Job longevity and football managers are not usually happy bedfellows. At least not in the professional game.
That’s not so much the case when it comes to college soccer, with many of the top universities in both Canada and the US sticking with their man, his vision and his identity for a team for many years.
It does feel that this seems to be a key to success and is perhaps something that the pros could learn from.
Alan Koch has been head coach at SFU since 2008. In that time he has built up the Clan into quite the NCAA II powerhouse and one of the most successful college sides in North America.
That success has seen Koch guide the Clan into back to back NCAA D2 Final Fours, four straight GNAC championships and pick a slew of ‘Coach of the Year’ honours.
But it never gets boring and the 38 year old South African still sees and enjoys the “challenge” that coaching SFU provides.
That current challenge is to land a NCAA II Championship.
Like last year, the Clan are two wins away from making history. The challenge now is to get the job done and secure those two victories.
SFU made it to this stage last year for the first time, in their first ever attempt. As the only Canadian school to achieve such a feat, it brought with it a lot of media coverage. Even the New York Times took an interest.
It was hard for SFU not to get caught up in the moment and all the attention that went with it but they’ve come out stronger for the experience.
“I think the guys have learned from last year” Koch told us when went along to one of the Clan’s final training session before they headed off to Georgia this morning.
“The guys are definitely focusing on playing Carson Newman on Thursday. That’s our absolute focus.
As the only team from last year returning to this stage of the season, SFU now have an idea of what to expect and how to cope with it. And that in itself will be a huge advantage for the Clan over their three rivals.
This will be Carson Newman’s first ever Final Four appearance. In the other semi final the same is true for Rockhurst, whilst Southern New Hampshire haven’t reached this stage since 2002.
“There’ll be a lot of glitz and glamour when you get down to the Final Four. There’s a banquet and there’s meetings and there’s press everywhere. We’re really focused. The simplistic thing we have to do is play the game and I think the guys are ready for it.”
Having made the Final Four in 2012, there was added pressure on the Clan to make it again this season. Many people automatically assumed that SFU would go really deep.
“Yeah, I think people have that expectation. We got to the Final Four last year relatively easily to be honest. I think everybody expected it to happen again but things like that don’t just happen in football. It was a great achievement to get there.”
It was certainly more of a battle this year, with their second round match being won in extra time and their Sweet 16 game on penalties. Bookending both of those though were two 5-0 victories.
The Clan were minutes away from crashing out of the tournament in that Sweet 16 Western Regional final before their fighting spirit saw them draw level at the death and go on to secure a shootout win.
When it’s less than four minutes to go and you’re one down to San Diego, what’s going through Koch’s mind. Did he always believe that the team was going to come through and get the victory?
“I believed. I believed and the players believed too. If you were at that match, there wasn’t one player that didn’t think we could score. Which is why we scored. There is that sense of confidence, that belief, that whatever it takes, we’re going to go out there and do it.
“It really honestly didn’t cross my mind for one second that we weren’t going to be successful in that game. We were playing to score, we created ample opportunities, it was a matter of time before we scored and thankfully we did score.”
As tight as that ‘Sweet 16’ game was, when the Clan took the pitch less than 48 hours later to face the number one seeded hosts, Regis Rangers, it was a whole different story. SFU dominated from start to finish in a 5-0 thrashing.
How much confidence does such a commanding victory at the quarter final stage give the Clan now as they move forward?
“It gives us a lot of confidence because we’ve scored a lot of goals in the postseason. So the guys playing in attacking positions are feeling very, very good about themselves.
“In saying that, we don’t know. It’s the nature of playing in a League where there’s 200 teams, we don’t know what the other teams are really like. We don’t know what the level of competition that they’re playing against. They may be playing tough games every single week, so it gives us confidence but I don’t know how that’s going to impact us when we play against someone else because they might be feeling great about themselves too.”
As we keep pointing out (ad nauseum some may say!), SFU have got to the Final Four the hard way these past two seasons, having to play every match on the road.
Last year SFU had to play their earned home playoff games in California. This season, the Clan’s two losses, especially their defeat in the final regular game of the season to Western Washington, cost SFU dearly and they didn’t earn that right to host any games.
Alan is quick to shoot down our assertion of Canadian bias in NCAA, but will we ever be at the stage soon where SFU can host home playoffs matches in Canada?
“In NCAA rankings, I don’t think there’s a Canadian bias. Not being allowed to host a playoff game in Canada right now, under the current system, is completely unfair.
“We work very hard all season long, just like everybody else does, to earn the right to host. This year under the formula we didn’t earn the right to host, so that’s reasonable.
“But if we ever do earn that right, and we’re the number one or two seed, we should be allowed to host at home. I think it puts us in a big disadvantage if we earn that right and we don’t get that opportunity.
“We’re supposed to be treated as equal members and have the same rights as everybody else and clearly because of that we don’t.”
The strong squad that Koch has put together on the pitch overcomes these adversities.
Although there have been a number of new faces introduced to the Clan this season that will be the core of the group for a few more years yet to come, there are a number of key players that will move on at the end of this college year and for them they are highly motivated to go out with a bang and bring home a national title.
For the coach, it is a never-ending conveyor belt of talent and even before the dust has settled from the Final Four, Koch’s thoughts are already turning to next season and the hard work of rebuilding the squad.
“It’s started already. We’re scouting all the time. We definitely look local first. We look at the lower mainland first and then we go further afield in BC. If we don’t find the players we need in BC then we go across Canada. If we don’t find them anywhere in Canada we have to go globally.
“We’ve identified a lot of players. There’s a few players I think we’re pretty close to finishing things off with. Hopefully we can finish them in the next few weeks. By Christmas time we should have a couple of guys signed or committed for next year already and then once we get going into January then we really finish things off.
“We have holes to fill but we have holes to fill every year. It’s one of the toughest parts of being a NCAA coach. There’s players that graduate and you have to go and fill in those holes all the time.”
The Clan’s scouting has proved exceptional and with the key core that will definitely be back next year, along with the new additions, a fifth straight GNAC title will be the very least that will be expected.
Does the continued success of the program still provide enough of a challenge and motivation for Koch? The answer is a resounding yes.
“It’s still a challenge. Football’s different every year. You have a different group of players every year.
“We’re having to bring new players in every year, we graduate players, we’re still working with guys who are developing. Some of our younger players are our best players, so it’s still very rewarding to work with them and see how far we can take them.
“We still haven’t had our first player drafted into MLS and that’s one of our big goals. I think that should be happening very, very soon.”
As happy as he is with SFU, does Koch harbour the desire to move away from the college game and coach in the professional ranks at all?
“I get calls all the time. I think we’ve had a lot of success. I got a call this week from a professional team already.
“I’d consider something but it would have to be the right opportunity. I’m very passionate about our program we have here at SFU. I love Vancouver. I love the work we’re doing. I don’t see any reason why I can’t continue to do it for a long time unless the right opportunity comes along.”