It’s no secret that Men’s Soccer has become a fan favorite across the Knox campus; on the strength of three transformative seasons, each of which has gone better than the last, the fan base has grown so that soccer is one of the most popular Knox sports.
Given that the team shot their way to the Conference Tournament in 2013 and hosted the Conference Tournament last season, many expected a similar explosive showing this season. So when the team began to slow their style of play, yielding more ties and less wins, many began to wonder what was behind the change. The first and most obvious place to look is at new Head Coach Tyler Sheikh and what changes he has implemented.
The easy route is to sum up the team’s less successful season to a less competent coach, especially when they are attempting to fill the shoes of previous coach Matt Edwards, but both the team and Sheikh disagree with that conclusion.
“We believe in hard work, preparation, accountability and responsibility on and off the field,” Sheikh said. “With that said, it was clear to me that the team winning last year proved that the reins could be loosened a bit. My approach is more laissez faire than Matt’s probably was in leading this team to a championship from the bottom of conference.”
This slightly more laid back approach to the season is one that the team appreciates and feels fits their personal style of play. Junior outside midfielder Terence Lau explained that the upperclassmen have a good understanding of what is expected of them and feel this new freedom gives them more room to be creative within the sport. On the other hand, the freshmen Sheikh recruited already play in a similar style.
With a large influx of freshman on the team this season, the inexperience can either hinder or the new talent can help; in this case, talent appears to be trumping.
With a large percentage of freshman starting, the team’s second leading scorer is freshman Joe Dyer with nine goals this season. Even with a high volume of success coming from the underclassmen, there is still a mutual respect found throughout the team.
“They have developed a good relationship with the upperclassmen,” senior and top scorer Nathaniel Logie said. “There are no sub-groups in the team right now; we’re just one big family.”
Despite the juxtaposition of new and returning talent, the team seems to be straddling their success from previous seasons. Given that games have been going into overtime more regularly and multiple contests have ended in ties, it is apparent their style of attack in games is laid back, possibly to a fault.
According to members of the team, Sheikh’s new coaching style is only a part of this season’s varied success.
“I think the main reason is that we’re not underdogs anymore,” Lau said. “Teams have marked us as a ‘must-win’ game. I think last year we upset quite a lot of teams, so a lot of teams are coming into games very driven and they want to win. We’re not taking any teams by surprise anymore. I think last year some people still doubted our abilities, but not this year.”
With many teams expecting a close, hard-fought contest every time the Prairie Fire take the field, the team has lost their element of surprise. This, in conjunction with changing their fast-paced ways to a more flowing and controlled speed of play, has caused some difficulties, difficulties that seem to fall on the defense more than other parts of the field.
“Basically, it’s the same defense that we had last year,” Logie said. “But because of the new style of play where we’re trying to keep the ball, we will make some silly mistakes at the back which will cause problems. I think we are playing the same, but are just making silly errors throughout the season, which has caused us to give up some goals.”
Even with rough patches throughout their various games throughout the season, Knox stands tied with Carroll for first in conference. To remain at the top, it is likely that they must win the remaining four conference matches of the season.
“We need to seal entry into the Midwest Conference tournament first and then hope to host again,” Sheikh said. “To get there, we will need to cut out some of those defensive mental lapses and capitalize on our own offensive chances. If we stay concentrated for 90 minutes then we are a tough-out for anyone in the country.”
Their next conference contest comes at Carroll on Saturday.