For college coaches, a primary marker of success is winning conference championships. On Nov. 14, 2021, men’s soccer head coach Matt Viggiano reached that elusive goal by winning the MAAC conference title.
This moment was a long time coming for Viggiano and his veteran squad, who stuck together through previous playoff exits and a global pandemic that shut their season down two hours before kick-off. The triumphant moment proved to be fleeting, as the ensuing 2022 season was not a victory lap for the Red Foxes.
With players coming and going through the transfer portal, the program hit the reset button and carried 13 new players on their roster in 2022. The journey towards a championship had been turbulent, and reaching that peak allowed players to make an exit. Some graduated, but others chose to seek out a new opportunity at ‘bigger’ schools.
“I got to admit, I was naive, and I didn’t [expect it],” said Viggiano, “I thought because we won, guys would stick around.”
The ‘2021 Men’s Soccer Champions’ poster from the trophy ceremony still sits in Viggiano’s office today, a reminder of a roster that once was. With a redesigned core in 2022, Marist struggled to find the cohesion that led them to success the previous season and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2014.
The notoriety and respect gained from playing a demanding schedule, producing top-quality players and achieving success is a double-edged sword. It accomplishes the program’s goal of sharpening their players and preparing them for a professional career, but also makes them tantalizing bait for the ‘bigger’ schools to come scoop up.
“The [transfer] portal has obviously changed things, and there’s frustration at our level there,” said Viggiano. “People always think the grass is greener.”
Under Viggiano’s leadership, Marist has evolved into a program that can challenge elite schools nationwide and develop top-tier talent, something Viggiano refers to as a “known mid-major.” However, his commitment to helping players become professionals is rooted in their commitment to the program.
“If you’re trying to use it as a stepping stone to another school, I’d rather you just not come here because then you’re not committed to what we’re trying to do,” said Viggiano.
To start the 2023 season, men’s soccer once again welcomed 13 fresh faces with the hope of reconstructing another championship team.
Of the newcomers this year, nine are freshmen, giving Viggiano and his staff a talented young group to work with and develop. Headlining the fresh batch of players is freshman midfielder Kyle Evans.
A native of the Hudson Valley, Evans grew up playing in the New York Red Bulls professional academy and trained with the Red Bulls II professional team. He had enough credits to graduate high school early, allowing him to join and make an impact on Marist’s spring team. As a lauded prospect, the teenager has his sights set on playing professionally.
“[Evans] got offered a contract by Red Bull II,” reported Viggiano, “but our scholarship offer is more than that contract.”
Evans admitted that up until his last day with the Red Bulls, joining the pro team was a tempting opportunity. On the other hand, the chance to grow as a player while receiving an education was also enticing.
So, with Evans being a coveted prospect with professional potential who possesses the ability start on a Division I roster as a 17-year-old, why did he choose Marist?
Marist men’s soccer’s non-conference schedule is crucial to Viggiano; To build the professional culture and atmosphere that entices and, in turn, retains players like Evans, Marist must play competitive opponents.
“The high-level guys we’re bringing in now, I have to schedule [against top 40 competition], or else the lure of what we’re trying to do here isn’t there,” said Viggiano.
In the past three seasons, the Red Foxes have traveled to Florida to face Florida Atlantic University and Florida Gulf Coast University, Washington to take on Gonzaga and the then-ninth-ranked University of New Hampshire. This is one central element in building a professional culture: holding a high standard of play.
“It’s a very professional atmosphere. Everyone in the locker room is trying to go pro,” said Evans.
Playing against high-quality opposition and playing well against them not only helps build a professional culture within the program – where the significance of every game is clear – but also makes others take notice. Being a ‘mid-major’ and playing in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference means that Marist must stick their neck out more to gain attention. This applies to the players who want to attract professional teams and the program itself, which aims to attract future members.
Playing in the MAAC doesn’t always have the glitz and glamour that promising young players saw in their academy days or been shown by ‘Power Five’ schools. Case and point: The day after speaking with Viggiano for this story, the Red Foxes were set to face Saint Peter’s, whose home facilities are in a public park.
“I sell it as that’s how you build character,” said Viggiano.
Viggiano mentions that some of those ‘top’ programs don’t take their teams out of their comfort zone, ultimately limiting opportunities for growth. The former 13th-ranked team in the country, Marquette University, was 6-0-0 but had only played one road game and will play only four total this season. They lost their first road game and immediately dropped to No. 23 in the rankings.
Another significant factor for a player like Evans in choosing to come to Marist as opposed to a ‘bigger’ school is playing time.
“That was definitely a big thought going into my recruiting process. I could go to [a school of Syracuse’s caliber] and sit. Maybe play freshman and sophomore year, and then hopefully I play junior year,” said Evans. “Or, come to [Marist] freshman year grow, sophomore year grow, junior year get even better and become a part of something bigger than just myself.”
Evans admittedly is not focusing on where he will be in two years. However, a prospect as prominent as him, who has the coaching staff’s trust and has become a mainstay in his freshman year, will have every opportunity to demonstrate his skill set, inevitably attracting the attention of ‘bigger-name’ schools.
“My goal right now is not only can I go to the best school, it’s where can I fit in the best? Where can I make the biggest impact?” said Evans.
Of the 11 players who departed before the 2022 season, three transferred out.
Antek Sienkel exploded onto the scene during his first year at St. John’s University. The midfielder recorded seven goals and two assists and started all but one of the 17 matches he played in for the Big East club.
The Red Foxes’ captain for their championship run, Justin Scharf, spent his final year of college soccer at the University of Kentucky. He appeared in 10 games but only made one start and earned 179 minutes across the 21-game season.
Stefan Copetti played a huge role in Marist’s success in 2021, scoring nine and assisting on three, including a 10-game point streak. Copetti made the jump to the University of Maryland and tied for the team’s top scorer last year with six goals.
“There are guys who see that pathway [that playing at a ‘bigger name school’ will make it] easier for me to get noticed or easier to go into the pros,” said Viggiano.
Viggiano doesn’t believe moving up to a bigger school, as those three players did, has to be the path to a professional contract from college soccer. Players are enticed by the Power Five schools and big-name conferences but, according to Viggiano, “the other side of it is if [Copetti] stayed here and scored 15, he’s going to get the same amount of looks, if not more [than at Maryland.]”
Two of Marist’s starting center-backs from the last five years have transferred to Syracuse University. Both are versatile players known for their ability to fill in different spots on the field.
“[Syracuse Head Coach Ian McIntyre] told me our top players here can play anywhere in the country,” said Viggiano.
Evans says he could easily see himself staying at Marist for three or four years; for now, he prefers to play it by ear. Viggiano appreciates that commitment and knows that as a coach, his job is to prepare players for the real world, whatever that may look like.
“If [Kyle] is good enough in two years to sign a first-team contract, that’s great, I want him to go,” said Viggiano. “If not, I’m going to get him an education, and we’re going to prepare him to play at the next level.”
After a disconnected year trying to defend their title, Marist men’s soccer is attempting to rejuvenate itself with a new core. Improved play would likely garner attention from scouts and help Marist continue to bring in talented players, making Poughkeepsie a college soccer hotbed.
“The hope is if they like each other enough and you create enough strong culture that they’re like, “I’m having a great experience, and we’re winning games against high-level opponents, why would I leave?” said Viggiano. “The bottom line is if you’re going to be a pro, we can get you there; soccer is a small world.”
It remains to be seen if the young group has the ability to gel into a championship-caliber team while still aiming for professional contracts. At this point, there’s only one thing left for the players to do: go out on the field and perform.
Edited by Ben Leeds and Luke Sassa
Graphic by Cara Lacey; Photos via Kira Crutcher and Marist Athletics