Crusaders thriving in new offensive system

By Brad Fauber

FRONT ROYAL — Christendom College’s men’s soccer coach Jake Guttierrez and the rest of the Crusaders simply call it “the system.”

On the outside, the idea behind the system is simple enough — shift from the possession-style soccer that Christendom had been accustomed to prior to Guttierrez’s arrival last season, and make the transition to a style focused more on speed and agility.

On the inside, it’s a little more complicated. In order for the system to be run effectively, the Crusaders must be students of the game. They must be able to identify the high-percentage balls while eliminating the passes that have a small chance of success, and the 11 players on the field at any given time need to be able dissect an opponent on the fly at game speed.

It’s not a system that can simply be run efficiently upon installation, and Christendom certainly experienced the expected growing pains during last season’s 5-5 campaign. But there were some flashes of brilliance within the system that the Crusaders simply couldn’t ignore.

“I think we all got a little taste of the cake last year, and once you taste how good that is, you just want the rest of the cake,” Christendom senior midfielder Jonathan Fioramonti said. “I think just being able to get these freshmen to buy into what we already learned last year, everybody is just like, ‘This works.’ When you see success, it’s pretty easy to buy into it.”

One year later, the Crusaders have fine-tuned that system to near perfection. Sure, it’s still not without its flaws, but it’s hard to argue with the results.

This season, Christendom is off to one of the team’s hottest starts in the program’s history, as the Crusaders were 9-1 heading into Wednesday’s road match against Potomac State (W.Va.).

The Crusaders are currently on pace to make the eight-team United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA) playoffs later this month if they can continue their success, and they have Guttierrez and his system to thank.

“It’s cool the way coach has brought us all together and taken the individual talent that is there and molding it into the system that he believes works,” said senior forward Johnny Foeckler. “A lot of credit goes to him on how he has been able to mold the squad to his vision.”

Successfully installing the system has been a process for Guttierrez, who broke down the implementation into three phases to ensure that Christendom perfected the necessary aspects to their new scheme.

The first phase was introduced last season, as the Crusaders focused on getting accustomed to their new roles and positions on the field. This season was supposed to focus on step two of the system — developing an understanding of high-percentage plays and decision-making — but Guttierrez soon realized during a team mini-camp over the summer that Christendom was ahead of his intended schedule of introducing one phase a year.

At the midway point of this season, the Crusaders moved on to step three, which Guttierrez said involves “purposefully manipulating your opponent and getting them to do what you want.”

“Being the second year at the college level, I didn’t have expectations one way or the other,” Guttierrez said, “but after watching our mini-camp in the summer I knew we were far above where we once were.”

It’s tough to determine exactly which aspect of the game has made Christendom such a successful unit on the pitch this season.

It very well could be the offense, which had scored 63 goals in 10 games heading into Wednesday. The Crusaders have plenty of scoring balance, led by sophomore Sean Salmon, who has 16 goals and six assists this season, according to the USCAA’s website. Johnny Foeckler (seven goals), Joey Kuplack (seven goals) and Stephen Foeckler (five goals) also pack a punch for Christendom’s offense.

It also could be the defense that is driving the Crusaders to success this season. Through the first 10 games, Christendom allowed just 10 goals. The Crusaders didn’t allow a goal until their sixth match of the season.

Some of that defensive success can be attributed to the play of senior goalkeeper Tim Vander Woude (41 saves), but Guttierrez has also been impressed with the Crusaders’ willingness to play high-pressure defense.

“The ¾-field pressing that they do — it’s a phenomenal work ethic that these guys put in and it’s very impressive,” Guttierrez said. “Most of the time most teams don’t get a second pass in before we’ve got the ball out of bounds or it’s a 50-50.

“You can show the guys how to press and how to work together, but just the fact that they keep their legs moving is just phenomenal.”

The Crusaders were ranked eighth in the most recent USCAA coaches’ poll released last Friday, and Christendom likes its chances to make the conference tournament field if it can take care of business over the final two weeks of the regular season.

Christendom ends the season with a trip to Washington Adventist, the team that handed the Crusaders their only loss of the season.

“A lot of it is just to stay focused. We’ve gotten so used to the system and now it’s more of a matter of improving on the little things, not be complacent and just stay focused,” Johnny Foeckler said.

Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or bfauber@nvdaily.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD