Lack of Talent Not To Blame for Ivy Struggles

Blame It on the Al-koe-hol

It’s Nov. 13, 2010. The Harvard men’s soccer team has just upset No. 18 Penn on the road in the last game for a senior class that has gone 17-8-3 in the Ivy League, including a 2009 conference championship.

It is a cathartic end to a disappointing season which saw the Crimson finish in the middle of the pack in the Ivy League after being ranked as high as No. 6 in the country under first-year head coach and former assistant Carl Junot.

It is the last time Harvard will leave the field victorious against a conference foe for at least two years.

With the Crimson’s loss to Penn, 3-1, on Saturday, Harvard (3-11-3, 0-6-1 Ivy) has concluded its second consecutive winless Ivy League season.

A deliberately difficult non-conference schedule that was meant to prepare the team for an easier conference season did just the opposite, as the Crimson was outscored 13-5 in seven conference matchups—the lone saving grace being a Sept. 29 0-0 tie against Yale.

In the 57 years that Harvard has competed in men’s soccer in the Ancient Eight, it has won 13 conference titles and had never gone winless until 2011. Now it’s done it twice in as many years.

Not since coach William R. Welsh went 5-12-1 (.306) in 1922-23 has a Crimson team performed as consistently badly as Harvard has under Junot the last three years (.304). But Junot is not completely to blame.

Despite the lackluster results on the field, Junot has continued to recruit players befitting a program that was recently in the top 10 nationally. Freshman Oliver White—who tied with fellow freshman Jake Freeman for second on the team with three goals this season—was the ESPN Massachusetts high school soccer Player of the Year as a senior; classmate Mark Ashby, who started at central defender most of this season, was ranked as a Top 100 recruit coming out of high school by ESPN Rise.

Up and down the roster you find players who excelled at every level and turned down big-conference offers in order to attend Harvard.

If the outcome of a game was determined merely by the talent amassed on each team’s roster, then the Crimson would dominate the Ivy League—or at the very least contend with nationally ranked heavyweights Cornell and Brown.

In the games it has won, Harvard’s talent has indeed carried it. Against Holy Cross in the penultimate game of the season, the Crimson won, 2-0, despite sloppy play—in large part due to the superior talent of individual players.

In fact, other than the 6-0 shellacking at the hands of then-No.3 UConn, I can’t remember a single game I watched this season in which I didn’t feel as if Harvard had a chance to win it. Seven of its 11 loses came by one goal, and three came in overtime. Defenders of the program would write these off as bad luck—and in some cases they would be right.

But across the last two seasons, the Crimson has lost 16 games by one goal and won just four by the same margin. If Harvard were just unlucky you might not expect its record in one goal games to be .500, but .200 seems a bit too skewed.

Rather, this failure to perform in close games is emblematic of a problem more damning than lack of talent or faulty strategy: a lack of effort and teamwork. Through balls sail down the field with no one giving chase. Players will take wild shots instead of passing to the open man.

The last two years of Harvard soccer are a case study on the limits of talent—and the importance of chemistry and teamwork.

It is difficult to decipher who to blame for this. While it is possible that some players have been selfish their entire soccer playing lives and had the talent to back it up in their high school leagues, it is unlikely that the Crimson is full of selfish a-holes. If you talk to most of the guys on the team you’ll know that isn’t true.

In situations where there appears to be a systemic problem, the blame must fall on the shoulders of the leader of the organization—whether he deserves it or not.

Coach Junot has come off as kind and capable in all my interactions with him. He seems to understand the concepts of teamwork in a way that only someone who has devoted his life to playing and coaching one of the consummate team sports can.

But unless he can get his players to demonstrate that same understanding on the pitch—and fast—then he may not be the right man for the job.

—Staff writer Alexander Koenig can be reached at akoenig@college.harvard.edu.

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