For Brown men’s soccer coach Patrick Laughlin, one of the most difficult parts of coaching his team through the COVID-19 pandemic has been the complete uncertainty. “The coach likes to know and have answers and be able to lead and understand things,” he said. “But there were so many times (on) Zoom calls or phone calls or by text or email that I was saying, ‘I don't know, I don't know what's going to happen next, I don't have the answer.’” Now that the 2021 season draws near, Laughlin and his team are elated to have the opportunity to finally play again.
“I'm excited to get going,” he said. “The energy of our team is extremely positive and we're happy to have a season and really looking forward to it.”
While not having a 2020-21 season was difficult for the men's soccer team, they were able to set their sights on the future, according to team captain and defender Will Crain ’22. “The toughest part was in the fall (when we found out) we didn't have a season,” he said. “When we came back in the spring and they told us that we wouldn't have any spring competition, it was tough at first but after a couple days we knew that we just had to focus on next season.”
The team appreciated being able to train together in the spring, even while constrained by COVID-19 protocols. “It was really good just to be on the ball wearing Brown men’s soccer gear being together as a team,” Crain said.
While the Bears and their Ivy League rivals haven’t played in a competitive soccer game since 2019, other Division 1 conferences had spring seasons that concluded as recently as May. Given these unique and unprecedented circumstances, Laughlin is excited and intrigued to see what the fall 2021 season has in store. “It's gonna be interesting. I don't know how it's gonna go exactly because this has never happened before,” he said. “(There has) never been a spring competitive season in Division I soccer so I have no experience to go on.”
Because the 2020 season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than half of the men's soccer team will have never played in a D1 game and will be making their Brown soccer debuts in the fall. Laughlin is choosing to make the best of it. “Embracing that we don't have a ton of collegiate experience is fine,” he said. “We have a lot of ‘soccer guys’ and they've all been (able to) get out there and play games this summer.”
Crain is optimistic about what he’s seen from the rising sophomores and first-years. “After training with (the rising sophomores) this spring, (we know) that they're more than capable of coming in and making an impact,” Crain said. “The incoming first-years are a really solid group of guys. We're just going to work extremely hard during preseason to get everyone on the same page.”
Derek Waleffe ’22 hopes that an infusion of new talent will energize the team. “I think (the incoming players) will bring a lot of youth and a lot of energy,” he said.
To prepare for the season, many players have joined summer soccer teams specifically for college players. Some players, like Malcolm Johnson ’22, say they benefit greatly from playing on teams with players they may compete against in a normal collegiate season. “It’s a really talented group. Being around those other talented players helps you develop,” he said. “It's kind of exciting (to be) able to go from teammates to competitors. It was always competitive in practice.” These summer teams also gave players a closer look at some of their Ivy opponents: Johnson played with Penn players, while Crain’s teammates included student-athletes from Cornell and Dartmouth.
Ultimately, given the team’s youth, the leadership of seniors like Crain, Waleffe and Johnson will be invaluable. While Crain was voted captain this spring, he sees leadership as a shared responsibility. “I'm not the only one on the team that's leading this team. We have a whole bunch of leaders,” Crain said.
Crain also emphasized that leadership should not be limited to the team’s seniors. “In the spring we could even see those young players starting to lead and I told those guys, ‘You're (first-years) but that doesn't mean you can't be leaders. Take charge of your class, take charge of yourself and become a leader as soon as possible,’” he said. “If there's just one leader on the team, it's not going to be successful. If everybody can step up and be a leader in some facet then that's how we can be successful.”
The team is largely undeterred by the fact that they may be competing against teams that did have a season last year. “Maybe some of them will have played together a little bit longer, but at the end of the day it's 11 guys against 11 guys,” Waleffe said.
As they prepare to return after a year off, the men's soccer team has lofty aspirations, according to Crain. “Our big goal (is) to win the Ivy League, something that Brown men's soccer needs to do,” he said. “We have a lot to prove to ourselves individually, our coaches and a bunch of the supporters of Brown men’s soccer." Johnson and Waleffe expressed the same sentiment: The team’s goal is to cap off their return to the field with a title run. Winning an Ivy League title would guarantee the team an NCAA tournament berth. The Bears last qualified for the NCAA tournament in 2012.
Laughlin’s focus is on the process, rather than the results. “Our mindset is that, every game, we want to compete,” he said. “We want to get out there and be the best version of ourselves, become a better team (and) progress throughout the season (so that) we're playing our best soccer when we're in the Ivy League in October and November.”
In the short term, the team has one simple plan: win the first game. “It's always important to come in ready for some pressure and be able to build off the confidence (of a win)," Johnson said. Waleffe’s goals go farther. “Just (to) win every game would be great,” he joked.
Another focus of the team is maximizing fitness. Johnson said one of the team goals is “to come in extremely fit.” One way the team is working to keep each other accountable is through “weekly running charts (so) that we can log our times,” Johnson adds. In addition to being a team goal, fitness is an individual priority for Crain. “My goal is (to) get as healthy as possible. I'll be as fit as I can (be) coming into preseason,” he said.
The team eagerly awaits being able to play in front of a crowd of Brown students and fans again. “It's gonna hopefully be great. It's been so long that I don't know (what it will be like),” Waleffe said. “It's gonna be like being a (first-year) again.”
Brown men’s soccer opens its 2021 season Sept. 3 away against the University of Hartford. The Bears return to Stevenson-Pincince field for their home opener Sept. 8 against Bryant University. Ivy League play begins for men’s soccer Oct. 2 when they face off against Columbia on the road.
Peter Swope is the senior editor of digital engagement for The Brown Daily Herald's 133rd Editorial Board. He previously served as a Sports section editor and has also written stories for University News. Peter is a junior from New Jersey studying history.