SFU Clan hoping “special” big game players can carry them to NCAA playoff glory
The Simon Fraser University Clan claimed their sixth Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) title in eight years on Saturday night, and now have their sights firmly focused on the NCAA Division 2 playoffs.
It was a strong season for a highly talented Clan team, but it wasn’t one without it’s struggles. Despite starting off the season unbeaten in six, with five wins, one point from their final two away games meant it all came down in the end to a winner takes the Conference clash at home to Seattle Pacific on Saturday.
A Mamadi Camara brace saw them clinch the crown, and a playoff place, in a 2-0 victory, and as delighted as head coach Clint Schneider was to land another GNAC title, the difficulties the team posed for themselves down the stretch was not so pleasing.
“This is where we expected to be,” Schneider told AFTN after heading into the playoffs as GNAC champs. “We didn’t make it easy for ourselves. To have to play SPU here in a must win game, it was credit to the lads, we got a good result there.
“But it would have been nice if we’d taken care of business because that game could have been meaningless if we got it sorted out earlier. Adversity makes you stronger, or at least that’s the hope, and I think it’s done that with this group.”
The Clan dominated GNAC’s end of season awards. Whitecaps Residency alumni Marcello Polisi was named Player of the Year, his brother Matteo (both pictured below), Freshman of the Year, while Schneider was jointly named Coach of the Year. Magnus Kristensen won his second straight Defensive Player of the Year, and Mamadi Camara and Adam Jones joined that trio in making the All-Conference First Team.
SFU finished the regular season with an overall record of 11 wins, four draws, and two defeats. That sees them seeded three in the West Region for NCAA D2 Men’s Soccer Championship Tournament, which gets underway on Thursday, after a regular season that’s seen then shoot up and down the regional rankings.
Even after watching the Clan for six years, we still find all of the rankings somewhat baffling!
“They factor a lot of things in,” Schneider told us. “Strength of schedule, wins against above .500 teams, wins away against wins at home. Also human eye too. Then they rank it.
“Even if we’d won both our [away] games last week, who knows where we’d have been seeded at. You don’t play enough games against each other to really [decide], because head to head ultimately is really the best comparison, but it’s just not like that.”
Unbeaten at home, with a record of 7-0-1, their only blip at Fox Field came in a goalless draw with Western Washington in their final match on Sunday, a meaningless match which saw the bulk of the Clan’s starters rested.
The Clan’s form at home was as strong as always. Since joining the NCAA in 2010, SFU are a staggering 63-4-4 when playing at home. It’s on the road where things went a little awry this year. A common trend.
SFU’s only two losses on the season came against Concordia University in Portland and Montana State University Billings. Both were by a single goal (3-2 to Concordia, 2-1 to MSU). Even going back to the days under Alan Koch in 2012 and 2013 when the Clan made the Final Four, SFU’s road form has been nowhere near as strong or dominant away from Fox Field.
Unable to host a NCAA playoff game on Canadian soil, it’s just another something they then need to overcome come the postseason,
“I think some of it has to do with the amount of travel,” Schneider told us. “When you have to travel 750 miles to get a game, it makes things difficult. The places you play, sometimes the pitches are not great. When you’re put of your comfort zone, staying in hotels rooms, etcetera, that’s a lot to do with it as well. We try to make it as loose as possible for these guys. That way they try to mimic sleep patterns, those kind of things.
“We try to be creative with it, but it’s not easy. At the end of the day, this group of guys, because we did it against Western Washington, when we he to go win game, and put a performance in, they’ll go and do it. We did it against Pomona away, two years in a row now, and did well, in must win games. So I know we can do it. It’s harder than doing it at home, that’s all.”
Ironically enough, they’ll now need to do it again against Cal Poly Pomona if they’re to make a postseason run this year.
The Clan are drawn against the sixth seeded Broncos in the first round. That match will take place in San Diego on Thursday (kick off 1pm), with the winners moving on to face the second seeded Point Loma. The “familiar opponents” met in the West Region semi-finals last season, with Cal Poly Pomona pulling off the shock, coming away with a 4-3 penalty shootout win, after the sides had played out a 0-0 draw.
The two teams met again just a couple of months ago in September in the Rimrock Classic Tournament in Billings. SFU got some modicum of revenge for their playoff loss, coming away with a hard fought 2-1 victory thanks to a first half header from Matteo Polisi and a last minute winner from Adam Jones.
Definitely a tricky path ahead for the Clan, but Schneider is confident. So who else is the Clan coach wary off in the bracket if SFU advance?
“Probably Cal Baptist,” Schneider mused. “They’re the only undefeated team in the West. They’ve got a guy that’s scored 27 goals [Aidan Apodaca], so clearly he has some kind of quality to him. But I fancy our guys against anybody, honestly. Any day. As long as we play well, we’ll put ourselves in a situation to be successful.
“It won’t be easy. It never is. Playoff soccer is difficult and they’re always tight games, but you would hope that with the quality we have in the group, the guys will rise to the occasion, because we have some guys in here that are special.
“When you put them in games, in big games, you see how special they are, because there is a gap between them and the rest of the players that they are playing. So hopefully you get that.”