For Marist men’s soccer, the hope is that a revamped culture and roster will lead to tangible improvements in 2023.
The roster is laden with intrigue, with two juniors who star on offense, a grad-student goalkeeper who hails from Italy, a whopping nine freshmen, and a head coach in his 17th year on the job tasked with fitting all these pieces together.
To achieve success with this group, which so far sports a 2-1-1 record in non-conference play, the team is correcting issues that plagued them a year ago.
The most notable issue in need of fixing? The team’s culture.
“Last year was a little disconnected with everyone,” said standout junior forward/midfielder Jared Juleau. “This year, we feel like more of a family. Everyone’s getting together. There’s not really any awkwardness in the locker room, and that’s a good thing for us.”
Juleau, who leads the team with a pair of goals and assists through its first four matches, wasn’t the only one to point out the team’s past culture issues and current improvements. Head coach Matt Viggiano, who has led the program since the days of George W. Bush’s second presidential term, echoed Juleau’s sentiments.
“I think our culture took a little bit of a dip last year for a multitude of reasons,” said Viggiano. “In some ways, it was a fresh start for me to rebrand and rebuild the group.”
Determined to return his program to the glory days of 2021’s MAAC Championship run, Viggiano concocted a plan to get things back on track. The primary goal was to surround the team’s offensive catalysts, Juleau and fellow junior forward Richard Morel, with a youth movement while finding someone experienced to take over in goal for legendary Red Fox Sam Ilin.
Many of the team’s nine freshmen are already leaving a mark. Viggano specifically touted the contributions of midfielders Adam Rustami and Kyle Evans, the latter of whom already has a goal and an assist to his name; he also praised the team’s two outside backs, Nicholas Sanchez and Joe Daher, who he collectively described as “the lifeblood of the team.”
“The great thing about freshmen is they’re wide-eyed, and they don’t know any better,” Viggiano said. “We’re pretty young going forward, except for Jared, and we’re more experienced in the back, so that was the idea, just let them go and let them make their mistakes.”
Above all, Viggiano is excited about the impact this new group has had in creating a new cultural identity for the team.
“It’s fun because we have so many freshmen and sophomores; they’re forming a bond where if we can keep this group together, we’re good this year, but moving forward, it can be very special.”
The other facet of Viggiano’s plan, finding an experienced goalkeeper to stabilize the back end, has gone swimmingly. The program brought in graduate student Luca Bulfon, a native of Rivignano-Teor, Italy, who made 41 starts in goal at the University of South Carolina Upstate.
Bulfon came to Marist for several reasons. First and foremost was academics; he majored in computer science with a minor in business at USC Upstate and will now pursue his master’s degree in information systems and business analytics. He cited Marist’s picturesque campus and his desire to explore the American North as reasons for his decision to join the program.
Once he accepted an offer from Viggiano’s staff, Bulfon noted it took him a little while to adjust to playing in the North.
“Coach made fun of me for never playing on turf, for example,” Bulfon said, referencing how he only played on grass surfaces down in the South.
Beyond that, he found less international presence on the Marist squad compared to his previous school, but noted that his new team culture feels “more compact, more united.” He too shares Juleau’s and Viggiano’s views on how the team’s culture is coalescing, pointing to the team’s recent 2-1 come-from-behind victory over Florida Gulf Coast as evidence.
“We have a lot of newcomers, a lot of freshmen as well,” said Bulfon. “But you can tell we’re already a team. We just came back from a match where we were losing 1-0, and then we turned it around and won 2-1, even with a lot of freshmen and newcomers, and that means a lot.”
Viggiano agreed with Bulfon’s assessment, emphasizing how important the early-season comeback win was for the development of this team.
“That was the first time I told the guys I got a little emotional after the game; I was so proud of their effort because we could’ve folded up shop and just went away,” said Viggiano. “[FGCU’s] formation was very difficult to play against; it was obviously the second game [on the Florida road trip], it was hot, and we could’ve given up and rolled over, and they showed a hell of a lot of character to come back and dominate the second half, and obviously, find a way to win the game.”
Looking at Bulfon’s individual performance, it’s clear he has settled in nicely. He notched an impressive 10 saves in the season-opener against a relentless and experienced Hofstra side while also taking home MAAC Defensive Player of the Week honors after shutting out Florida Atlantic University. In essence, he’s played the exact role Viggiano envisioned when assembling the roster.
The success of Viggiano’s plan is dependent on health and availability, with Morel’s presence holding particular importance after the team lost him to a serious leg injury midway through last season. While Juleau is the spark who often creates many opportunities for himself and his teammates, Morel is a finisher who can carry a bulk of the offensive load for the Red Foxes.
“Everything is predicated on health. When we lost Richie last year, the whole tenor of our season changed,” Viggiano said. “Nobody really could’ve replaced him last year. We tried, and it just didn’t happen. The way he set the tone for us, and you could just see it, the work ethic.”
After nearly 10 months of recovery, Morel returned in time for the season opener and reestablished himself with a goal in the 3-1 home-opening win over Colgate. The goal was extra rewarding for a player who has been through so much over the past calendar year.
“Right when I got injured, I was already looking forward to next season. It gave me more of a drive to see whether I could come back the same or would it be a failure, but it showed me a lot of things about myself,” said Morel. “The kind of determination I had to just hammer that recovery through physical therapy and rehab, it took my core to make it back for this season.”
While Morel’s initial return to the pitch was encouraging, it threatened to come crashing down when he exited against FAU in the 81st minute with a hamstring injury and missed the ensuing matchup against FGCU. Luckily for the Red Foxes, Morel plans on returning to the pitch in short order, as he guaranteed he will see the field by the time MAAC play starts up.
The team’s success this season will seemingly hinge on a number of factors: the health status of Morel and others, the acclimation of a large batch of freshmen, and the performance of an experienced goalkeeper adjusting to a new environment.
While much is uncertain, a few things are clear: this team has a high ceiling and a coach who is no stranger to watching his players have to overcome adversity.
Edited by Sam Murphy and Dan Aulbach
Graphic Credit: Cara Lacey; Photos via Kira Crutcher