If the Lynn men’s soccer team wants to end the University of Charleston’s run through the Division II tournament, it must do something that no other team has done against the Golden Eagles in the postseason.
Score at least one goal.
Through the Mountain East and NCAA tournaments, UC has faced five different opponents and recorded five shutouts. The Golden Eagles will see if they can keep that streak rolling – and earn a spot in the Division II national title game in the process – at 8 p.m. Thursday versus Lynn. Charleston (20-2-1) has maintained its status as one of the nation’s top defensive teams. Yet this season, coach Dan Stratford and his club have taken a completely different strategy to getting there.
This season is the third straight that UC has allowed fewer than 10 goals in a season. The Golden Eagles have allowed just seven in 2019 after allowing eight in their national championship year of 2017 and a staggering four in 2018.
When Stratford look at the makeup of his roster this season, he decided he could be just as effective on defense with a different look. Instead of playing with three center backs, the Golden Eagles have played this year with two.
“You recruit these players and you obviously have an idea of what they’re going to bring and what their strengths are and what positions they play,” Stratford said. “But until you work a couple weeks with them and you really get to know what they are and what profile of player it is, you don’t know for certain.
“You can make some hypotheses about what system is going to best suit your personnel,” he added, “but we didn’t figure it out until about three weeks into this season.”
The “eureka” moment came between UC’s loss at Bellarmine — which dropped the Golden Eagles to 1-2 after their first three games — and its home game versus Notre Dame College. The Golden Eagles had been operating with a version of their current defense, but not one that was successful. At that point, Stratford and his staff decided to tinker with the formula.
They came up with a winner.
The Golden Eagles allowed five goals the rest of the season and never allowed more than one goal to an opponent in a match. UC’s 2-0 win over Franklin Pierce in the national quarterfinals was UC’s 16th shutout of the season.
Stratford admitted that it took some convincing – of both the players and himself – to change what they did defensively. After all, when something like UC’s three center back system works as well as it has, why mess with a good thing?
UC senior defender Williams N’Dah said the move to two center backs definitely felt different.
“Three in the back is more compact and more safe,” N’Dah said. “To me, I was playing in the middle of the back three. So it was a big change with positioning and shifting and stuff. The mindset is that we have to play more and be playmakers more.
“And at the same time, we have to be switched on,” he added. “Because there’s not anyone behind us. If we keep the ball, we have to be very switched on, because there’s no one to protect us.”
N’Dah agreed the change made a lot of sense, especially considering the personnel UC now has on defense. When Charleston lost last season in the round of 16, even with a historically stout defense, he thought they could have used a Plan B.
The new formation was a challenge, but was one he was happy to tackle. And now Charleston’s defense can feel good knowing that they can embrace and install new ideas and succeed.
“Sometimes I imagine the other team saying, ‘Oh, they’re not playing a 3-4-3 anymore, so they’re going to be weaker,’” N’Dah said. “Then they face us and they struggle. We’re very proud of that.”