After a winless season in 2020, the Northeastern men’s soccer team had their best season in nearly 10 years after a program-changing trip to New Hampshire.
By Bridget Bost
During the spring 2021 season, the Northeastern men’s soccer team endured one of the worst seasons in program history, finishing with a 0-5-1 record. The fall 2021 season, however, was starkly different, concluding their season with a record of 11-6-2, the best record in the program since 2012. They scored the most goals in the conference, and the third most in a season in program history. It was the first time the team advanced to the CAA semifinals in 7 years. Individually, four players received All-CAA honors, with an additional three placing on the All-CAA rookie team.
After a winless spring, what changed to make the fall so successful?
“I mean the most important thing for me personally, was definitely the team culture, just that everyone seemed way more happy. Being part of the team, everyone seemed way more bought into the mission of what we wanted to do,” senior forward and captain Dan Munch said. “Everyone seemed to believe that we could change.”
But how do you change a team’s culture, especially when you have less than 4 months between seasons? For head coach Chris Gbandi, it meant thinking outside the box. Many years ago, Gbandi entered Boston Logan International Airport and stumbled upon a person who would become crucial to this team’s success: life coach and psychotherapist Jeff Levin. Levin describes his role as a person who brings out players’ and teams’ full potential, potential that is being hidden because of small problems.
“My job was to catalyze possibility, to bring around that communication, that trust, and that unity,” Levin explained.
Gbandi called Levin following the spring 2021 season and they began discussing the problems the team was having. The main issues that Levin addressed were the overall team culture and players not trusting either the coaches or their own teammates, a possible repercussion from the COVID-19 restrictions, according to senior forward and captain Benni Klingen.
“No one was on the same page,” Klingen said. “There was no time to be together to develop a relationship, and there was no personal connection between the team.”
Players were not openly communicating with their teammates, on or off the field, and there was an enormous gulf between the players and the coaching staff. Above all, the team was coming off a winless spring. The tension was palpable.
Knowing this, Gbandi arranged for Levin to come on the team’s preseason training camp trip to Colby-Sawyer College in New London, New Hampshire. Levin helped the team to work out their differences and openly talk with each other. Munch states that Levin’s biggest role was minimizing the gap between the players and the coaches.
“The main problem was an unwillingness to trust the coach, his tactics, his play style, and his vision of where he wanted the program to be versus where the players felt the program should go,” Munch said.
Levin came in for two days and put all the players and coaches in a room so they could talk out their differences and get on the same page through various exercises. The team began openly communicating with each other about the issues they had seen last season. The room was filled with players and coaches who were a mix of frustrated, crushed, wounded, anxious, and desperate to turn the ship around as they conveyed their hardships from the hellish spring season.
“There were substantial trust issues in the room between players and coaching staff. There were communication problems that, of course, go hand in hand with trust,” Levin said. “They weren’t getting the results they wanted, so we looked at the reasons for that and hard conversations ended up being very productive and freeing and at the end of the two days, there had been a lot of emotion, a lot of tears and some anger. It was like the people in the room had gone to war and had won. The hugging and the emotion … I mean I’ve never seen so much hugging in my life, it felt like they were coming back from war. There was just a lot of joy and connection in the room.”
It was the release of a buildup from many seasons’ worth of tension that finally allowed the team to rise to their fullest potential. Those two days helped cap off an incredibly successful training camp with the most players ever passing the fitness test. An example, according to both Munch and Klingen, that players were holding each other more accountable than ever. Off the field, Munch, Klingen, and the other team leaders made sure the promises that were made in the team’s two-day intervention with Levin were taken seriously and would come to fruition – reversing the effects of the COVID-19 restrictions by encouraging better personal relationships within the team through a better atmosphere and spending more time together off the field.
“[I was] holding myself to a certain standard, a higher standard than I had in the past, so everyone would follow,” Munch explained.
The team came out of the gates fast, soaring to a 7-1-1 start, earning the best start through nine games in program history, with their lone loss coming against a 12th ranked University of New Hampshire team. At one point, the Huskies were ranked third in the country in the RPI and 25th in the TopDrawer Soccer Poll. They also received votes in the United Soccer Coaches Poll. The mentality shift was evident to all.
“It was a lot easier for us to connect with [the players] this year,” Gbandi said. “And I think it ultimately helped us be successful.”
But Levin didn’t disappear after those five days in New Hampshire. He routinely drove down to Boston, often working with individuals and team units. After a run of games showed a troubling trend of conceding goals, Levin sat down with the defensive unit and ran through some bonding exercises. Through these sessions, the unit came up with a slogan: the Haitian word “ansanm” – meaning “together” – became the unifying word for the defense. Other exercises included the sophomore class performing the song “This Magic Moment” before the final conference game against James Madison University to calm anxieties and create a positive energy in the group. Players became closer than ever and started stepping up in high pressure moments. Gbandi said they had one key attitude:
“I do not want to let my brother down.”
Levin’s help was not the only new thing the team implemented during the season. Munch said that the team changed their formation by adding an extra midfielder and going from five defenders to four. There was also a change in the on-field mentality.
“There was a group mindset change,” Munch said. “We wanted to score the first goal in the game and push the pace of the play.”
Klingen agreed and noted how the improved relationship between the coaches and players translated on the field.
“We had a more precise plan of what we wanted to do and we didn’t adapt to [other] teams anymore,” Klingen said.
However, to Gbandi, tactics mattered very little in the grand scheme of things.
“I think so much of our sport – any sport – is about the culture and stuff off the field as opposed to on the field,” Gbandi said. “I think we finally were able to put that together and the positive things that have happened on the field for this group, I think what tied a lot to our success, was some of the stuff that they were able to do off the field to connect with each other.”
The team’s closeness allowed them to feel that they could win games, as well as recover together if they lost. As a result, the team began dominating in games, ending the regular season with a 7-0 thumping of the College of Charleston, the program’s biggest win since 1999, and a come from behind win on the road against James Madison University to clinch the second overall seed in the CAA. Levin recalled the celebrations in the locker room as an outburst of pure joy.
“It was something very concentrated, like the rays of the sun through a magnifying glass,” Levin said. “This concentrated version of joy, of brotherhood, of celebration that I had been around, I don’t see it very often. It was really special.”
The season ended after a loss in the conference tournament and barely missing out on an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. However, it was clear that this was a transformational season for a program that had been waiting a long time for one. And it all started two hours north of Huntington Avenue.
“We were an entirely different group from the first day of our trip to New Hampshire to the last day,” Munch recalled. “It is crazy how much could change in the five days that we went away.”