Under control: Syracuse brings possessive style to Atlantic Coast Conference
From 1992-95, Ian McIntyre was a rugged defender for the Hartwick College Hawks. His game centered on physicality and brute toughness.
McIntyre was talented, but his skill set didn’t lend itself to a possession-based style. He used his size to his advantage, rather than finesse.
His coaching style, though, is the 180-degree difference. His teams aren’t overly physical, but rather they focus on precise passing and ball control.
“I think you enjoy watching attacking, attractive soccer,” McIntyre said. “But you enjoy watching winning soccer. We’re trying to impose ourselves on the opponent rather than the opponent impose on us.”
In the late 1970s and into the ’80s and ’90s, Big East soccer was known for its tough, physical play and taller, thicker players like McIntyre. But Syracuse was always an outlier. The Orange focused on possessing the ball and controlling tempo. SU rosters featured shorter players — skilled passers with quick playmaking ability.
It’s a style Syracuse played under coaches Alden Shattuck, Tim Hankinson and Dean Foti, and currently plays under McIntyre. The continued use of the possession game will dictate whether or not Syracuse finds success in the tougher Atlantic Coast Conference, and determine if last year’s Sweet 16 run wasn’t a fluke.
“I like technical players. I like players who can deal with the soccer ball and like to get the ball down and play,” McIntyre said. “It’s players that keep the tempo high, move the ball quickly, and aren’t just on the ball to be on the ball.”
It’s a simple concept: controlling the ball for as long as possible prevents opponents from having possession, and in turn limits their goal-scoring chances. Keep the ball and move the ball, but move the ball with a purpose.
At times, change the tempo with counterattacks and pass directly into goal-scoring areas.
“ACC teams, they like to possess,” SU midfielder Nick Perea said. “The Big East conference was known for being a strong, physical conference, and the ACC is more of a soccer-playing (conference). It’ll be interesting to see other teams play the same way we play and see how we react to it, and how they react to us doing the same thing.”
There’s no need to change the system now. After all, it’s what Syracuse soccer has done for decades.
Patrice Bernier, the first-ever Syracuse alumnus to be named a Major League Soccer All-Star, played for Foti in 1998 and 1999.
“I think (Foti) was really set on having a team that played out of the back, played through the middle, and he was starting to recruit guys who were more comfortable on the ball,” Bernier said. “He tried to bring suitable soccer and at the same time efficient soccer.”
Pete Rowley played five seasons for the Orange from 2004-2008 and described his teams as playing “very tactic, very methodical, very deliberate” soccer.
“Coach Foti wanted the percentage of possession to be 70 or 80 percent … even against teams that were better than us,” Rowley said.
Foti passed some of his tactics to Jeff Knittel, a forward for the Orangemen from 1995-1998. Knittel now coaches in the Syracuse Empire United organization, and coached current SU players Ben Ramin, Andrew Coughlin, Alex Bono and Stefanos Stamoulacatos on youth teams.
“We were more of a skilled team, liked to build up from the back. We had a different style than most of the teams,” Knittel said. “We weren’t big, physical-type players. We were more like my size. I was like 5-5 playing guys on Notre Dame who were 6-2, 6-3.”
Perea said he fits in well with the team’s “keep the ball” mantra.
“We’re a possessing team,” Perea said matter-of-factly. “We also like to catch other teams on the counterattack. We can mix it up. We can play all around. We like the style of play. The more you keep the ball, the more chances you have.”
McIntyre always recruits the best players he can, but he also looks for players to fit his style. He wants intelligent players who enjoy having the ball on their feet.
Alex Halis, the skilled freshman forward, fits that model to a tee.
“I feel as if that’s the type of player I am,” Halis said. “That’s what I like. I like quick touches, possession, so I think it fits in very well with what I like to do and I think the whole team, so it works.”
It may sound simple — a style of play based on slowing down opponents and maximizing one’s own scoring chances. Although SU is without its top five scorers from last season, it will again rely on this brand of soccer as it transitions to the ACC, widely regarded as the country’s best soccer conference.
“I’m very interested in seeing how they’re going to do, especially with the soccer conference the ACC has become,” Knittel said. “(My former players) always ask me about my experiences at Syracuse. It’s nice to talk to them about the differences between this era and when I was playing.”
Rowley, whose teams went 33-42-12 in five years with the program, lived in Syracuse for business from November 2011-February 2013. He witnessed the program’s ascent to national prominence first hand.
“It’s exciting, it’s optimistic and it’s opportunistic,” he said. “I think they’re (SU) going to do well, but I think it’s going to be a year or two to get acclimated to the ACC. On the flip side, I think the ACC is going to have to get used to Syracuse.”
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