The start of the season for Harvard men’s soccer has been disappointing.
Winless at home and playing with sparse crowd support, the team has all of the individual talent but has struggled to find its form. The Crimson (1-5-1) has not pieced together consistent performances, often controlling the point of attack, but a few minutes later backing down under siege. For its flashes of brilliance, Harvard has failed to find the back of the net very often.
“I think approaching the Ivy Leagues, we just need to make sure that we are working hard and working together for 90 minutes, and we’ll get the results that we want,” co-captain Justin Crichlow said.
But the Crimson’s season is far from lost.
When Ivy League competition commences this weekend in New Haven, Harvard will hit a reset switch on its season. After securing a winning conference record for each of the past four seasons, the Crimson will look to finally lock up its first Ivy League championship since 2009 and grant fifth-year coach Pieter Lehrer the first NCAA Tournament appearance of his tenure.
The team’s previous results will not matter if the Crimson is able to come out on top of the Ivy League. Harvard has tried to use this non-conference slate to become more cohesive and discover its weaknesses.
“We have a lot of room to improve,” said freshman midfielder/forward Paolo Belloni-Urso. “I think that once the Ivy League starts, we’ll be good enough to get a good start, and actually start getting the results we want. So we’re kind of using these first games to get better, to understand ourselves as a team, and also to create a style of play that we can all prosper in.”
With a very young team—the team’s top four goal and points leaders are all underclassmen—growing pains should be expected. The Crimson has only scored four goals in seven games and opponents have been outscoring the team by more than a goal on average. The key going forward will be for the whole team to come together, although it may find leadership from unconventional sources.
“As a player myself, I’m trying to have a bigger impact on the team, and also in a way to have other players, my other teammates, have bigger impacts themselves. So trying to be a leader on the field as well as off the field,” Belloni said.
This may seem strange from an athlete who has only been on the team for a couple months, but this mentality is all part of the team’s emphasis on “collective leadership” and the willingness to take contributions from any source.
“Second half of the season, we are definitely looking for players to just step up and become leaders on the team,” Crichlow said. “We’re a very young team so we need guys to take leadership, not just for themselves, but also for the guys around them.”
This openness to younger leadership will help bring continuity to the team far into the future. But for now, Harvard will be looking to win through any means.
The Crimson begins its Ancient Eight schedule with a duel against Yale in enemy territory. The game will mark the unofficial transition from summer competition to fall football. As the weather gets colder, the play will become feistier.
“The Ivy League games are always fought with a lot of grit,” Crichlow said. “Every team fights tooth and nail to beat us and it’s typically a lot more physical.”
This first game against Yale will serve to set the tone as the team goes down the stretch, both form-wise and emotionally.
“Yale’s the first Ivy League team that we are looking to and they always play their best game against us,” Crichlow said. “I think that it is the Harvard-Yale tradition that fires them up, and it fires us up, too.”
The game against the Bulldogs could let loose the winning bug and bring the rest of the league to attention. As the Crimson looks to reclaim the elusive Ivy title, it must confront three-time defending champion Dartmouth in a key late October home contest. Harvard won last year by scoring the only goal of the game in Hanover, but both teams have very different rosters than the ones they jogged out a season ago. If the Crimson doesn’t step up between now and then, the game could be about nothing but pride.
Once conference play starts, the team will play an Ivy League team every weekend, which is a significant departure from early in the season when it was common to play every three or four days. The Ancient Eight schedule gives Harvard the opportunity to set up specific schemes and make tactical changes during the week.
“With three games in a week, it’s grueling during the week, but it actually makes us fit and ready to play 90 minutes, 120 minutes if we need to go play overtime,” Crichlow said.
The team has the necessary tools for success. The big question over the coming month will be how well the players can assemble them into a winning unit.
—Staff writer William Quan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.