SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. – Extra time, tie game, on a late night, the last Friday before the start of classes, surrounded by the forest and mountains of West Point, N.Y. In so many ways, it was the end of the line: the conclusion to the match, the culmination of a long day, the goodbye to vacation. But, it was in fact the start: the very beginning of a new era in Seton Hall men’s soccer.
Following six tumultuous losing seasons under Gerson Echeverry, this was the first official match under new head coach Andreas Lindberg. The Swedish former Div. II coach, who decorated the history books of LIU Post with a record of 139-30-15 over nine seasons, faced his biggest challenge when he agreed to take over the Big East’s most underachieving team this past December.
Lindberg walked into a bare, broken locker room after being hired on Dec. 11. Nine seniors departed from the six-win Pirates of 2017, leaving an unstable base of only 18 players to start with. Of those 18, a few clocked out after the departure of Echeverry, while to the contrary, others were prepared to step away if the coach of six years had remained in charge.
For the roughly 14 players that kept the door open on their playing career in South Orange amid the transition, the overarching feeling was one of trepidation. A new coach and almost two dozen empty roster spots presented an uncertain future.
“Being a transition situation, from the other coach that was the one that actually recruited us, to a new coach, was at some point a little bit scary,” said Gabriel Viola, a tireless holding midfielder who started all 17 games for the Pirates last season. “Because, we were like, wait, what if this guy doesn’t like me like the other one?”
Lindberg, towering at 6-foot-3, polite, but also straightforward, met with each player this past winter, his first step in fortifying the program. He related to the emotional whirlwind his new players were enduring. All he wanted was for them to give him a chance.
“I told them the first meeting we met that, they didn’t pick me, and I didn’t pick them,” Lindberg said. “But, you know, this is the situation that we’re in, let’s make the best out of it. Let’s see if we can find some synergy and work together and give it a few weeks.”
“They…probably…I’m not going to say maybe they wanted a change,” Lindberg added. “But also, when you haven’t been all that successful when it comes to wins and losses, I think it’s maybe easier to come in and shake things up. And, some people didn’t buy into it, and they’re not here anymore. And the ones that did, they’re now my guys. It’s simple.”
The commitment from 13 returners was only the tip of the iceberg, though. When Lindberg was not coaching a severely undermanned team in spring exhibitions, he and his staff were flying across Europe and the United States in an extraordinary effort to piece together more than half of their roster for the upcoming fall.
Utilizing his odyssey, which included stops in Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Spain, France, Florida, Texas and California, Lindberg welcomed a once-in-a-lifetime recruiting class of 20 players this summer.
“A ton of work, like, ton of, ton of, ton of work,” Lindberg said of the recruiting effort. “Lots of travel, lots of…late evenings, weekends, holidays, being away from my family, being away from friends. But, I think college sports it’s – the biggest thing is recruiting. You know, if you don’t get the horses, you can’t play.”
Make no mistake about it, this globetrotting effort was not done with an eye on winning in 2019 or 2020. All 13 returners are juniors, seniors or graduate students, and four players that were added, three of whom established themselves as starters when healthy, hold only a single remaining year of eligibility.
One of those such players, Nico Andersen, was part of a quartet that followed Lindberg from LIU Post to Seton Hall. An intense, competitive defender, from Odense, Denmark, Andersen was part of a No. 1 ranked team with Lindberg that lost only five competitive games in three seasons. He entered a program that lost as many games in the month of September last season, a stark contrast.
“We [players coming in] could feel it right away, that it was a very different culture,” Andersen said. “In my experiences with Andreas, everything is about winning. Like, he’s a winner, and he built a winning culture, and I was part of that culture.”
“And, I came in with that mentality already; I prepared like that already, that I wanted to win,” Andersen added. “I’m not here to take part. This is my last year, I’m not here to like, finish fourth in the Big East or something like that. I’m here to win. And, other than that, it’s a disappointment to me.”
Winning is the goal of every team and coach, though, and Lindberg does not pretend to have all the answers, nor is he preoccupied with style at this stage in his tenure. His ultimate goal is to play entertaining, attractive soccer, but the Pirates need to walk before they can run.
In the first game of the season, on a humid night at Malek Stadium at Clinton Field, it was a crawl to the finish line. When one 10-minute extra-time period was not enough, both teams entered a second. After six months of working overtime, why would Lindberg stop here?
“Everything that could have went wrong went wrong; however, we didn’t crumble,” Lindberg said. “And I don’t think that we flinched. We just kept going and being disciplined, and, I told them, ‘We have to be cynical’. You have to be cynical when you play the game.”
Ultimately, in the 105th minute, Seton Hall found the breakthrough: a cross from Andersen and a second goal on the night from freshman C.J. Tibbling. Along the banks of the Hudson River, the Pirates men’s soccer program was ready to sail once again.
“Winning really is the only option, but it’s a process to get there,” Lindberg said. “It’s a process of making good decisions on a daily basis. And then, you create that culture to win.”
James Justice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.