's very much an extended defending style. We are going to be defending higher up the field than we were before and are going to be very aggressive in our attacking approach as well.
"The best way to describe it is that in a 10-pass sequence, three of our passes are going to be in our defensive zone and the midfield line while seven will be in the attacking zone. We are looking to play an attractive brand of soccer where we are solving things with the pass - using give and goes. Sound passing is really the emphasis."
The fresh approach also figures to dovetail nicely with the installation of a new surface at the Villanova Soccer complex, a project that began in late April when bulldozers removed the old grass field. The West Campus facility will feature a newly installed field turf surface to replace a weathered pitch that suffered from slow drainage during periods of wet weather.
"The biggest problem in the past was that we were recruiting a certain type of player to do well in our conference," noted Carlin. "But our field didn't complement the players that we were recruiting. So were kind of a hodge-podge of players (and) our style was influenced by that. We were kind of a contradiction within our own house. It led to problems for us.
"Now, that's all gone. We picked a style that complements the new surface. It will be a joy to play at home."
Over the course of the recently completed spring semester, the Wildcats went about the daily work of making the new system their own. They took the field for five spring games last month and Carlin walked away pleased with what he witnessed.
"I told our guys at the end - this was the best spring we've had since we've been here," stated Carlin, who will begin his seventh season as head coach this fall. "The development was outstanding."
This came on the heels of what was very much a transitional fall season in 2013. Villanova was tasked with replacing the backbone of a unit that had helped lift it to the 2011 BIG EAST Championship semi-final and to a 12-6 mark the following season. With only three seniors among the returnees there were numerous moving parts to integrate in the face of a challenging schedule (an 8-9-1 overall mark was the result).
"Our learning curve last fall was steep, for both the coaches and the players," stated Carlin. "We were getting used to six, seven or eight new starters, depending on the game. We as a staff had to get used to this team and its personalities. Even with the guys that were here before, we didn't know them as well because most of them hadn't played as much when we were a senior heavy team.
"We thought that by the middle of last season we would be a much better team. It turned out that it was ¾ of the way through. By the end of last season, though, we felt we had really solved what our identity would be. It was still relatively new leading into this spring. And our guys just responded to it."
Of course, such alterations aren't made with mere words. The new style required a copious amount of sweat, particularly when it came to creating a standard of fitness that will allow the Wildcats to pursue this aggressive attack.
Carlin noted: "if you polled student-athletes on campus and asked them if practice was filled with fitness and defensive work, how happy would you be, I am sure the response would be, `not very'. Through all that, our guys had a good attitude and responded."
Carlin was especially encouraged by the Wildcats' work at Philly Soccer Six Sunday last month at Penn Park. He also liked a five goal outburst against Loyola.
"In all five games we played, we were consistent," Carlin noted.
"Aaron really stepped up for us," Carlin said. "He was phenomenal. Oscar was terrific, which is par for the course. He was our best player."
Veterans Matt Wiltse and Chris Hill - whose nine points led the '13 team in - were in good form too. Max Kroschwitz and Eric McKenna, both of whom will begin their sophomore seasons in the fall, took steps forward as well.
"Max is extremely fit and I think he's seen the difference that can make for him," Carlin stated. "McKenna came in and proved he can be a solid option for us."
Damilola Adetola, who has seen limited action in his first two seasons, seemed to find his footing too. VU will also be able to turn to seasoned vets Padraic McCullaugh andSean Sheridan (seven points for each last fall); forward Hayden Harr; center back Colton Bryant; and goalkeeper Andrew Weakly (a 1.25 goals against average in 17 starts last year). In all, eight starters and most of the key reserves from last fall will return.
The summer offers both opportunity and trap doors. The athletes scatter for the most part to their respective hometowns and it is left to each individual to maintain the daily focus to insure that the gains made to this point don't fade.
"The thing about how we are playing is that we have to be fit immediately," states Carlin. "Coming in they will have to be recovered and rested from whatever ball they play. They will also have to be on task with our summer fitness program. That is very important.
"Besides that, it's just mentally being ready to pick up where we left off."
When they arrive to begin team workouts in August, it is expected they will do so in a refurbished home.
"The first thing is that we know, rain or shine, we will be playing home games on campus," stated Carlin, whose team in recent years was forced to move home games to off-campus sites after heavy rains soaked the `Cats home pitch. "Logistically, that's huge.
"I think the quality of life for our players will be better. Going out to that field and knowing that practice was going to be affected every day by the field wears on you after a while. Our quality of life will be so much higher and I think that has already affected the mood of everybody in our program."
The new look is the result of a successful fundraising effort over the last two years coordinated by the Villanova Athletic Fund.
"Pat Higgins made his gift and I think that took this from being just a dream to a reality," stated Carlin. "From that point on, we got some momentum. We were able to tell recruits that this project was coming and that was literally because of Pat's gift.
"It's awesome to see bulldozers out there. We can't wait to get started training for the fall season. It's a whole new world and changes the landscape for Villanova Soccer."
A new style suited for a new surface.
That adds up to both substance and style, often a pre-cursor to another "S" word: success.
- Mike Sheridan
Villanova Media Relations