After a historic playoff run that ended in heartbreak, expectations have never been higher for Ryerson’s men’s soccer team. But, as Victor Ferreira reports, an inexperienced mid-field and the loss of their best player may be too much for them to overcome
Ryerson’s men’s soccer team had their greatest season in club history last year as they finished in fourth place, making it all the way to the OUA Final Four where they lost in dramatic fashion to the eventual Canadian Interuniversity Sports (CIS) champion York Lions.
While expectations are higher than ever for the young Rams, the team will have to fulfill those lofty goals without the strong core of players that led them to the semi-finals last year, including two-time CIS All-Canadian midfielder Alex Braletic, who is arguably one of the top university players in Canada.
“In my opinion he’s irreplaceable,” said fellow midfielder and last season’s top goal scorer Adrian Mancini. “You’re not going to find another player like that, but everyone has to step up a bit to try to fill in.”
Along with Braletic, the departure of midfielders Jarnarthan Sadacharalingam, Jason Morgan and former Kansas City Wizards midfielder Kevin Souter, who has become the team’s new head coach, have left a gaping hole in what was perhaps the most talented and essential part of last year’s team.
The 27-year-old Souter, who has taken the reigns of the team after 2010-11 OUA coach of the year Ivan Joseph stepped down at the end of last season, believes that filling the void left by the lost players will take time. Joseph still remains on the coaching staff as an assistant head coach and mentor to Souter.
“We’ve decimated our whole midfield,” said Souter. “We’ve got a lot of players who can fill those positions, but defensively they don’t have it yet. We have a young, inexperienced midfield but they might grow quickly and surprise us.”
One of the nine rookies that were recruited to the team is centre-midfielder Martin Dabrowski, who in his short time as a Ram has already impressed the coaching staff, earning him a spot in the starting 11.
Souter sees a lot of potential in the young midfielder but admits he is still very raw.
“I like how he moves and what he does with the ball,” said Souter. “He’s just got to get up to speed with the university style of play.”
Rookie forward Jamie Baker has also been making a case for some playing time in the starting lineup.
“He’s a big strong guy and he can be good as a rotational forward this season,” said Souter. “In two to three years, [Dabrowski and Baker] will be OUA All-Stars if not more.”
Based on the stellar performance of last year’s midfield, Dabrowski knows that a lot is riding on how quickly he and his teammates will be able to adapt to the higher level of play.
“We have big shoes to fill, but all we can do is work hard and try to listen to everything that the coach tells us,” said Dabrowski.
A four-time MVP with St. Joseph high school’s men’s team, Dabrowski is looking for the guidance of the veterans on the team to assist him in his adaptation to the new style of play.
“The veteran class we have always steps in,” said Dabrowski. “If we’re doing something wrong, especially in defense, they tell you.”
Souter is expecting the same of his returning players, and is looking forward to another great season from Mancini.
“He was our top goal scorer last season, but earlier on he didn’t command a spot in the team,” said Souter. “It’s most likely his final year and we’re asking more of him.”
Mancini is ready to step up to the challenge, and is looking to improve on his play from last season where he led the team with seven goals.
“I have to keep building on last year and I want to keep playing a bigger role,” said Mancini. “We have to continue to get our team recognized and maybe a berth in a national tournament or an OUA banner can do that.”
Although the transition from a veteran midfield to an inexperienced and relatively unknown one has been difficult, Souter’s transition from player-coach to head coach has been smoother.
“Last year, I lead by example on the field and took less of a role in coaching,” said Souter. “[The team] thinks of me as a player with a lot of experience.”
As far as the Rams’ game plan is concerned, Souter is hoping to continue using the same defensive minded counterattacking 4-5-1 formation and zonal defensive system that Joseph has been implementing for several years.
While he will continue to build on Joseph’s defensive minded system, Souter is also looking to add some tactics of his own.; mainly implementing a possession-style offense that involves constant passing that will eventually lead to unlocking an opposing team’s defense.
Whether or not the Rams can apply this style of play into their already potent defense and rapid counterattack remains to be seen, but for now, all that the rookie head coach knows is that it will take time for the coaching staff to develop their young talent and that fans should not have expectations for a championship in the upcoming season.
“There’s still room to grow, in a few years we’ll be better than last year,” said Souter. “It’s one step back and two steps forward. Expectations of a championship might be a little too high but that’s not to say that this team can’t do it.”