After last weekend’s playoff loss to Middlebury, the men’s soccer season was cut much shorter than preseason projections anticipated. Skill level and statistics pointed to a Cardinal crew capable of more than a first-round playoff loss. Certainly, that is not to diminish Wesleyan’s 8-5-2 overall record, 6-4 conference record or its 15th-straight NESCAC quarterfinals appearance. But the general sentiment felt throughout the team and by Head Coach Geoff Wheeler was one of qualified disappointment.
“It was as difficult a season as Wesleyan soccer has ever had,” Wheeler said. “We struggled this year to make our own luck and find consistency from one game to the next.”
Indeed, the longest streak the Cardinals had this season was three wins in a row halfway through the fall. Although the team started the year with two wins and two tied games, the rest of the season was characterized by back-and-forth wins followed by losses. The Cardinals’ inability to gain momentum, particularly through out-of-conference games—of which Wes won only two of five—may have proven to be detrimental to the overall progression of the season.
“If you look at the results and the way it ended, this was probably the worst season of my four years here,” wrote Captain Daniel Issroff ’15 in an email to The Argus. “There were definitely some high points (notably, beating Amherst), but ultimately considering the talent we had it was a disappointing way to go out. There’s no shying away from that—soccer can be cruel sometimes and so can life. To quote TS Elliot, ‘This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper.’”
Factors outside of the team’s control ended up detrimentally affecting its performance. This year’s squad was plagued by something that can hamper a team with even the highest of ambitions: injury.
“[The number of injuries this year was] an aberration,” Wheeler said. “By far the most injuries we have ever had in my 16 years. It affected everyone, from starters to non-starters that are very important for training. Anywhere from 14 games not being able to play, to eight games to single games [missed.] The injuries made it very difficult to find a cohesive lineup. Spencer Tanaka ’15 didn’t play a game until 14 games in. He was a starter for his first three years and then as a senior he started one game.”
Issroff was also out for a good portion of the season due to a recurring hip injury. Co-Captain Ben Bratt ’15, the backbone of a well-known solid backline that included Tanaka and others, was out for a number of games due to a couple of injuries as well.
Despite challenges like these, Wesleyan fought hard and played to win. First-years like Adam Cowie-Haskell ’18, who led the team with five goals scored and was twice named NESCAC Player of the Week, stepped up in his premiere season. Their go-big-or-go-home attitude was made visible not only by the players but also by the numbers. In a regular season characterized by abounding offensive opportunities, the Cards scored 18 points and outshot their opponents in 10 of 15 games. Their stingy defense, led by Bratt and goalkeeper Emmett McConnell ’15, allowed 13 goals in 15 games. McConnell ended his final regular season with a 0.58 goals-against average and a 0.836 save percentage in 15 starts.
“We created many more chances this year, in which we won eight games, than last year, [in] which we won nine games and went to the NESCAC semifinals,” Wheeler said.
The numbers back him up. Active Cardinal players consistently produced more total shots than their opponents did in two-thirds of their games. On top of that, Wes tallied over 20 total shots in four of its games and fired 10 shots or more in 11 games.
Wesleyan’s record when it outshot its opponent was 7-2-1. By contrast, Wes was 1-3-1 when its opponents took more shots than it did. While it may seem intuitive that the more shots a team takes, the more likely it is to win, the fact that the Cards were able to consistently outshoot their opponents throughout the season shows that Wesleyan’s offense was among the best in the league.
Home field advantage seemed to have also played a noticeable role in the team’s performance. On campus, the Cardinals were 5-2-0. Away, they were 3-3-2. Of Wes’ five out-of-conference games, it was 1-0 at home and 1-1-2 away. More importantly, against NESCAC opponents the Cards were 4-1 at home and 2-3 away. Though the rigors of traveling are inherent to the game, playing away plus widespread injuries may have affected Wesleyan’s ability to close the gap in some matches.
This is no more evident than in the five games in which Wes was outshot by its opponents: four of them were played away. Losses to key ’Cac rivals such as Tufts, Williams, and Middlebury were all away and displayed uncharacteristically low Cardinal shot output. The big Homecoming win against Amherst was another exception in which Wesleyan was outshot, but the Cards’ ability to beat a team previously undefeated in 37 league games while taking fewer shots than their opponent did is more of an accomplishment than an anomaly.
The victory over Amherst demonstrated Wesleyan’s potential: offensively and defensively, the Cardinals played a better game than their league-leading rival, and the scoreboard represented that. Wheeler summed this up as he reflected on the season.
“Certainly the Amherst win was a highlight,” he said. “[It was] frustrating to think that it was the highlight because, again, this team had aspirations and potential to achieve much more. But because of injuries and things outside of our control, there were too many hurdles for us to get over.”
In his first two seasons at Wesleyan, Issroff was part of a squad led by Wheeler that went to the NCAA tournament two years in a row. For Issroff, Wheeler, and the entire team, the ultimate goal of the season was success in conference playoffs and a bid to the national championships, both of which were certainly possible but unfortunately just a little too far to grasp.
“Ultimately, it’s sad to go out the way we did, but it’s been a great ride for me and the other seniors,” Issroff said. “We’ve been very successful over the past four years, with two NCAA appearances and some very high finishes in the league. I wouldn’t say it’s been a pleasure the whole way through, but being with the guys has been great. That’s what I’ll take away more than anything: being part of a really special group of guys.”
Having played his final match of soccer with the Birds, striker Matt Lynch ’15 took lessons from the soccer field that have helped him in every aspect of life.
“Looking back on the past four years, I realize that every individual player has a different moment of happiness,” Lynch wrote in an email to The Argus. “Mine happened to allow me to see the value in faith. I encourage anyone who is going through a tough time or who doesn’t see a way past a current situation to keep pushing and put faith in God. Don’t self-destruct. Though it may seem like you are alone (whether you are kicking a ball on a soccer field by [yourself] at 9:00pm, studying for an impossible test, or fighting the unjust justice system), you will always have a strong force with you every step of the way.”
Although he is leaving the season with a sour taste in his mouth, the head coach is still happy to have ended the season with a strong effort.
“We played some of the best soccer that this team has played in a long time,” Wheeler concluded. “I would attribute that to the skill level of our players and to the senior leadership. Besides the Amherst game, as disappointing as the Middlebury game was, we played some of our best soccer in that game [against Midd], which ultimately is your goal as a team: to play your best soccer at the end of the year. To a large extent, I would say we achieved that.”