Not to risk being repetitive, but the simplest way to describe the 2022 Men’s Soccer season is: “I think I’ve seen this film before, and I didn’t like the ending.” Thank you, Taylor Swift, for somehow having the perfect lyric for every situation. No one—not the players, the coaching staff, nor the diehard fans—is happy with the ending to the 2022 season: a 1-0 loss to UNC in the first round of the ACC tournament, a game that, by all accounts, was more than winnable.
Just like last year, the team finished under .500, this time falling to a marginally worse .406-win percentage and a record of 4-7-5 with an ACC record of 1-4-3. Like last year, not a single ACC win came on the road, and this year not a single win came on the road, although the Eagles managed to tie No.4 in the country Syracuse on the latter's turf. BC played tough against stiff competition, but let wins against non-conference teams slip away, slogging through a frustrating season that left no one feeling good.
Not everything was grey skies and disappointment—there is wonderful talent on the team and depth across the field—but there are significant structural problems that need to be addressed before the Eagles become more than just a team that competes with ranked ACC teams, but never wins. What are these structural issues? Let’s take a look.
Head coach Bob Thompson, careful to say that not all possession is good possession, instead noted that the strength of the Eagles' formation was that it allowed them to control possession. The goal of the program is to “become an attacking-based team,” which, in Thompson’s mind, “you first have to start by having more of the ball.” The next step should come as no surprise: “executing more efficiently when we have the ball.” In practice, BC utilized a ratio of “70% to 30% attacking to defending,” working on executing with the ball in order to drive play. On paper, all of that sounds great. The reality? The ball rarely made it out of the Eagles' midfield.
Here’s the counterpoint: according to mathematician David Sumpter in his book Soccermatics, “statistics from recent Premier League seasons show that the team enjoying more possession is more likely to lose.”
Why? Because possession for possession's sake doesn’t actually do anything. Possession should benefit creativity. Look at what the Eagles' possession numbers generated this season: an early exit from the ACC tournament for the second year in a row. Even coach Thompson acknowledged “having the ball a lot doesn’t matter if you don’t score.”
The point of possession should be to drive forward and incisively attack the opposing team’s goal. Control of the ball generates chances, controls game flow, and, yes, after a goal or two are scored to build a lead, can be used to sit back in a low block and defend against another team to prevent them from scoring in transition. What possession cannot do is create goals if no one actually moves the ball forward and presses toward the net. Possession woes lead quickly to creativity woes which lead to mentality woes and… we’ll get there in a minute.
Looking at statistics, the Eagles ranked dead last in the ACC in the number of corners generated, finishing with 74 on the season. For comparison, the two teams in the ACC championship have 124 corners each. The storyline stays roughly the same when looking at shots. BC had 187 total shots on the season, finishing ninth in the ACC. Syracuse and Clemson, in the championship, had 307 and 287 shots respectively. Take these statistics with a grain of salt, as the Eagles played the least amount of games in the ACC.
However, there were long stretches of games where the Eagles failed to register a shot for twenty minutes or more. With teams double-teaming Stefan Sigurdarson, BC needed to find other outlets and usually failed to do so. After Sigurdarson’s 12 goals, the next closest Eagles were graduating senior Amos Shapiro-Thompson and freshman Ted Cargill with two apiece. This comes after last season when the Eagles scored 15 goals total. The 22 goals scored this year is an increase, but 16 of those came from players who won’t return next year, making the scoring situation dire. And ten of those goals came in two games against non-ACC opponents.
The possession strategy failed. It failed last season. It failed (arguably worse) this season. The biggest problem? There’s no sign of change on the horizon. There was no tinkering with formation, no perceptible change in the quality of chances generated in the final third. There was rotation in players starting and substitutions, but when the issue is structure, not personnel, then moving personnel around at best band-aids a situation. This is a team that spent a season searching for the world’s most beautiful goal and found five shutouts and four 1-1 ties. In other words: nothing.
Maybe (and this is a huge maybe) the formation doesn’t need to change, but if the formation stays the same, then there needs to be flexibility. Players should be able to take risks that might cost possession. If the Eagles want possession, fine, but that possession needs to come in the final third and needs to make use of speed, individual creativity, and the ability to shock opposing teams with audacity. If the formation doesn’t allow for that? Change it.
The facts are this: the Eagles currently are 3rd in the ACC in total number of yellow cards (40) and 1st in the number of reds (three, only two were straight reds). Over the course of a 16-game season, the Eagles racked up 196 fouls; granted, opponents weren’t far behind at 190. In the ACC, BC finished eighth in terms of total fouls, meaning that while committing a below-average number, the types of fouls were consistently deemed more egregious by referees.
Let’s be clear, this is a bit of the chicken and the egg paradox: do the fouls contribute to creating a mentality, or is the mentality the reason for, in this case, frustration fouls? I structured the heading mentality first because that’s what I see as the biggest problem in this category. When it comes to committing fouls, there’s an immaturity surrounding the Eagles team. Granted, this season was tough with players getting carded for fouls that weren’t necessarily card-worthy—and I wrote this same section a year ago. When you know that you’re going to get called for things that the other team isn’t going to call for, then you stop doing those things, especially in critical areas on the field.
Frustration is part of the game. Fouls are also part of the game, with the strategic foul being a critical component. But three red cards? Giving up set pieces in the final third? When a team is already struggling to find the back of the net, any advantage becomes insurmountable. In the ACC, teams are going to capitalize on their opportunities (see UNC in the regular season and Syracuse). The mentality has to be better. There have to be fewer fouls—even if players are playing in unfamiliar positions.
The number of fouls isn’t the only sign of a season-long struggle with mentality. Losing 3-0 to UMass followed by a 1-1 tie to Siena and yet playing at then No.1 in the country Clemson’s level? It shows the Eagles match the level of play they come up against, instead of dictating it. Non-ACC teams come into games with a “we’re taking it to you, we want to win attitude.” BC has that attitude for big games and often for around twenty minutes of a match, but there’s no consistency with when the “we’re going to win” mentality comes out—or who plays with it.
A lack of consistent mentality comes into sharper relief when talking about away games too; the Eagles are a different team at Newton than they are traveling. Coach Thompson points to the fact that away games have different atmospheres and also different surfaces—away ACC games are all played on grass. And those are valid. What’s not valid? Failing to win at least one ACC away game for six years straight.
There are all sorts of soccer clichés about things happening just because they always happen. The Eagles need to stop listening. No more reasons for losing, no more “but it wasn’t really a foul,” no more away game curses. Both players and coaching staff have consistently highlighted that this is the best group of players yet, in terms of talent on the field and team culture. It’s time for a 90-minute-long winning mentality. BC needs a mentality reset and they need it fast. Games can change in an instant and a “who cares, we’re winning anyways” mentality is just what the doctor ordered.
THE GOOD NEWS
I promised at the start that not everything is coming up awful for men’s soccer: this season was only so bitterly frustrating because the team’s ceiling was much higher than what the record shows. Some issues can’t be fixed by individual performances, but it’s important to note that the Eagles had some genuinely good moments and several quality players this season. If the season leaves a sour taste in your mouth, then forget about it and look at the future.
For starters, there’s so much to like about this year’s freshman class. Ted Cargill has an excellent feel for the game. Augustine Boadi makes plays happen by sheer desire—a mentality the rest of the Eagles would be smart to adopt. CJ Williams can help hold down the backline. Sure, everyone can benefit from a spring development season that focuses on tactics, knowing when to take on three defenders and when to pass, and getting more precise in the final third. Overall, the freshman class proved they could hold their own in a tough conference.
Change is also possible. It’s been years since the Eagles had a good set piece taker, now they have two in Diego Ochoa and Cargill. Ochoa stepped up on the backline, handling significant minutes. Sam White, though still a little rough on the edges, has proven that he can handle the pressure that comes from being a holding mid. Jonathan Murphy proved versatile, if not always comfortable in his converted defensive role. Perhaps the most exciting news out of the sophomore class is that both Drew Serafino and Aidan Farwell will return to the lineup next year, a big boost in terms of production but also in terms of heart.
And one position the Eagles don’t need to worry about at all is goalkeeping. Brennan Klein and Leon Musial traded starts over the course of the season, with Klein ultimately claiming the starter role as he came back into form post-injury. Bringing more than just a knack for making the clutch save, Klein adds skill with his feet and the ability to shorten the field through long-range balls with pinpoint accuracy, along with a flair for the dramatic. At UNC, it was Klein injecting passion into the game and pushing the Eagles forward. If called upon, Musial provides steady goalkeeping and can rise to the occasion to make the big stops—see Duke.
The talent of the Eagles means that next season can be anything the team wants it to be (with obvious adjustments in the final third and a reset of mentality). With consistent practice and finishing drills, Boadi and Ponce, as well as Farwell and Serafino, could generate the offensive threat from multiple angles that the Eagles have been missing for the past few years. No one is going to immediately replace Sigurdarson, but with the scoring spread out across several forwards and midfielders, the team might have more luck cracking defenses.
Clearly, it’s not quite burn it all down—not yet at least. The talent on the team makes BC competitive in the ACC, but the structure needs to change to allow the players creativity in the final third and generate possession that does something, rather than just possess the ball. A restructured midfield, diverse scoring threats, and take a "no prisoners" attitude next year will make this season forgettable, just like a bad movie.