Ian McIntyre’s art of adaptation: Syracuse men’s soccer 2023 makeover
Ian McIntyre’s art of adaptation: SU men’s soccer’s makeover
Analysis: Head coach McIntyre has taken a more conservative and defensive approach for the national title defense.
As the Syracuse men’s soccer team kicked off their defense of the College Cup Title this year, it has become clear that there has been a significant shift in the mindset and tactics of the team. Throughout the course of the season, the Orange have taken a more conservative and defensive approach each game.
“With the team we have, we are best set up to not concede first,” explained Orange head coach Ian McIntyre.
After finishing last season as the king of the hill of Division I men’s soccer, the Syracuse squad was stripped of multiple key players. Whilst this offseason was fruitful as McIntyre re-tooled the squad with transfers, the on-field results have not been quite to the level of 2022.
“Some moments have been tough, but we believe that it’s going to come together now,” said senior forward and captain Lorenzo Boselli.
Tactically, it has never been in question that McIntyre prioritizes defense. This year, that mindset has been even more pronounced. SU arguably started seven defenders in their Oct. 15 draw against Clemson, indicating this strategy.
Junior Olu Oyegunle, senior Gavin Wigg and graduate student Buster Sjoberg were profiled as the starting central defenders. Graduate student Noah Singelmann and senior Nate Edwards started in the two wide positions to protect the flanks of the back three. Finally, graduate student Josh Belluz and senior Gabriel Mikina both played in defensive midfield roles. Although both are listed as midfielders, they often end up in very defensive positions, even as part of the back line.
Mikina has arguably been Syracuse’s player of the season. His ability to play in multiple positions has made him a crucial part of the squad. Mikina has featured across the back line, in defensive midfield, and even sometimes as an out-and-out midfielder.
Cuse’s number five has also been a menace from set pieces, scoring four goals, mainly off corners; the second most in the team. Mikina divulged that sometimes he doesn’t even know exactly where he will play throughout the matches.
“I have played CDM (defensive midfield) in my life, I’ve played center back, the transition has been easy honestly, and it’s easy having such good players behind me too,” Mikina said. “It’s more or less what the team needs, and I’m comfortable with both depending on the matchup. What coach tells me that benefits the team, that’s what I’m going to do.”
This ability to call upon versatile players to fill different roles has been integral to McIntyre’s team this year. Grad student Pablo Pedregosa has featured at center-back, full-back, and even starred as an out-and-out wing-back in the Oct. 18 win over Yale. Belluz has contributed in both defense and midfield, sometimes within the same game. Singelmann has also played almost every position across the defensive and midfield lines.
Creative outlets for the team such as graduate student Felipe D’Agostini, junior Mateo Leveque, senior Michael Suski and graduate student Daniel Diaz Bonilla have featured in midfield, wing and forward positions; often providing sparks for the team off the bench.
With so much emphasis on defensive solidity, one of Syracuse’s biggest issues this season has been linking the defense and attack. It is not uncommon for SU’s forward players, typically Boselli, sophomore Nicholas Kaloukian and senior Jeorgio Kocevski to be isolated as the team shifts from defense to attack. This issue was particularly pronounced in the Clemson match.
Boselli, the team’s leading goal scorer, has noticed this as an issue, but maintains they are still in a good position.
“I’d rather combine with people you know, I want to play one touch, but it’s a big responsibility. I like it,” said Boselli. “I think I could have scored more goals this year, but, you know it’s difficult coming off of a national championship.”
McIntyre maintains that he feels confident fielding defensive lineups, as he trusts his defensive players to contribute in build-up and attack.
“We really demand a lot to play the way we do, and for that, we certainly have to stretch out our defenders sometimes,” McIntyre explained.
He also commended his defensive players for the work they have put in. “It isn’t just Josh, it isn’t just Gabi. Gavin Wigg has been awesome, Buster and Olu have been so solid, and Nate Edwards has been immense with the level of work he puts in. He never gets tired. It’s a really hard working, honest, selfless group.”
The statistics back up Syracuse’s defensive identity. So far in the 2023 season, Syracuse has attempted just over 13 shots per game. They have held opponents to around seven shots per game.
This starkly contrasts from last year’s numbers, where the Orange attempted nearly 17 shots per game, but kept opponents to about 10.
Instead of the more end-to-end style employed last year, Syracuse has focused on defending solidly and minimizing opponents’ chances.
This strategy has worked in letting up fewer attempts, but the Syracuse defense has been less efficient in ensuring shots do not turn into goals. In the 2023 regular season, Syracuse allowed 18 goals from 118 shots, a success rate of about 15%.
Last year, SU only conceded 18 goals from 246 shots in the regular season and playoffs, a 7% conversion rate for opponents, less than half this year’s number. Despite a heavy defensive focus, Syracuse is still allowing its opponents to capitalize on their few chances.
Syracuse has also struggled to create goal-scoring opportunities. In the 2023 regular season, the team took 212 shots. In the 2022 regular season, the team took 299.
One major change that the team has suffered from is the loss of their two star forwards, Nathan Opoku and Levonte Johnson.
Opoku, a deft finisher who now plays in the Belgian Top Division for OH Leuven, was capable of scoring with either foot from any position. His talent alone was enough to win Syracuse games in which they struggled to break teams down. As the crown jewel in the championship run, Opoku scored and assisted in both the final and semi-final, including an absolute stunner in the championship game.
Johnson, his partner in crime, also contributed goals frequently. His quick feet, pace and creativity shone in a system where he could link Opoku to the rest of the team.
This season, Syracuse’s strike partnership has typically featured Boselli in a role similar to that of Johnson, and Kaloukian as the striker.
Both have contributed heavily to the team’s success. Kaloukian offers great physicality, hold-up play and a target for crosses; Boselli has provided great link-up play, creativity and even scored a few headers himself. Still, the forward line has struggled to produce goals.
Last season, Opoku and Johnson combined for a massive 22 goals and 14 assists in 25 games. This totals out to 1.44 goal contributions a game between the two. Kaloukian and Boselli have combined for nine goals and four assists through the sixteen games played. This comes out as a goal contribution per game ratio of 0.81.
These scoring difficulties have manifested themselves in close matches in which SU could have gotten the result, but failed due to lackluster finishing.
One example came in the Oct. 22 draw with NC State. Cuse dominated proceedings, outshooting the Wolfpack 18-2, but failed to get a winner. There have been a few results this season with similar struggles such as the Oct. 10 loss to Temple. If Syracuse continues to struggle to capitalize on these chances, it is likely that they will struggle against the compact defenses they will face in tournament play.
“We got different players from last year, so we had to adjust to that,” Boselli said, as a partial attribution to the team’s struggles.
If Syracuse wants to make another deep run in the NCAA tournament, the pieces to compete at the highest level are there. The Orange have shown their ability to compete against the best teams in their Sept. 16 match against Wake Forest and Oct. 15 versus Clemson.
A team that can balance its defensive strengths with enough support to supplement its attacking talents will be one that no team wants to see come NCAA Tournament time, especially given the fact that a few Orange pieces from the 2022 national championship run returned.