Men's Soccer

Behind the formations and players of Ian McIntyre’s time at Syracuse

Elizabeth Billman | Senior Staff Photographer

McIntyre began his coaching at Syracuse using a 4-4-2 formation, working with players inherited from the previous coach.

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Throughout Ian McIntyre’s first two years at Syracuse, the Orange had just five wins. SU was quickly becoming one of the worst teams in the Big East, and McIntyre had to make his program competitive.

In 2012, Syracuse won 14 games and was on track toward making the transition to college soccer’s most competitive conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Prior to that transition, McIntyre would let the opponent dictate how he would change Syracuse’s tactics and style of play. But SU was almost entirely built upon players McIntyre and his coaching staff had recruited, and it was time for the Orange to establish their own on-field identity.

“You can go down to a place like Virginia, concede space and allow them time on the ball. That’s not really who we are,” McIntyre said. “(No) matter who we play … can we make life uncomfortable for them? And then with the quality that we have, try and dominate periods of the game.”

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It’s an identity that has given Syracuse the reputation of being a consistent pathway to the pros. Syracuse has had at least one player drafted in each MLS SuperDraft since 2015 — 17 total during that span. McIntyre has adapted to the wide range of personnel he’s coached, altering his system and toying with different formations according to the skill set of the team.

“You pick your formation based on the quality of the players you have,” McIntyre said. “Sometimes you can pick a formation, and (it’s like) you’re trying to fit square pegs in round holes.”

McIntyre began his coaching at Syracuse using a 4-4-2 formation, working with players inherited from the previous coach. The Orange finished the 2009 season 3-15 — SU’s worst record since 1971.

So when center back Skylar Thomas was recruited as a member of McIntyre’s eight-man 2011 recruiting class, he was sold on the coach’s vision of improving the program. Nico Perea, a defensive midfielder, was also a member of that inaugural recruiting class and quickly noticed a pattern with the recruits that succeeded him each season.

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Megan Thompson | Design Editor

“The soccer sense with the class that he brought in was just a lot better,” Perea said. “Coach Mac, coach Jukka (Masalin) and coach (Mike) Miller at the time were just an amazing staff, and to this day, where the program is, it is there because of them.”

In 2014, Syracuse’s roster was composed of “bold” players McIntyre recruited who were willing to impose his high pressing, direct style of play. It was a deep roster that McIntyre was prepared to structure the team’s new identity around.

So in 2014, McIntyre changed to a 3-5-2 formation.

It was arguably the only formation that would allow McIntyre the ability to get his optimal starting 11 on the field together, Thomas and Perea said. The two went on to lead the program to its first NCAA Tournament appearance under McIntyre, making a run all the way to the Sweet 16.

That season, Perea was given more freedom to move around the turf than he had been in a four-man midfield setup, he said. Although he was lined up as one of the defensive midfielders of the center-midfield trio, the 3-5-2 gave them enough space and freedom to move easily and not be fixed in their assigned positions. It also allowed Perea to become more offensive, which he would not have been able to do in any other formation, he said.

Thomas, who was selected 11th overall by Toronto FC in the 2015 MLS SuperDraft, believed learning the 3-5-2 made the transition to the pros easier. Orchestrating a three-center back system improved his tactical awareness for when he reverted back to a four-man back line — the common defensive formation he’s used for the entirety of his professional career.

“The style of play and the formation we used contributed a lot to our success,” Thomas said. “It’s not an easy formation to play. It’s not an easy formation to coach. I know we had the right personnel, and I know we had the right leadership.”

In the 2015 season, Syracuse won its first ACC Championship and advanced to the College Cup semifinals. It finally put Syracuse on “the big boy table” — something Perea remembered McIntyre saying in reference to finally being among the nation’s elite programs.

Syracuse’s 2015 run was led by center backs Miles Robinson and Kamal Miller, along with midfielder Julian Büscher, who was drafted after that season.

Robinson, Miller and Louis Cross scored 10 combined goals while anchoring the back line in 2015. The offensive instincts were something McIntyre passed on to his defenders since he was a former center back, Robinson said. Robinson’s scoring and physical skills as a defender led to him to earn ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors, and the second overall draft pick in the 2017 MLS SuperDraft.

In 2018, McIntyre introduced the 4-3-3. McIntyre had another young squad, consisting of 15 true freshmen and sophomore players.

Ryan Raposo, a freshman who had a team-high seven assists that season, played in McIntyre’s front three. Despite the team’s overload of wingers, Raposo still managed to start 16 games his freshman season, scoring four goals and assisting seven.

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Megan Thompson | Design Editor

The 4-3-3 allowed Syracuse to play with six wingers who constantly overlapped each other, giving the team plenty of options out wide to send crosses into the box. With the 3-5-2, the team’s wide players — wingbacks in that system — play just as much offense as they do defense. In the 4-3-3, however, the outside players generated the team’s offense, especially since their fullbacks weren’t very offensive-minded, Raposo said.

Having options such as Raposo, Massimo Ferrin and Tajon Buchanan out wide led to a more offensive-minded Syracuse squad. The Orange scored 34 goals despite finishing 7-7-4 overall and winning only one ACC game.

After Buchanan was drafted No. 9 by the New England Revolution, Raposo replaced Buchanan as the team’s leading goal scorer, nearly doubling Buchanan’s scoring total with 15 goals and earning all-ACC first team honors. He was selected fourth overall in the 2020 SuperDraft.

“I knew going into that second year that was a massive year for myself,” Raposo said. “I remember having that kind of hunger, getting on a lot of balls and just helping the team on the attacking side.”

This season, McIntyre has reverted back to the 3-5-2. With size and speed out wide and two target strikers, McIntyre defines Syracuse’s playing style as always being on the front foot and getting players like Deandre Kerr up the field as much as possible.

McIntyre’s ability to change his systems to fit his team has allowed nearly 20 players to play in the MLS and made Syracuse one of the more competitive teams in the ACC.

“I think that the program is top notch,” Thomas said. “You kind of just look at those guys that are playing professionally right now, and you can’t help but to support Syracuse and support those guys.”

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