Sacrifices, Camaraderie and Controversy Culminate in a Successful Season for Men’s Club Soccer

Success on the pitch this season was a common occurrence for the 2023 Marist men’s club soccer team. Amid some notable hiccups, the team ultimately placed first in the Southern Connecticut Conference of the NIRSA league and qualified for regionals.

Behind the team’s successful season are students whose close-knit bonds and off-the-field sacrifices paved the way for team success.

“This is by far the best season we’ve had with Marist men’s club soccer. This team is unlike any other team that we’ve had,” said men’s club soccer senior and student-coach Milo Khoury. “The cohesion and the chemistry that we’ve had is honestly just beautiful. Everybody gets along, and there’s no toxicity within the team, and honestly, that’s half the battle right there.”

Despite the team’s apparent strong culture and recent success on the pitch, the road to establishing themselves as a thriving club soccer team has been anything but easy. The team’s senior leadership has dealt with a myriad of logistical obstacles and contested outcomes, not to mention a lengthy set of responsibilities. At times, their limits have been tested as they attempt to balance running a collegiate soccer team with the workload that comes with being college students.

Men’s club soccer started with Marist students who gathered to play pick-up soccer across the river at the Hudson Valley Sports Dome during the days of the COVID-19 pandemic. The team’s current senior captains, midfielder Garrett Smith and right back Patrick Vergona, are responsible for evolving the program from a gaggle of students playing casual soccer among themselves to a viable team competing with schools throughout the region.

“Our freshman year, we didn’t play, like we didn’t have a team,” said Smith. “So we’ve really taken the reins of this team and brought it all the way through.”

The entirety of men’s club soccer is student-run, for better or for worse. The team’s captains frequently face a daunting list of responsibilities typically reserved for professional coaches and athletic directors. 

“We’re the ones that select the members of the team. We’re the ones that decide what we do at practice,” said Vergona. “We have to schedule the refs, the busses, communicate with other captains [from] other club teams.”

Leading the charge is Khoury, who signed on to be the club’s coach when he first arrived at Marist during his sophomore year. Khoury spent his freshman year of college doing online schooling due to the pandemic. He arrived at the College for his sophomore year with his soccer career at a crossroads due to an ACL injury which he didn’t plan to have operated on until winter break.

“Soccer is my life. It’s been my whole life ever since I was young, and I just wanted to be around the game,” said Khoury.

Khoury approached the team’s senior captain at the time and expressed his interest in joining the club soccer team as a coach. His role as the team’s coach became more clearly defined with the emergence of Smith and Vergona as the team’s primary captains. While captain positions are subject to change, Khoury’s role as the coach remains constant.

“I said my position was constant, but if they didn’t want me here, I wouldn’t be here,” said Khoury.

To select captains, the team holds annual elections to ensure the entire roster gets a say in who from the player side will lead the team on and off the field moving forward. Prospective candidates each give a speech to the team to discuss what leadership skills they bring to the table; when speeches conclude, everyone on the team gets to vote on who the captains will be.

Smith and Vergona have been re-elected as captains for three consecutive years, this year leading the way alongside sophomore midfielder Ahmed Aljamal, who was also elected as a captain.

From left to right: student-coach Milo Khoury, senior captains Patrick Vergona and Garrett Smith, and sophomore captain Ahmed Aljamal (Photo credit: Luke Sassa)

“It’s not like because you’re captain one year, you’re guaranteed for the rest of your soccer career. You have to earn that spot back,” said Vergona.

“The guys could have not voted [for] us if they wanted to,” Smith added. “And that’s the great thing, it’s all up to the guys.”

With Smith and Vergona firmly entrenched as captains over the long haul, they have dedicated many hours towards making sure the team has everything it needs to operate. This season presented them with a new challenge, as changes within the Marist athletic department created confusion for the team’s captains over who to contact with their needs.

Former Assistant Athletic Director for Intramural Sports, Club Sports and Camps Julie Byron, who had been the team’s point person for any of their needs, announced she would leave her role to join the Vice President’s office in late August. Associate AD for Business Operations Zak Harkenrider oversaw the transition from Byron to Stephen D’Alessandro, who filled Byron’s position in late October. According to an official email provided to Center Field by Harkenrider, Byron did remain available to assist intramural clubs with their needs until the final weekend of September.

With the team’s practice schedule commencing in early September during the leadership change, miscommunications occurred between the team and the athletic department.

When the team showed up to Tenney Stadium after dark for their first practice of the season only to find that the stadium lights had been turned off, it led them to cancel practice that night. 

When they arrived two days later to practice, they were forced to wait for the Marist marching band to finish rehearsing on the field before squeezing in limited time on the pitch just before their first match.

“We’re students, and that’s our main job, is [to be] students. And sometimes I think it felt like we were battling between being a student and then running this club, which I don’t mind because I love this club,” said Smith of the logistical issues. “We’ll die for the club, but to some point it hurts our personal life because of what we’re doing with the club.”

Harkenrider shared his belief that while the inconveniences the team experienced are unfortunate, they are an inevitable byproduct of attending a small school like Marist.

“I think it’s one of those things where it happens where sometimes, you mess up the lights, you know what I mean?” said Harkenrider. “Mess up the light schedule, the band maybe lost track of time and, different things like that kind of happen on a smaller campus where you only have one turf field with lights at night for everyone to practice [on]…I think they did a good job overall persevering through that.”

In spite of the headaches his involvement may cause, Smith indicated the situation is much improved from the past. In previous years, Smith and Vergona have been tasked with carrying much of the load on their own; now, they feel their entire group has what it takes to pitch in and make things happen.

“I’ve been captain for three years and out of those three years, this is the best because I’ve been able to get help from all of these guys,” said Smith. “Whereas in years past, it’s just been me doing the work or me and someone else and that’s really tough. You can’t do that. You can’t carry a whole club team on your back with that kind of stuff.”

It’s safe to say their efforts have paid off. The team is fresh off a division championship that earned them an appearance in regionals, giving the team their first true taste of success. 

Khoury cited the team’s first regular season match on Sept. 15, a 1-1 draw with Fairfield, as the moment he knew his squad had promising potential. Fairfield’s club team has been a consistent presence over the years at the top of the Southern Connecticut Conference along with Yale Blue, yet the Red Foxes managed to dominate for much of the match despite the aforementioned practice snafus that took place in the lead-up.

“Everything was stacked up against us. And then for us, with pretty much no time to practice, to train, to drill down our tactics, we were able to get a very convincing and quite frankly unlucky 1-1 draw,” said Khoury.

As the team marched through their regular schedule posting an undefeated record, the only thing able to take the wind out of their sails was controversy that emerged due to a roster technicality. After Marist’s 2-0 win over New Haven, it came to light that neither of the team’s goal scorers (Isaac Alstein and Joe Dolan) were listed on the team’s official roster on the IMLeagues app, which is used to organize information for NIRSA teams. Amid their many responsibilities, the team captains lost track of updating the official roster.

“Everyone needed to be signed up for the roster and we had like half our kids sign up when everyone should have,” said Vergona. “I mean, that comes down to us as leaders on the team. We should have made sure that the freshmen signed up.”

As a result of the roster mishap, an official complaint was filed with NIRSA, forcing Marist to vacate their victory over New Haven and instead accept a 3-0 forfeit loss. Team leadership could not confirm which team might have filed the complaint against them, as NIRSA only informed them of the outcome. 

The team did receive an informal publicly-aired complaint from the Fairfield men’s club soccer Instagram account, which made the following comment underneath a post on the Marist men’s club soccer Instagram account on Oct. 9:

Smith vehemently denied any allegations of roster manipulation, pointing out that the team’s entire roster was posted on their Instagram page during the final week of August. Aside from their own roster issues, Smith expressed his belief that every NIRSA team had some issues with their official roster registration on the IMLeagues app, and that one team only had two players on their roster officially registered through the app.

With their season potentially on the line due to the roster technicality and ensuing forfeit, Smith and Vergona decided to follow suit and hold Sacred Heart accountable for their own roster registration issues on IMLeagues.

“We said ‘We don’t want to do this. We would hate to do this. We don’t like setting this precedent, but since [someone else] did this and you’re upholding it, then we’d like to challenge the other ruling,’ and so therefore we got a draw [against Sacred Heart] changed to a win,” said Smith.

With Fairfield having already beat Sacred Heart and Marist originally posting a 1-1 draw with the Pioneers, the draw was overturned to a win, reinstalling the Red Foxes ahead of Fairfield in the standings after the string of roster complaints. The focus turned to qualifying for regionals, with Marist needing a win over Yale Blue to advance.

Marist went up early in the match, with forward Marley Pope notching his second goal of the season to put the Red Foxes ahead 1-0. With Yale managing to tie it up in the middle of the second half, the Marist season came down to a pivotal final stretch to close out the game.

“And then five minutes left, it’s just pouring, pissing down with rain, I played a ball over the top,” said Smith. “It’s a hopeful ball and I just yanked it. And it dropped to Ahmed’s feet. He beat a player and the keeper came out, he just dinked it over him and it went right in and it was a scene, it was nuts.”

With the 2-1 win, Marist dismantled the old guard to seal the division in dramatic fashion. 

MatchResultMarist Goal Scorers
Sept. 9: (Preseason) Marist vs. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Marist 0, RPI 0N/A
Sept. 15: Marist @ FairfieldMarist 1, Fairfield 1Ethan Brown
Sept. 17: Marist vs. University of New HavenNew Haven 3, Marist 0
(Marist originally won 2-0; forced to forfeit due to roster issues)
Isaac Alstein, Joe Dolan
(Goals later nullified due to forfeit)
Sept. 17: Marist vs. Sacred HeartMarist 3, Sacred Heart 0
(Marist and Sacred Heart originally drew 1-1; Sacred Heart forced to forfeit due to roster issues)
Sam Dennehy
Sept. 23: Marist @ WesleyanMarist 3, Wesleyan 1Sam Dennehy, Tobi Akinde, Marley Pope
Sept. 24: Marist vs. QuinnipiacMarist 1, Quinnipiac 0Sam Dennehy
Oct. 7: Marist at Yale BlueMarist 2, Yale Blue 1Marley Pope, Ahmed Aljamal
Oct. 8: Marist vs. Yale WhiteMarist 3, Yale White 0
(Yale White forfeited; they mistakenly thought it was a home match and didn’t have travel arranged)

With a trip to regionals during the last weekend of October now secured, the team had to figure out a way to get there. With the tournament taking place at Stony Brook University on Long Island, it quickly became apparent that obtaining transportation and lodging would be a hassle.

“I say we’re even lucky to have a bus because the [JTR] bus company that we normally use was all booked for this weekend,” said Khoury. “We were thinking we were gonna take vans at one point, like three different vans and just load up 10 guys to a van or something like that.”

Luckily for Khoury’s squad, Harkenrider helped them secure a bus with Coach USA. They still faced hurdles, with the Marist athletic department communicating to them that they were only willing to book one night of lodging for the team. With only one night of hotel accommodations, this meant the team would be forced to depart Marist at 6 a.m. on the first day of their tournament to make the trek to Long Island before having to play games at 11 a.m. and at five o’clock.

Harkenrider relayed that this is the standard operating procedure at Marist, as even some of the College’s varsity teams have had to depart as early as 4 a.m. to make the 2.5 hour trip to Long Island or Connecticut for a morning game. Among other reasons, budgeting plays a role in the athletic department’s decision to send athletes on early-morning bus trips instead of booking them a room the night before. According to D’Alessandro, the athletic department receives a finite amount of money to spend on each club team from the Marist Student Government Association, and Harkenrider added that club teams must be selective when prioritizing budgeting decisions. 

The team did find a place to stay in between their two days of scheduled games, but not before facing issues with booking their hotel room.

“I had to call like 15 different hotels and have hour-long conversations with international companies because it’s like a whole process if you need to schedule more than 10 rooms for some reason,” said Vergona. “So I was talking on the phone for hours on Saturday. But luckily we finally got a hotel booked. It’s in the budget, so Marist is paying for it.”

Once the logistical issues were ironed out, the focus shifted to the pitch. While Marist drew their first match with West Chester University, blowout losses to Rutgers and Georgetown ended their season.

MatchResultMarist Goal Scorers
Oct. 28 (Regionals) Marist vs. West ChesterMarist 2, West Chester 2Tobi Akinde, Joe Dolan
Oct. 28 (Regionals) Marist vs. RutgersRutgers 6, Marist 0N/A
Oct. 29 (Regionals) Marist vs. GeorgetownGeorgetown 9, Marist 2Hans Heer, Joe Dolan

Despite their struggles at regionals, the team had their most successful season to date and fulfilled their preseason goals, setting a new precedent for what Marist club soccer can accomplish.

“At the beginning of the season, we sat all the guys down and said this year will be, it’s not a building season. This is our season to win the league,” said Smith. “If you’re not here to win the league and not here to be here at every single practice, then we don’t want you on the team.”

Team photo provided by Garrett Smith.

Vergona acknowledged how the team’s leadership played a role in creating an environment where players could strive for excellence while forming lasting relationships with one another.

“I think it does come from top down, and I think that all of us have really formed that sort of companionship,” said Vergona.

With the 2023 club soccer season now drawn to a close, the team will look to replicate their success next season, hopefully with fewer logistical headaches and forfeits.

Edited by Dan Aulbach

Graphic by Jaylen Rizzo; Photos provided by Garrett Smith

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