Interview: Iain Byrne, Oneonta St. men's coach
D3Soccer.com had the opportunity to interview the coaches of the four men’s teams heading to the Final Four in Kansas City. Iain Byrne, head coach at Oneonta State, spoke with Ryan Harmanis about the Red Dragons’ approach to building a program, their great defense and exciting style of play, and the drive to go one step further than 2014 and bring home a national championship.
|Iain Bryne - 13th-year head coach of Oneonta State
SUNY Oneonta Athletics
Ryan Harmanis: Coach, it’s great to speak with you again, and congratulations. Second straight Final Four, third time in five years. We might need to make this an annual thing.
Coach Iain Byrne: Gosh, that would be nice, but I highly doubt it [laughs].
RH: Tell me about your road to Kansas City. You had a tough route, with Rutgers-Camden in the second round, then heading down to play at Haverford.
Coach Byrne: Going into the NCAA tournament we were playing our best soccer of the year. We really found our stride going into the conference tournament, so we felt confident going into the first and second round at our place. We got up on CCNY early, which allowed us to rest some players, and that was a big factor in beating Camden the next day. Rutgers-Camden and then Haverford—they had forwards who were just as good of players as I’ve ever seen in Division III soccer. But we played very well at home, beating CCNY, then again against Rutgers-Camden.
Then we went down to face MIT. We knew that would be a brutal weekend down there in Philadelphia—just great teams. We played quite well against MIT, not as well as we had been, but managed to see out the second half even though they really attacked us. Our defense just played fantastic. And then the second day against Haverford, we had the wind the first half and probably just edged the half, but then in the second half we were really with our backs to the wall. Haverford were fantastic on the day. They caused us quite a few problems, but our defense and goalkeeper stood tall and we managed, even with ten players in overtime [following a red card in the 89th minute], to get a goal and win the game.
RH: Can you discuss the mental toughness, the physical toughness of your team to survive that situation. You’re playing what I considered, and what most people considered, to be the hottest team in the country, on their home field, and you go down to ten men. Not just anyone either, a very good player. How did your team overcome that?
Coach Byrne: I think at this point of the year, all the teams still playing have so much self-belief and confidence. We’re all on a roll, we’re all winning games, and for us that’s just the mentality we’ve had for the last couple months. We were really disappointed with the way the Final Four ended for us last year [in a 3-2 double overtime loss to Wheaton (Ill.)], and it’s been such a goal to try to get back there and rectify that. Just the determination amongst the group saw us through it. We do have a bunch of experience in the back, the goalkeeper and the back four are all seniors, so they’ve won conference championships, made runs in the [NCAA] tournament, and that just breeds self-confidence and confidence in each other. We knew losing Anthony [Passiatore], it was time to dig in and grind out the result, and somehow we managed to do it.
RH: That raises the next question. When you look at this weekend, how do you game plan around not having somebody like Anthony?
Coach Byrne: He’s impossible to replace; he’s just the heart and soul of this team. We’re not even sure what we’re going to do yet. We have a couple of options, we could move players from different positions, but then you upset the rhythm those guys have in those positions. We’re just going to look at some things this week in training and make a decision on what we’re going to do Friday. I think the style of Amherst is a factor as well. They’re very big and direct, so that could possibly play a part in what we do with our team selection. We’ll see.
RH: Going towards your own team, and that belief you spoke of, compare this year’s team to years past. You talked about the motivation to get back to Kansas City and take your chances, finish off what you started. Has that made this year’s team better than last year’s, or just different?
Coach Byrne: I think this year is different. We’ll be better at knowing what to expect, but it’s definitely different. Last year our attacking players just caught fire, and they were quite difficult to stop. We had maybe a little more depth in the attacking areas as well. This year, the strength of the team is in the back. Our goalkeeper has just been out of this world—I can’t imagine anyone playing better than he has. And it’s not just the saves, it’s where he takes pressure off of us catching crosses, etc. He was really the difference in the Haverford game. This back four has just come into its own over the past few months. We moved Greg [Silvestro] into the middle at the back, so Sean Vinberg got a chance as an outside back and his play has been phenomenal—he’s been arguably our best defender. Just as a unit, they have so much belief, and we’ve never had that in past years. We’ve always had the feeling we needed to go out there and score a couple goals to win the game, so it’s been a change. I think it’s different. I wouldn’t say the team is better than last year, we just have more belief that we can keep a clean sheet, and that relieves a lot of the pressure on the attacking players.
RH: As a follow up, if you have a guy on your roster that is the unsung hero and does all of your dirty work, who is that for you?
Coach Byrne: Jared Van Brunt is the leader of the team, the captain, the coach on the field. But he’s getting recognition for his play on the field, finally, because for me he’s just been one of the top center backs in the country for a few years. So I’d say Greg Silvestro. You know last season he played central midfield for us for most of the year, we’ve played him left back, now he’s in the middle to partner with Jared. Greg and Jared played together on a club team coming out of high school, and they just seem to have clicked. Greg was the MVP of the conference tournament. He was phenomenal last weekend along with Jared and Vinny [Vincent Pellegrino]. Not just defending, either, but his ability on the ball coming forward, picking passes. When you have him, you realize what a special player he is.
RH: Talking about playing out of the back, as I’ve talked to the coaches, your team has a distinct playing style and it’s very different from the other teams this weekend. Loras and Amherst are described as direct teams, Calvin keeps it on the floor but they’re somewhat direct, whereas your team is much more possession based. Talk about your team’s style, and how you think that will play against these teams.
Coach Byrne: Yeah, definitely, I think it’s going to be important that we keep the ball. We’re probably not going to be able to match these teams physically on their terms, so you have to defend against getting overpowered. We have a little experience within the conference, a couple of teams play this way, but they’re obviously not on the same level that we’ll face this weekend.
One of the most enjoyable things I found last weekend is that all of the teams really wanted to play on the ground. I thought Haverford were just exceptional, just terrifically talented. You know, St. Lawrence has a similar style to us, and when we dropped down to Division III, St. Lawrence was really the model I used for our program. They play a certain way—it’s fantastic to watch, and I believe it’s the best way to play the game. The purist in me, as a coach, believes I have an obligation to have our team get the ball down on the ground and play and entertain with attacking soccer. We won’t deviate much from that—it’s what got us here and we’ll stick with it. Hopefully it can overcome these powerful teams and we’ll win the contrast in styles.
RH: In terms of that attacking style, you don’t rely on a single player. Is that intentional, or do you just have a bunch of guys who can score goals and make things happen?
Coach Byrne: I think it’s more that, we have a group that has some very good attacking players that are all capable of chipping in with a goal. It’s often just a case of who is feeling it on the day—can someone get a goal for us? The good part about that is that if you’re dependent on one person you can be easy to shut down. Whereas, if your attacking prowess is more spread out, you’ll always be in there with a chance of winning a game, even if someone has a bad day.
RH: Discuss your senior leadership. There’s just something in college sports where players step up when they become seniors. What have you seen from your guys this year?
Coach Byrne: I think the best way to integrate the new players, the younger players, into your program is from the seniors. Because the coach telling them to do something, obviously (or hopefully) they’ll do it, but when you have senior players telling them it just means more. If they say to the young guys in the locker room, “Look, we don’t do that here,” or “That’s not how we handle things,” or “We need to do better,” it carries so much more weight. When you have a group of senior leaders, like we do, they’re basically running the team. They’re showing these younger guys how it’s done, the way we do things.
I’m also a big believer in the notion that you play for your seniors. You don’t play for the coach, you play for your seniors, because this is their last chance to win a title, to go as far as possible. That’s your obligation as a player, to give those seniors the best season you can. That peer pressure, in a sense, is far more productive than a domineering, controlling coach who just drives and drives. That’s what we have this season: All-American level senior leadership, with the goalkeeper, the back four. They’re just driving the team and refusing to settle for second-best.
RH: Looking toward next weekend, every team at the Final Four has been there recently, but nobody has actually won a national championship. Talk about your program, the stability you’ve found after dropping to Division III, making the Final Four three times in five years. How does it help with recruiting, especially being one of the few state schools to make this type of run?
Coach Byrne: I think everything comes down to recruiting, and bringing in the right fit for your program. One of the benefits I’ve found is that we have a coaching staff that fits me and that fits the college very well. We’re all on the same page, and I think that’s where it starts. From there, we have a style of play that we believe in, we have a way of running the team, how we treat the guys, what we’re looking for the experience to be for the players. Then you go and try to pick those players that are going to be the best fit for that, playing-wise and personality-wise. We create a team culture where the players love it, and it’s a great experience. They want to be here and they want to play together and fight for each other. It’s not easy to do, because you’re constantly losing quality people and players [to graduation], so we keep working in recruiting and trying to identify the right players for us.
I think coming up against some of the elite schools in recruiting can be challenging, particularly when academic scholarships make the costs similar for their school and the state schools. That makes it difficult, but we have incredible facilities here, our stadium is one of the nicest you’ll find. We recently installed the Revolution field turf, which is a proper soccer turf, and the teams that played here in the NCAA tournament were just raving about it. The ball moves truly, which suits the way we play. I think state schools have become more popular as the cost of tuition has risen as well—just the value you get for your education at a state school, it’s very appealing to young people and families. Those are factors that I think have helped us build the program we have.
RH: You mentioned the desire to get back to the Final Four. Are you preparing any differently, is your team’s mindset any different than last year?
Coach Byrne: We changed the schedule last week a bit, let them go home for Thanksgiving a bit earlier. I’m not sure how much more fitness we can give them at this stage. Now it’s just a case of getting them prepared. We’re back to playing the evening games this weekend, which is nice. It’s so hard to know, to gauge how much it’ll help us, even with last year, because it just seems like every year is so different. I feel like the team is a year wiser, and it’s the last go for our nine seniors, and I think the leadership and focus they’re bringing helps. And I’m thinking, actually hoping [laughs], that it will make the difference this year.
RH: Your last two trips to the Final Four were high-scoring affairs [a 4-2 loss to Calvin in 2011 plus last year’s 3-2 loss]. Do you have a feeling about how the game Friday will play out? Amherst has only given up four goals all year, and you’ve kept nine straight shutouts. Will it be a more cagey affair? Or does the Final Four just bring out goals in everyone?
Coach Byrne: Honestly, I think it’s the nerves of the Final Four. I think that’s what creates mistakes, people losing markers, giving up chances and goals. It’s so hard to predict. I’d anticipate a lower scoring game. We knew going into Wheaton last year, we knew they were just an amazing team with great attacking players, and we felt we could attack as well, so last year we knew the goals would come. This year, my instinct would be that this would be different, it would be cagey, but all it takes is an early goal, a mistake, a red card, and then suddenly it could go differently.
RH: Looking at Amherst specifically, what do you know about them, what do you see as their strengths, what do you see from them?
Coach Byrne: They look to have great chemistry. They were in our Sweet Sixteen pod last year; we got to watch them play. They’re just very imposing—physically imposing, great athletes, big players. If it were a basketball game we’d be in big trouble [laughs]. But they can also play very good soccer; they have very technical players too. I think they’ll try to put us under lots of pressure defensively—we’ll have to defend set pieces and handle their direct style. And everyone knows they’re very physical. It’s actually quite entertaining to watch them as well—they’re quite vocal, everyone is up on the bench engaged, and they play so hard. I’m sure it’ll be fun on the bench next to them, and they’re just a great team, so we’re looking forward to the chance to play them.
RH: If you thought your team needed to do one thing very well to win a national championship, what would it be?
Coach Byrne: We have to defend crosses into the box. That, and protect the ball.
RH: Thanks, Coach. Great to talk to you again, and best of luck this year. Maybe third time’s a charm.
No. 7 Oneonta State (19-3-1) takes on No. 4 Amherst (17-1-1) in the first men’s semifinal at 5:00pm CT (6:00pm ET) on Friday, December 4th.
Comments or feedback for the author? E-mail Ryan Harmanis.