There’s an old saying that defense wins championships. While the Eagles’ season ended in the first round of the ACC tournament, the defense proved to be a consistent bright spot during an inconsistent season. Quiet and unassuming, one would never suspect that Victor Souza was an All-ACC defender and one of the best tacklers in college soccer. Sitting on the edge of the booth, Souza took his time answering questions, making sure to answer thoroughly, letting nothing slip past him.
The junior grew up around soccer thanks to his older brother, whose games and practices a young Souza attended. Soccer was such a central fact of life that Souza doesn’t “remember choosing to start. I was just playing.” He wasn’t always playing as defense, sometimes it was center-mid, most times it was wherever the coaches wanted to use him, until around 12 or 13, when soccer got more organized and Souza found himself as a center back.
As a freshman, Souza started all 19 games, playing every minute of every game on his way to being named to the All-ACC freshman team. His sophomore year was the same: Souza started in every game and played all but nine minutes of the season. Those big minutes are something the defender is proud of since they speak to him playing to his potential. “When I finally came to college, I broke out and actually played to how good I was… I’ve been pretty consistent as well.” These minutes are the foundation that sparked the coming seasons for Souza.
Returning from a shortened COVID season, Souza noted the increased attendance by Eagles fans. “I’ve honestly been surprised at how many people have been showing up. The Notre Dame game was probably the most we’ve ever had during my time here,” Souza said. “We’ve been undefeated at home this year and it’s no coincidence. We’re different when we play at home. We actually play to our potential.”
The home and away record tells the story. The Eagles would remain undefeated at home on the season while winning only one away game. Souza chalked some of those losses up to immaturity on the team’s part. Another part of it was the 13-person freshman class the Eagles brought in this year—thanks in part to COVID-19. “We only have two and half weeks to prepare for the season—it’s not a long time, to begin with. Then you put 13 people on top of that… A lot of them are playing big roles as soon as they came in, so it’s hard to do anything with a group that’s completely new.”
On top of managing a large group of freshmen, all expected to play big minutes as injuries plagued the Eagles, Souza and other upperclassmen on the team inherited leadership roles. Usually, when a new group joins, the upperclassmen teach the system through example and by “keeping us in check.” At the start of preseason, “there’s the way it was, and we just followed it.”
This year’s transition wasn’t as smooth as usual.
“We missed out on a year. It wasn’t coming in, having preseason, and playing those 16 games.”
Souza isn’t making an excuse, he’s stating a fact: a six-game spring season and a group of 13 new players means that any transition is bound to be bumpy for both the new guys and the upperclassman. “I’m reflecting now,” he added. “I feel like I could have done a better job of trying to organize the group and realizing what it means to be an older guy in the group.”
On the field, Souza is just as hard on himself. When asked to describe his role on the field, the first thing that came to mind was something he wanted to work on: being vocal. Otherwise, Souza focuses on leading by example. “As a whole, we’re all super solid, all good 1-v.-1 defenders,” Souza pivoted. “We never get scored on with one of us getting beat. It’s always a broken play or a set-piece, end of the game.”
When it comes to speaking about his fellow defenders, Souza is all praise and the answers come quickly. “I love playing with Wil [Jacques]. He’s grown a lot as a player, he’s been more confident on the ball, super athletic, his left foot is…decent,” Souza kept a straight face for a second before laughing, “It’s getting better. Tyshawn [Rose]…he’s been having a great season too. Super confident on the ball, super-fast.”
“I don’t think the amount of times we’ve gotten scored on really reflects how good we are as a group,” Souza stated. “A large part of it is who’s in front of you, who’s protecting the backline, and I think at the beginning of the season we weren’t very organized, but we’ve been pulling it together. It will only get better,” he said, speaking to the progress of the program.
In the moments where the defense is scrambling, or a player gets behind the backline, the responsibility falls to the goalie to make key stops, and halfway through the season, the Eagles underwent a goalie change from Christian Garner to Brennan Klein.
Klein carries himself like a goalie, but with the swagger of a forward—and anyone who has seen him run out to play a ball near the midfield might think he was, in fact, a striker. Even seated, he’s moving, leaning back and forth in response to questions, alert to the notes I am taking on his answers. Klein is still reading the pitch—one of the traits that makes him an excellent goalie.
Klein grew up playing soccer, thanks to his dad who got all four brothers into sports, and soccer in particular. But Klein didn’t always play goalie. In high school, his team won a championship while Klein played on the field. He does admit that he’s played keeper most of his life and is “definitely better in goal,” although he “doesn’t know why [he] does it. [He’s] just good at it.”
The sophomore from Arizona earned his place as a starter this season, posting two shutouts in seven games and a 0.788 save percentage. His first start against Louisville set the tone for the type of keeper Klein planned on being: vocal in giving instructions to the backline and aggressive in his decisions to come out to cut-off angles.
Being good at what he does means being able to describe his own brand of goalkeeping, which Klein described as “Crazy, maybe. I like to try things and I like to play my feet more than other goalkeepers. I come out crazy a lot. I would say crazy…or aggressive.”
His teammates would say confident.
“Having a confident keeper helps so much because it’s the foundation of your team,” Souza explained. “Brennan’s presence is different. He wants the ball. He wants to play. He’ll come out for floating balls. It’s pretty self-evident how much it’s helped us.”
While the relationship between a defender and their goalie is special, even the forwards have noticed Klein’s confidence. “He has a ton of confidence—the way he acts, the way he plays,” Aidan Farwell noted. Drew Serafino added, “Running 40 yards out to make plays…” Farwell finished the sentence, “it gets you going.”
Klein’s infusion of energy and command of his goal helped to stabilize a team constantly reeling from injuries and shuffled lineups. Whether it was playing as an extra defender or coming out of his box to punch away a floating ball, Klein made his presence felt by demanding to be a part of the game instead of passively waiting for the ball to come to him. “I always have their backs,” Klein asserted. “Maybe I could talk more, but I feel like I talk enough. And I definitely come out and save them a lot. I want the ball, I want to play with my feet and I think that makes a big difference—being an extra player back there.”
Perhaps Klein’s confidence comes from his being comfortable under pressure—which is “probably” his favorite part of being a keeper. Struggling to articulate what about the position he liked, Klein continued “Coming out before a game, days ahead thinking about it, my stomach hurts, I’m all nervous. And then, second half, I’m feeling the same [way]. The best part is like after a good win, or a good game, it’s so relieving. That’s like one of the best feelings ever.”
Laurent Dubois, author of The Language of the Game, suggests that “[t]o be a keeper…is to know a certain secret that only others who have occupied the role can understand.” The role of goalie relies on instincts—knowing when to come off a line to make a save, knowing which way to dive on a penalty kick, deciding when to play the ball with one’s feet or launch it down the field to start an attack. Beyond the gasp-worthy saves, goalies often make subtle adjustments to change angles and cover the goal.
Klein tries to explain the secret by walking through a decision to come off his line. The important thing is to stay within a comfortable distance for recovery. “I’m always trying to manage it—it takes a lot of learning. I’m not perfect at it,” Klein admits. “A lot of times I’ve come out and I’m like whoa…I’ve got to come back.” That’s where the coaches come in, helping Klein to press higher or to realize he’s gone too far up the field. At the end of the day, “it’s a personal thing—however much you trust yourself.”
Playing with confidence is not something that comes easily. In order to build up confidence, playing becomes vitally important, though one doesn’t have to be playing well, Klein claims. “It’s a hard feeling when you mess up and you’re like ‘dang I know I could’ve done that. I try to do everything within my ability,” Klein said, grimacing like he’s remembering one of those mistakes.
As confident as Klein is, it rarely borders on arrogance. He’s quick to point out what he can work on. When asked about his weaknesses, he takes a minute to reflect before declaring “I have a lot.” After a few more seconds, Klein adds “sometimes I’m not as vocal—that’s something I definitely need to work on. My main weakness is not being motivated at practice, or like not working out after practice.”
Souza contradicted Klein on that point, having praised Klein’s work ethic while describing what Klein brought to the table. “I’m good in training, but I’m not—there’s a game day me versus training me, it’s different. I still try in training but I joke around a lot in training, I try to have fun…which as a goalkeeper isn’t the best always,” Klein amended.
Not that joking around in practice has kept Klein from accomplishing any of his goals. “I’ve done everything I’ve always said I wanted to do,” the keeper stated matter of factly. “Like in regards to soccer, I’ve always said I wanted to play in college. I always said I wanted to play in an academy and I did that.”
Being proud of accomplishing his goals ties back to the best piece of advice Klein received surrounding soccer. What stuck with him was that “soccer honestly is a lot about luck and a lot about when people aren’t looking or watching. Just always, no matter what happens with teams or playing, just stay true to yourself and get through it. You never know what’s going to happen.” And then Klein didn’t shy away from adding his own experience to the advice. “I wasn’t playing for a long time and I’m finally playing now. And when I wasn’t playing it honestly was pretty tough, but now it’s been a little better.”
Beyond personal struggles of staying engaged when not playing, Klein cited several key losses as the team’s biggest struggle on the season. “As a team…you know it’s those losses that we shouldn’t have lost. The Quinnipiac one was bad and that was our first game so that was a blow. Yale I think was the one game that crushed us.”
Souza had a different take on the struggles of the season. “Trying to deal with so many different personalities, new ones, it’s super hard. They’re freshmen, they’re super young. And then school on top of it, whatever personal problems everyone’s dealing with. It’s hard sometimes to come together as a group, especially when the team’s not doing well or stuff’s going wrong because it kills the locker room vibe.”
And for Souza, that larger team struggle became a personal one as well. It all came back to his learning how to be vocal and “learning how to speak to people because everyone needs to get spoken to differently, not everybody takes criticism in the same way. Putting whatever you have aside and focusing on the team and learning how to lead in the right ways.”
“It’s always tough with school and soccer at the same time. The better you feel with yourself, the better you’re going to perform. In season, while taking classes and dealing with personal stuff, it’s finding the balance and trying to take care of all my stuff so I can only focus on performing,” Souza added, before highlighting the on-campus student-athlete organization Eagles for Equality.
“That’s why I like the Eagles for Equality march thing so much because it was mental health awareness week at the same time and we were able to speak about some of that stuff. It’s stuff that everybody’s going through. Finding that balance, learning how to manage school and your personal issues—that’s when you’ll fully be able to focus on your performance.”
There was one thing the defender and keeper disagreed on in their separate interviews: whether or not the Eagles built from the back. Souza stressed the need to have the right kind of players for that system back and how risky that style was in a schedule where every game matters. “There are times in games where we won’t try to play but there are times where we will try to play—when we’re feeling confident. Overall, we shy away from playing out of the back.”
Klein hesitated upon being asked about building out of the back, before agreeing. “I say we do, at least we try to. We kick it up a decent amount, but we try to play out of the back first.”
Souza did condition his statement by mentioning that Klein’s introduction changed how the backline operated, which might explain the discrepancy in answers between the two. Anyone who saw the Eagles play this year would agree with Klein, but with Souza’s warning echoing in their minds. Who knows what the next season will bring, but with several quality ball handlers returning from injury, fans should expect to see more possession and yes—more back passes to the defense that builds into high scoring chances.
Thank you to Victor Souza and Brennan Klein for their time and willingness to be interviewed.