Interview: Josh Shapiro, Tufts head coach
D3soccer.com had the opportunity to interview the coaches of the four men’s teams that have advanced to the Final Four in Kansas City this weekend. Ryan Harmanis spoke with Josh Shapiro, head coach at Tufts, about a statement win over Messiah, building a program, and the Final Four.
|Josh Shapiro - 5th-year head coach of
Tufts University Athletics
Ryan Harmanis: Coach, congratulations on reaching the Final Four. First, can you talk about your team’s NCAA run so far? You lost in the NESCAC quarterfinals, but now you’ve put together four impressive wins, on the road, against serious competition. What’s been the key?
Coach Josh Shapiro: A key would be a collective approach to knowing that we all have to play on both sides of the ball with energy, determination, and discipline. Everyone’s in, we have to all be putting in really strong shifts to get anything done. Nothing is just going to happen for us, we’re going to have to make it happen and do the nitty-gritty.
RH: You became only the third team in over a decade to beat Messiah in the tournament. Most teams that beat Messiah bunker in, get outshot 20-2 and sneak a goal, but what impressed so many people was that you played them straight up and came out on top. What was the mind set?
Coach Shapiro: The key is obviously, defensively, to set it up to make it very difficult for them. We knew they’d have the ball more than us, but we felt that their front three were arguably their best players, along with Brian Ramirez. So we were going to make sure [former National Player of the Year] Jeremy Payne didn’t get the ball in the hole, and get running at us. And we were going to be compact and take our chances to hit them on the break from there. We think we can get at people on the counter, we have wingers that are dynamic and a front player that can hold it up in a crowd and give us a good platform.
In that sense, it was a comfortable situation for us. Not that you’re ever comfortable against Messiah, because they put you under incredible pressure; it’s the best team I’ve ever coached against at the Division III level. But at the same time, we felt that if we could get a foothold in the game we could get at them. You obviously get the goal early, which helps because then you know you don’t need to chase the game and press forward right away. But we had to absorb a lot in the first half, and I think our guys put in an incredible work rate and shift, knowing that we were going to have to defend a lot.
The conversation at halftime was, “Look guys, we’ve shown that we can defend here, now let’s get into the game. We can pass the ball against this team, and we can get at them on the break.” So we decided to engage them a little higher up the field, to get it in midfield where there was room to pass the ball and get at them. And I felt the second half, or at least a pretty good chunk of it, was an even game. It was exciting for our guys to feel like they could go toe-to-toe with a really good team.
RH: Your team made the NCAA tournament in 2012, and you’ve been talked about as a team threatening to break through for a couple of years. What’s the difference with this year’s team?
Coach Shapiro: One of the things that’s really helped our team, and I think it’s important at the college level, is that you need veterans stepping up in these scenarios. You need good players, but you need veterans who know what it takes to win big games. We got a sniff with this group [in 2012], and they broke through and maybe thought it was going to be easier than it actually is. Then you have the bump in the road last year, not getting in the tournament. It was a shot to the face and it steeled everybody, and the work rate and urgency of the whole group was really strong. I also think this team is a little better prepared to play in different ways. This team can play out of its own half, or press and get on top of teams. We can pass through, or we can be dangerous on set pieces, so we’re more versatile in our ability to game plan. Frankly, our personnel are a lot deeper, and unless you’re deep when you get into these [back-to-back] situations, you’re going to be in trouble.
RH: Your team went undefeated in the NESCAC, one of the best conferences in the country. Can you talk about how the overall strength of your conference prepared your team for NCAA play?
Coach Shapiro: That [Messiah game] is where our schedule, and our conference, really helps us, because there are battles every single week. You’re playing against, even teams who didn’t get through to the playoffs, good teams where the games are absolute battles. That prepares us really well for that sort of mentality, and it’s a reason we played [No. 5] Brandeis early on. That’s another really good team, we played away from home, and we had to absorb a little bit, although we were unlucky to lose [2-0]. When you play good teams, you’re put under duress, and you become used to responding in that scenario. It builds your confidence and fortitude in matches like that.
RH: Your offensive comes from a lot of places; you have over a half-dozen players with at least three goals. I’d say that makes Tufts difficult to defend, because you don’t know who to key on, but on the other hand do you have a go-to guy? How does that mentality work?
Coach Shapiro: I think that we’re not looking for one guy to do the job. Everyone feels like they need to contribute and put in a shift, and they’re all going to try to get dangerous at different times. Our central striker [Maxime Hoppenot, 3g, 2a] only has a few goals, but he’s our most important guy. None of those guys on our attacking line behind him get near as many opportunities without him doing all that ugly work to hold it up and build that platform for us to get our attack going. Obviously when you have faith in your defenders then the attacking guys can go forward. And I think our defense, and our goalkeeper [Scott Greenwood] and holding midfielder have given the guys in front of them the confidence to take chances and risks going forward, because they know if the other team comes at us our defense can lock it down. Our back five or six, they can handle a team breaking at us if we try something funky and it doesn’t work.
RH: It looks like defense has been your calling card, with only eleven goals against. I assume it’s team defending, and it starts at the front, so how do you approach defending collectively?
Coach Shapiro: Depending on how we want to set up, sometimes we pressure the ball high and we all have to be working hard to do it. But if we’re going to concede some territory in midfield and keep it tight between the lines, then there has to be ball pressure there. It’s become a cultural thing within our team, that if you’re not working defensively, then you’re just not going to play for us. And everyone has bought into that. Gus Santos is arguably our most talented attacking player, and he’s in there defending his tail off. [Hoppenot] probably the best defensive striker in our conference, putting pressure on guys and hunting and working. And it starts at the front; when your seniors and talented guys are doing that work it becomes contagious and it becomes the standard. Now everyone knows that if you want to play for us you better be putting in a shift defensively.
RH: Let’s talk about some of your players. Are there any guys you want to recognize that do the dirty work and don’t get the headlines, but without them you wouldn’t be playing Friday?
Coach Shapiro: Yea, one area you have to talk about is the holding midfielder and the center backs. Peter Lee-Kramer and Sam Williams [center backs] and Zach Halliday [holding midfielder] have been immense. You look at Payne and good players trying to play in that area, it’s really hard for them to get faced up at us. Sam and Peter are both big, physical, intelligent players. They’re good in the air and on the ball, they can tackle and run. If you have a base right there to build from, with a shot-stopping goalkeeper, then you’re going to be difficult to break down. And it’s given us confidence to play other guys around them. We have a freshman right back [Matt Zinner] who’s played most of the year, and playing next to Sam Williams he’s confident and he’s been able to excel.
RH: How would you describe your team’s style of play?
Coach Shapiro: We want to be a sound team that understands our roles. I wouldn’t say defensive – a good defending team that attacks. We’re going to be a ball speed team, we emphasize moving off the ball, getting players forward, trusting each other, and keeping the ball moving. Defensively we’re an up-tempo style pressing team. We’re going to ask all eleven to do the work, and hunt and press and get the ball back as quickly as possible.
RH: To your point, one stage of the game that almost never gets talked about is the transition phase. It seems like your team does it better than almost everyone. Do you focus on that?
Coach Shapiro: Yea, frankly one of your biggest adjustments from club soccer to college soccer is that teams are organized. If you’re trying to break down a compact back eight or nine, it’s really challenging. So some of your best opportunities come in transition. At the same time, we’re going to attack with numbers, but that means we’re exposed when we turn it over. If we don’t pay attention and get pressure quickly, we can be punished for that. So transitions are key areas to be focused on, and I think there are big advantages to attacking in transition, so it’s something you want to protect when you’re defending.
RH: Looking forward to next weekend, it’s Tufts first trip to the Final Four. Does that play a role, especially since the other teams in Kansas City have been there before?
Coach Shapiro: I think, just learning more about how it’s all going to work, and the NCAA having a bigger impact on the event, it’s going to be a little different. You’re at a press conference and you won’t be with your team, we don’t travel overnight much and we’re staying in hotels. Guys are missing more class than they normally do, and typically the NESCAC does a great job of protecting our student-athletes there. So it’s a little bit of a different environment, but [to answer your question] not really.
We’re still talking about a great opportunity to stay together and play one more weekend. I don’t think our guys are going to be intimidated, because we had as tough a run to get there as anyone. We’ll look at Ohio Wesleyan and prepare and there’s no reason to think we can’t be successful in that game. If that happens, we’ll be playing in the final, and if you can’t get motivated for that then you should go home. But we’re excited to be together and playing another time, and representing our university as best as we possibly can.
RH: What do you know about Ohio Wesleyan? What do you see as their strengths?
Coach Shapiro: I think they’re very good. They’ve got quality attacking players, size and organization in the back, and they try to play. The surface [against Christopher Newport in the Elite 8] made it difficult, so I think the game will be very different on a nice grass patch. One thing you noticed is that they were a little more practical in their approach [against CNU], you didn’t see them try to play as purely as you expected going in from what you’ve heard about them. That shows their ability to be tactically flexible and to embrace the environment and their strengths. So it’s going to be a real challenge, but that’s what you expect. You have to play really, really well to beat them, and I think our guys know that and they’re going to be as ready as you can possibly be.
RH: Do you worry about a mental letdown after almost two weeks off?
Coach Shapiro: I hope not, but it’s interesting to see how each team will handle this time off. You know, you go home for Thanksgiving, and we told our guys, “You’re going to have 500 people patting you on the back and telling you how great you are.” But we’re not done yet, and if we’re satisfied with where we’re at it’s a bit shortsighted, because there’s still more there for the taking. The difference between a Final Four and a national championship is pretty exciting. First things first, we’ve got to try and handle Ohio Wesleyan, but I think the guys know there’s a lot to play for. We’re excited to build this legacy and put Tufts on the map as a formidable place on the national map going forward.
RH: If you had to pick one thing Tufts needs to do well to bring home the title, what would it be?
Coach Shapiro: I think we’ve got to be together, and we’ve got to be looking at each other and watching each other’s backs, and sticking to our identity as a team. If we do what we’re capable of doing and play the way we’re capable of playing, in this style that we like to play, then we can be very successful. If we get away from that and get frustrated; if we get drawn out of it a little, then we’ll struggle. So think it’s about staying committed to what we do, trusting each other, working for each other, and if that all happens at a good level then I think we’ve got an excellent chance.
Tufts (14-2-4) faces Ohio Wesleyan (17-4-4) in the second NCAA Men’s Semifinal at 1:30 PM (CST) on Friday, December 5th.