It’s been a long time since the men’s soccer team has put together a Big East regular season that’s worth getting excited about.
Over the last decade, the team made the Big East Tournament just once in 2012 but was immediately knocked out by Villanova in a 3-1 first-round loss. Before 2012, the team had only made the Big East Tournament on two other occasions since 2006 and was knocked out by their first-round opponents both times.
It’s been even longer since the Pirates finished a Big East regular season with a winning record – 15 years, to be exact – and that was when program Hall of Famer and former U.S. Men’s National Team midfielder Sacha Kljestan led the team to a 7-4-0 conference record in 2006. They were subsequently beaten by the University of Southern Florida 5-1 in the first round of the Big East Tournament and failed to make the NCAA Tournament after five consecutive tournament appearances.
Now, during an abridged season because of COVID-19, it almost seems fitting that the program is having its best season in 15 years. The Pirates are 6-1-3 overall and 4-1-2 in the Big East after 10 games, and they are ranked in the top 25 of the United Soccer Coaches Poll for the first time since the 2006 season.
“We have progressed as a team, and we are more of a team than we have been over these last three years that I’ve been here,” head coach Andreas Lindberg said.
Since Lindberg took over as head coach of the program in 2018, he has overseen a complete roster rebuild and culture shift within the program. In his three years at Seton Hall, this is Lindberg’s first season in which the roster is entirely made up of players he and his staff recruited, and the fruits of their roster-building labor are starting to blossom in their results.
In conference play, the Pirates already have wins over Villanova, St. John’s and Providence, and they have an opportunity on sSenior nNight to add the University of Connecticut to that list. These individual results have also been milestones for this team under Lindberg and have helped Seton Hall empty a few skeletons from their closet.
The Pirates recorded back-to-back wins over St. John’s for the first time since 1991, and their win over No. 13 Providence was their first against a top-25 opponent since 2017 and under Lindberg’s tenure. After drawing 1-1 with No. 3 Georgetown on March 20, Seton Hall also extended its undefeated home record to six games, having won the other five.
No college athletics program has gone unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Pirates have cleared every hurdle thrown in their way so far. When international players were unable to join the team in the fall due to travel restrictions, they refined the behaviors and practices that foster a team culture. Though they continued to progress on the field, the goal was to set the team up for success when the new players arrived for the spring season.
“We didn’t play any games in the fall, but the 18 guys that stayed here were able to help us build on the culture we’d been trying to get to in the last two years,” Lindberg said. “The vibe here was great. The boys were getting along, they were working hard and our older players have done a really good job of creating that culture. When the new players arrived in January, they knew how we wanted to present ourselves from the locker room to how we walked to the field.”
Prior to the start of Big East play, Seton Hall had three tune-up games against NJIT, La Salle and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Its season opener against NJIT was the team’s first game in 469 days. For newcomer Luca Dahn, it was his first taste of being in the United States from Germany to play college soccer without much of a preseason.
“We probably had six or seven practices before we started the season,” Dahn said. “It wasn’t too bad because we just focused on playing and getting to know each other. Everybody has been working together really well on defense, and the entire team has been playing well so far.”
With Dahn at the heart of Seton Hall’s defense this season, the Pirates have recorded five clean sheets and have conceded just nine goals in 10 games. He’s started all 10 games for the Pirates at center back this season and was even named vice-captain after team captain Eden O’Leary was ruled out for the beginning of the season due to injury.
The German center back has also contributed to the Pirates’ diversified offensive output this season. He assisted the game-winning goal over Villanova and scored a crucial equalizer against Providence before Seton Hall went on to win the game 2-1 in back-to-back games. Dahn’s efforts that week made him the second Seton Hall player after Paavo Riihijarvi to earn Big East Defensive Player of the Week honors this season.
The additions of Riihijarvi, Maurice Williams and Johannes Pex along with the return of CJ Tibbling for this season have increased the Pirates’ threat of set pieces. They now have five players over 6 feet tall fighting to get on the end of set pieces, and sophomore midfielder James Boote has already collected four assists from set pieces this season.
“I scored goals in Germany, but it always depends on how you play the set pieces, and I think we have two good players over them in JP [Marin] and James Boote,” Dahn said. “Tall guys like Paavo, Maurice and Johannes in front of goal also makes it hard for opponents to know who to mark because there’s so many of us.”
And while the arrival of new key players like Dahn, Williams and Pex have improved the team’s defensive performances, senior goalkeeper Andreas Nota has also done his part to keep Seton Hall in games with a few good saves each game. The Italian shot-stopper made four saves in back-to-back games against St. John’s and Georgetown and produced a season-high five saves against La Salle to preserve the Pirates’ 1-0 non-conference win.
Despite being just 6 feet tall and shorter than his entire back line, Nota’s acrobatic dives and quick reflexes practically add an extra 3 inches to his reach. His pinpoint distribution from the back has also helped the Pirates evolve into a team capable of stretching their opposition’s defense by playing more direct.
Likewise, juniors forward Tibbling and junior midfielder JP Marin have also taken the next steps in their development as key players to Lindberg’s team.
After a breakout freshman year where he scored six goals in 15 games, Tibbling missed part of the 2019 season due to injury and scored just once in 12 appearances. The Swedish forward has now found himself back in the starting lineup and back in goal-scoring form with four to his name along with an assist after 10 games.
Even when he doesn’t find himself on the scoresheet, Tibbling has also become the centerpiece of Seton Hall’s offense. His deceptively soft first touch and smooth close control under pressure have allowed for the Pirates to play direct and rely on him to hold onto the ball while they quickly transition into attack.
Marin is arguably the player who embodies Seton Hall’s overall style of play in the way he covers ground, from the right side of the field to the left, and can create opportunities for his teammates centrally behind the two strikers. With two goals and four assists to his name already, the junior midfielder has undoubtedly been a catalyst for a defensively sound Pirates team to play through once they win back possession.
For Lindberg, Marin’s development into an all-around midfielder this season has been the biggest revelation of his returning players so far. After an average sophomore year in 2019, Lindberg said Marin was receptive to the criticisms the coaching staff gave him and is now providing the team with goals and assists because of his increased defensive prowess and overall energy.
With three conference games remaining this season, Seton Hall is on track to make its first Big East Tournament since 2012 and have its first winning season since 2006. The opportunity to jump Georgetown for first place in the overall conference standings is also a reality with both teams tied for first with 14 points, and a regular season would be quite the way to welcome back Big East soccer after its 469-day layoff due to the pandemic.
“It’s a contagious energy,” Lindberg said. “You see the guys working hard on the field and you don’t want to let them down, you want to go in and do your share. That’s what I’m most proud of so far, creating that vibe that guys are willing to go to the tenth degree to fight for each other to get a result.”
Justin Sousa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinSousa99.