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Sweet Victory

Men’s Soccer Scores Big with First-Ever NCAA Tournament Home Game

In the cold November evening, the fans are on their feet and, on this Thursday, Nov. 20, Matt Vasquenza is ready to make history.

After hundreds of hours of training and sweating and imagining what could be, he and his teammates know it often comes down to a matter of instant reactions to make longtime dreams come true.

The pivotal moment arrives in the second overtime of Xavier’s match against Monmouth. It’s already a history-maker—the first time the men’s soccer team has ever hosted an NCAA Tournament game at home. The Soccer Complex is dressed for the occasion, its hillside stands packed with blue-and-white clad fans and Xavier banners draped around the field.

The teams are tied at one goal each, but Xavier is dominating. Jalen Brown runs the left flank toward the goal, hunkering down to keep possession while his teammates catch up. He flicks a short pass to Vasquenza, just 15 yards from the left post. Vasquenza fires quickly, but the Monmouth goalie bats it back. Vasquenza extends his leg and pokes the ball with a toe toward a teammate, who shoots. The ball is blocked and returned again to Vasquenza.

The penalty box is now filled with seven defenders and the goalie, all dressed in white. It looks impossible, but Vasquenza taps it a couple of times before passing it with his left. The ball rolls slowly across the goal to an open Alex Ridsdale. He pounces, a blue streak in a mass of white. The ball sails over the Monmouth defenders’ heads into the net to score a golden goal.

“He just jumped on it,” says fifth-year Coach Andy Fleming, “and it went into the top of the netting.”

Ridsdale, normally right-footed, had shot with his left. “But I don’t think he could have hit it any better than he did. He smashed it into the goal, and that was it.”

Xavier fans go into a frenzy, jumping, screaming, flinging cups of ice in the air. Fleming falls to his knees and pumps his fists. Six Monmouth players and their goalie fall to the cold turf of their penalty box, and don’t move, their dreams of a tournament run ended. Xavier’s players rush, arms outstretched, to greet their celebrating fans. Some spill onto the field.

“It was unbelievable energy,” says former assistant coach Kris Bertsch.

It’s mostly as the team has imagined it would be. And they know even bigger things—including their first Sweet Sixteen game ever—are to follow. But for now, they want to savor the moment of their first win in their first NCAA Tournament home game.

“One vision I had was of people being up on that hill, and us coming out as the host of an NCAA Tournament game,” Fleming says. “It was definitely the best home-game moment we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

The victory was made even sweeter with memories of the snow that had kept his team off the practice field, and two losses early in the season.

“Since I was a freshman, we’ve always been pushing for a home NCAA game,” says senior Will Walker, who scored the game’s first goal. “I can’t explain the feeling. It’s unbelievable.”

Hoping the feeling continues, they enter the second round of the NCAA Tournament against the eight-time national champion Indiana Hoosiers in Bloomington, where storms puddle the muddy field. Xavier scores first and last in a 2-1 win, prevailing on Walker’s penalty kick.

Then comes the program’s first Sweet Sixteen match in Omaha against Creighton with a spirited crowd and cutting winds that freeze the cups of water on the bench. They play hard, but it does not go well for the Xavier men. Creighton wins 2-1.

Still, not bad for a supposed rebuilding year. NCAA Tournament prospects had looked shaky after Xavier allowed seven goals in the season’s first two games, both losses. After that, players refocused on defending, the hallmark of recent seasons. The team went 15-6-2, ending with a No. 13 ranking, and set a program record for fewest goals allowed per game. The seniors became the winningest class in program history, and a highly touted freshman class didn’t disappoint. Next season’s freshmen remind Fleming of this year’s seniors.

“I thought it was our best team,” Fleming says. “We were consistently good and occasionally great.”

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Back on the Pitch

After his first day of practice with Xavier’s men’s soccer team, Mike Mossel called his mom back home in The Netherlands.

“I don’t think I can compete,” he said. “All of these guys are a lot bigger and stronger.”

mosselDon’t give up, she said. He didn’t. On day two he began noticing something. The American players were bigger and stronger, true, but their skills weren’t quite as sharp as players he competed against around Europe. Their touches weren’t as sharp. Their footwork not quite as skillful. Suddenly the tall, lanky forward who came to Xavier at the invitation of former coach Jack Hermans, also a native of The Netherlands, found himself in a stark reversal of roles. Not only was he able to compete against the others, but the others were suddenly struggling to compete against him.

Propelled by an upbringing with the Dutch youth sports philosophy that emphasizes developing skills over winning, he excelled. In just two seasons, Mossel etched his name in the Xavier record books for both goals and points, surpassing, in some cases, others who played all four years. But he found more than just on-the-field success while playing soccer in America. He also discovered a career.

“I had this idea in 1993 when I graduated,” he says. “What this country needs is what I went through. The Dutch philosophy is to focus on developing players on and off the pitch. Off the pitch you develop them through intellectual, moral, social and physical growth. On the pitch you focus on developing technical skills in players ages 5-10 and tactics from age 10-12. After that you get them into an academy and develop them into pro players. In the U.S., the focus is all on winning. We don’t care if you lose 10 games as long as you’re improving as players.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in sports marketing, Mossel played professionally for 15 years in Belgium and the United States before retiring and forming the Dutch Lions Group, a Netherlands-based organization that owns a wide variety of soccer-related businesses—a youth academy and player agency group in Brazil, a player agency group in Portugal, and business organizing soccer tours in Europe.Most importantly, at least for Mossel, it also owns a series of minor-league soccer teams and youth development academies in the United States.

The group owns two teams in Dayton, Ohio—a women’s team and a men’s Pro Division team that’s the farm team for the MLS’ Columbus Crew—as well as a youth development academy. It owns another youth development academy and men’s Premier Development League team in Houston. And, starting this year, it owns a men’s Premier Development League team in Cincinnati.

Mossel wanted to start his U.S. businesses in Cincinnati because of his familiarity with the region, but another organization had the league rights to the market at the time.  When those rights became available, Mossel was on the phone with the league the next day. His second call was to Xavier to secure a home field. The team finished second in the league with a 6-4-4 record in its first year, including a 4-1-2 record on Mossel’s one-time home turf—or what is a close proximity to his one-time home turf.

“The field was grass when I played here,” he says. “And my first year they didn’t want us tearing it up by practicing on it every day, so we had to practice on this field down by Reading Road in Norwood. It was full of holes and bumps. I kept turning my ankle and pulling muscles. In The Netherlands we wouldn’t let our cows on a field like that. I said,  ‘We need a better facility. Who do I talk to?’ I was told the president made the final decisions, so I went up to see Fr. Hoff. He invited me in and explained that there was a plan to upgrade the facilities. He was very nice about it, but looking back, I don’t know what I was thinking—a 20-year-old student telling the president we needed a better field.”

Interestingly, one of Mossel’s goals now is to help the University improve the soccer facility. He loves the intimacy of having the fans close to the field, but he wants expand the seating and put a cover over the stands to protect them against the weather. It would benefit his team, he says, which plays on the field from March-August, as well as Xavier, which plays on the field from August-November. But one step at a time, he says. “We’re taking things slow,” he says. “We’re in this for the long term.”

The long-term business plan, he says, has the Dutch Lions Group owning five youth academies throughout the U.S., three Premier Development League teams, one Pro Division team and one MLS team. Financially, it’s a solid business model, he says. It covers all levels, includes a predictable income stream and
creates a pipeline of players—preferably those trained in the Dutch philosophy. He also has a solid group of investors backing him.

It’s a risk, he says, but so was coming to Xavier sight-unseen 20 years ago. And that worked out well.

“Even my wife tells me I’m crazy,” he says. “But one of the things that Xavier did more than anything was make me aware that if you want something, you go get it.”

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Selling Soccer

Russ Findlay walks around the hallways of his offices every day, a Sierra Mist held firmly in his grip. To him, the soft drink is more than a caffeine boost. It’s like a baby he’s brought into the world.

The 1994 MBA grad spent almost a decade with beverage behemoth PepsiCo, where he oversaw a billion (with a B) dollar branding effort for the launch of the Sierra Mist soft drink. “When you bring a brand to life,” he says, “you always have a soft spot for it.”

So don’t be surprised to see him dribbling a soccer ball around those same offices in the near future. In January, Findlay was tagged by Major League Soccer to become its first-ever chief marketing officer, responsible for running the organization’s marketing, branding and consumer initiatives as well as the group’s commercial subsidiary, Soccer United Marketing.

How did this switch from soda to soccer come about? “I worked at PepsiCo, a major soccer sponsor, before coming here, so I knew Don Garber and some of the people that work here,” he says. “I’m a certified U.S. Soccer referee, an active player and, most importantly, I am a consumer-focused brand builder, a market-eer.”

The path from Musketeer to market-eer has been something of a natural progression, beginning at home. “I learned how to sell in my mom’s bookstore, basically,” he says. He took those sales skills and applied them to rolling out Pepsi Max and the SoBe Mr. Green soft drink labels. While working on advertising and media strategy for these brands and others, he oversaw numerous Super Bowl ad campaigns, two of which won national awards.

Now the goal is applying those skills to soccer. Heading into its 16th season of existence, Major League Soccer is expanding, adding about three clubs per year. Overall, MLS fan attendance cracked the 4 million mark for the first time last year, meaning there’ll be lots of home-team jerseys, jackets, scarves and soccer balls to move.

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Xavier Magazine

A Common Goal

Call them the Dynamic Duo.

Two athletic gents—one fresh from the fields of Indiana, the other from Illinois—are busy changing the face of Xavier soccer, scoring dramatic turnarounds for a couple of sometimes moribund soccer programs.

Woody Sherwood, in his first year as women’s soccer head coach, delivered a commendable inaugural result: a 7-11-0 record, which marked the best season for Xavier since 2006 and proved quite dramatic for a team that had scraped together just four wins over the previous two seasons combined.

On the men’s side, meanwhile, head coach Andy Fleming also capped a remarkable first year, doubling the number of wins over the previous two seasons with 10 victories, winning the Atlantic 10 Conference title and leading the team to its first NCAA Tournament appearance.

So what’s different besides the coaches? How can two programs undergo such dramatic turnarounds in such a short timeframe?

“It was about changing the culture,” says Sherwood, analyzing the moves he’s made so far. “Something as simple as competing. The players had lost hope the last four or five years.”

Sherwood highlights his conviction that his team needed to believe it could be competitive and successful, long before any actual success could be achieved. Sounds simple, but such off-the-field mind-training requires a good coach with, well, a good education. Sherwood earned his psychology degree from Xavier in 1991.

“At the end of the day, the players bought into what we asked them to,” he says. “That got them seven wins—equal to the last three years combined.”

Sherwood brought more than just his mind game, though. He also brought plenty of on-the-field knowledge, spending 15 years working his way up through the assistant coaching ranks, including the three previous years as an assistant at Indiana University, a perennial soccer power.

That translated into goals. The previous season, Sherwood notes, the team lost nine of its games by three goals or more. “This season, we lost one game by three goals or more.”

Some of the opponents toppled during Sherwood’s march through the South include Butler, Bowling Green, Mercer and Western Carolina on the way to nabbing the Catamount Classic title. Can Sherwood name a particular highlight from his streak? “Winning the Western Carolina tournament was certainly something.”

Men’s soccer, meanwhile, became the first No. 6 seed to win the A-10 Championship after defeating No. 2 seed La Salle, capping an improbable season and tournament dash. This turnaround was equally amazing, considering this team had scraped together just five winning games in two years.

“It was a 10-month journey that started in the weight room in January and culminated in a celebratory pile in November upon winning the championship,” Fleming says.

Fleming arrived on campus after serving three seasons as associate head coach and recruiting coach at Northwestern University. Prior to this, he was an associate head coach at Boston University. After graduating from Marist College in 1997, where he served as team captain, Fleming joined the Marist staff as assistant coach.

He took the experience and built an inverse pyramid at Xavier that started with addressing large-scale, general points—how things were done, team habits, mentality and so on. “These things, despite just one win and one goal in our first six games, developed early in the year and provided an infrastructure as we went from trying not to lose games to expecting to win games later in the year.”

The most recent season’s final tally: 10-7-4. Fordham, Temple, Charlotte and La Salle were among those to fall before Fleming’s Musketeers.

“Our program’s motto is ‘Our family versus their team.’”

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New Coaches

Woody Sherwood, who earned four letters as a Xavier soccer player and spent three seasons as an assistant coach on the women’s soccer team in the 1990s, was named the new head coach of the women’s soccer program in December. Ten days later, Andy Fleming was named the new head coach of the men’s soccer team. Fleming comes to Xavier after serving as assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator for national power Northwestern University. He was also an assistant at Boston University and Marist College.

Sherwood’s 16-year college coaching resumé includes head coaching duties at Butler University, where he set a school record for wins in a season, was named Horizon League Coach of the Year and finished no lower than third in the conference during his seven seasons there. He also was head coach at Towson State University for two years, helping the Tigers to a school-record 14 wins and their first-ever regional ranking.

He served as an assistant coach at the University of Louisville for one season before becoming an assistant coach and then assistant head coach at Indiana University for the last three years.

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