It’s been five years since Simon Fraser University Clan’s last run to the NCAA Division 2 Final Four. For an ambitious program, that’s seen some fantastic talent take to the pitch for it in that time inbetween, that’s not just disappointing, it’s been something of a head scratcher as well.
It’s not that the Clan haven’t made the postseason these past four seasons. They have, on three occasions, heading there as dominant Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) champions these past two campaigns. The problem has been that once they get there, they’ve been heading back home in short order.
But while Alan Koch’s glory years leading the team to back to back Final Four appearances in 2012 and 2013 slip further into the memory, Clan head coach Clint Schneider feels the current crop of talent that he has at his disposal is one of the best he’s assembled.
His fellow GNAC coaches look to agree, with all seven voting the Clan as favourites to threepeat and lift another Conference crown come November. The national preseason coaches poll sees SFU sitting ranked 20th, and the third highest team in the West.
Schneider knows that all counts for nothing if his SFU side can’t deliver when it really matters, and the goal remains as it always does for the Clan – winning the Conference and making the postseason is great, but it’s that elusive first national title that is the prime motivator.
“It’s the expectation here,” Schneider readily admits and he feels the squad depth he has at his disposal this season could be the key aspect to delivering another deep playoff run.
“That is the big difference between us last year and years before,” Schneider said of the current squad. “The group is extremely competitive, but they’re together. That’s what I’m most excited about. We have a very, very good squad. Top to bottom and that will help us for sure.”
With some key players graduating, and that national title goal always firmly in their mind, the Clan have strengthened their squad significantly this offseason, to compliment the key core of starters that remain.
Of the latter, the Polisi brothers will once again be key this season, fresh off a successful sophomore campaign in the PDL with TSS Rovers and a VMSL Imperial Cup win with Rino’s Tigers. Marcello was named the GNAC Player of the Year in his redshirted Freshman year, while Matteo won the GNAC Freshman of the Year for his 10 goals and four assists in his 16 appearances.
Marcello’s tough tackling midfield play will be at the fore once again, but Matteo will find himself in a different role this season, as he transitions into being a number 10 to fill the void left by the departed Adam Jones. That was the position he was brought in to play, so expect him to shine.
Another player who will find himself in a new role is Mamadi Camara. The exciting Senior will forego his previous midfield and winger roles to lead the attack, and it’s a move that’s already reaping the benefits.
“There’s so many guys you can talk of,” Schneider told us. “Mamadi as a 9 has been fantastic. He’s already playing the best football he’s ever played here for us, and that’s scary for other people. So we’re excited about that. He causes people lots of problems but that’s what you expect him to.”
Defender Michael North, midfielders Dzenan Bezdrob, Kyle Jones, and Rahid Rahiem, and Forward Connor Glennon all return, the latter two with their first taste of the PDL under their belt with TSS Rovers this past summer.
And there will be a couple more familiar Rovers faces in the Clan line-up this year, including full back Chris Guerreiro who had a strong debut PDL season.
But it’s another couple of Rovers who will almost certainly catch the eye for the Clan this year, as a pair of Whitecaps Residency alumni transfer into SFU from American schools. Sophomore Luciano Trasolini is expected to be the starting goalkeeper as he comes back from injury, while Eric de Graaf should be lining up in front of him after two impressive season’s in the University of Portland backline.
Amongst all that are some European additions that the Clan hope will come in and make an immediate impact.
Leading the way is 19-year-old Dutch defender Joost Mangert, who comes highly rated and has spent time in the youth systems of KNVB and SBV Excelsior, while German defender/midfielder Florian Langenegger heads to SFU after a successful Freshman season with the University of South Carolina Upstate.
Both have impressed in preseason and Schneider has high hopes that the pair will just be the latest of a long line of European players that have come to the Clan and done well.
“Joost is special,” Schneider acknowledged. “He’s pretty special, but so is Florian. We got it right with those two. It was very difficult to replace Magnus [Kristensen] and Pascal [Schmidt], who played a lot of minutes. Those two are good and I’m very happy about that because they are tough positions to replace.
“We got it right with Luciano too. He’s excellent. Then guys like Ahmed Kamal, we got him very late. He came in late to preseason and you’ve seen him just a bit, but he’s got some special stuff too. I think as the year goes you’re going to see more and more from him.”
But it’s not just on the pitch that the Clan have looked to strengthen this year. Schneider has added to his coaching staff, bringing in former Canadian U20 and Vancouver Whitecaps head coach Nick Dasovic.
Dasovic comes to the Clan with a wealth of playing and coaching experience behind him in Europe and North America, and Schneider is delighted to add him to his team.
“It’s unbelievable for us,” Schneider feels. “We’re very lucky to have guys like that in the community. That’s BC Soccer. We’re very fortunate to have Daso as part of the program. He’s been extremely giving of energy and time. Also it’s different for him to be in a college environment.
“Ultimately, and I say this all the time, it’s not about me, it’s not about coach [Kevin] Harmse, it’s not about the coaching staff at all, it’s ultimately about the players. So if we bring the best coaching staff we possibly can in, it’s the players who will benefit and that’s what I’m about. We’re very lucky to have him and I think we’re already seeing the results of that.”
The Clan have looked impressive in their preparation for the new season. A mini tour of Norway at the beginning of the month saw them come home with a couple of wins. That was quickly followed by a 3-0 triumph over the University of Fraser Valley, before SFU rounded off their preseason matches with the big one against cross city rivals UBC.
The Thunderbirds have made some impressive additions themselves this season, including some previous Vancouver Whitecaps standouts in Caleb Clarke and Thomas Gardner, as they look to add to their already record-breaking 13 U Sports titles when they host this year’s nationals (we’ll be previewing UBC on the site on Sunday).
SFU ran out comfortable 3-1 winners at Thunderbird Stadium on Friday night. Matches between the two universities always have an edge, but with both sides adding big during the offseason, did this year’s one have a little bit extra to it?
“Not really,” Schneider said. “It’s a UBC game. The reason why our guys are so up for it is because they know it’s such a litmus test for us and I think it is for them to. That’s why the game is so competitive and so good for both programs. We play in different leagues and I’ll be the first to say I hope they win it. That would be great for a Canada West team, especially for them hosting it.
“Mike [Mosher] does a hell of a job there. So does Paul [Pederson] and the rest of the coaches. They’ve got a great team. They’re going to be very good this year. We knew they were going to be very, very good, so it gives us a lot of confidence. It’s also maybe assurances. We knew we were going to have a good squad. How good? Well there’s still a lot of football to be played, but this is a big step for us. Always is.”
Those matches have been ideal preparation for the Clan as they get set to begin their quest for another GNAC title and another postseason berth.
The conference action doesn’t kick off until September 20th when Montana State University Billings head up the mountain. Before that though the Clan face six tough tests on the road, four in nine days in California followed by two in North Dakota, kicking off on Friday afternoon at California State University San Bernadino.
These games may not count towards the GNAC standings, but they do play into the all important coaches ranking that will decide the end of season seedings heading into the playoffs. A bad start and set of results, could hit the Clan down the line, but it’s just the kind of test Schneider feels he needs to give his squad for the battle that lies ahead for them if they are to go deep into the postseason once again.
“I want to play the best,” Schneider stated. “I think I owe it to my players to play the best. That’s why we do this. It’s very difficult for teams to come up to Canada, a lot of time for choice purposes, they don’t want to come. But we’ve been damn good at home. That’s why. I don’t think we’ve lost in three years. There’s a reason for that.
“So we’ve been very strategic about all of our preseason games on the road. Getting used to it, because that’s our reality. For us to achieve our goals we’ve got to win on the road. That’s it. I think we have the team to do it, it’s just about putting in the performances consistently every night.”