VCU men’s soccer head coach Dave Giffard has seen the dream.
Giffard — in the midst of his first season as a head coach after an over decade-long run an as assistant — came to VCU after a four-year stint at with the Akron Zips. Akron, a fellow mid-major university, rose in just a few years from relative obscurity in the national soccer scene to a team that went an absurd 23-0-0 last season, tied an NCAA record for consecutive wins and was denied a National Championship only through penalty kicks in the final.
So though Giffard was a bit frustrated after the Rams twice gave away a lead to settle for a conference-opening 2-2 draw with Northeastern Saturday night, the first-year head coach admitted afterwards that the odyssey to their ultimate objective, a national championship, is more marathon than sprint.
“I need to remind myself sometimes that we’re just getting started,” Giffard said. “Sometimes I maybe come across as negative with our performance and what we’re doing, but it’s because my expectations are very high, and I understand the level we need to be at in all areas for us to compete for a national title.”
The match — which featured four goals, two penalties and a few glorious opportunities to win it in overtime that went begging — stretched VCU’s unbeaten streak to six games out of seven. Even for a man with high expectations, the new coach was content.
“For where we are, we’re doing OK,” Giffard said. “Would I like to be further along? Absolutely. Would it be realistic to think that we ought to be? Probably not, and my friends try to remind me of that every day.”
The match started well enough for the Rams; VCU had the first legitimate chance to score in the 8th minute — a chip by sophomore striker Yoram Mwila (Lusaka, Zambia/Akron) — and had the game’s first goal in the 15th. A long ball by sophomore defender Brad Seymour (Mechanicsville/Hanover) put senior midfielder Jake Van Yahres (Charlottesville/American) in behind the defense, and Van Yahres uncorked a bending beauty from 25 yards out to put the Rams up 1-0.
Van Yahres — a senior speedster who plays in an advanced midfield role just behind the striker — burnt his marker nearly every time he had possession. And even though he could have had a hat trick come game’s end, Van Yahres was still pleased to get his first of the season.
“It’s taken a while, longer than I wanted too,” Van Yahres said of his first finish. “At least I got it, so now the pressure’s off a little bit.”
Listless and lethargic before they scored, Northeastern pegged their way back into the match in the 39th minute — their first good chance of the game — with a goal by senior striker Nick Lueders. The Huskies then nearly took the lead minutes later with a blast off junior midfielder Mike Kennedy that blasted off VCU’s crossbar but didn’t cross the line.
A halftime talking seemed to do the trick for VCU, who came out and won a penalty a mere 40 seconds into the second half. Mwila wiggled and weaved his way into the box before being bundled down by a defender. Senior midfielder C.J. Gehin Scott — a player who, prior to this season, had amassed a total of three goals and two assists in his entire VCU career — stepped up and finished the penalty kick, already his fifth goal of the campaign.
Northeastern received a penalty call of their own to knot things up once and for all. Senior center back Thomas Hupper — one of only three players starting on the day who were on the squad last season — hip checked a Husky before Kennedy scored his second of the match to tie it up at 2-2.
VCU had a few quality chances in overtime — specifically freshman striker Jason Johnson (Saint Anne, Jamaica/Manchester), who is still looking for his first goal as a Ram — no goals were to come.
Though rueful that the team didn’t get off to the best possible start, Giffard understands progress is a slow process.
“One thing we’ve really focused on since I got here in January is the culture and the honesty,” Giffard said in reference to the team’s emphasis on hard work. “That mentality is something we’ve been working on a lot and … it’s not something that happens overnight, but it is something that’s happening.”