How Quinnipiac men’s soccer prepared for its spring season after a 482-day break

Michael Sicoli

It’s been a long time since the Quinnipiac men’s soccer players placed their studs on the turf for a game that meant something. A whopping 482 days, to be exact.

That’s a long time for any team, especially one that was so close to being crowned MAAC champions after losing 2-1 against Iona in the semifinals. It’s a result that is still felt around the team, head coach Eric Da Costa said.

“I know that was eating away at the guys for a while there,” said Da Costa, who’s entering his 16th season at Quinnipiac. “So that hasn’t gone away. That’s something that was really exciting to see is the fact that they still have that little bit of a chip on their shoulder about how that season ended. They’ve rubbed that off onto the incoming freshmen or first-year class that came in.”

With the loss motivating the team, the attention turns to who will be suiting up for Quinnipiac this spring. Every year there’s turnover on the team, though it will be especially hard to replace 2019 All-MAAC First Team forward Eamon Whelan. He left Quinnipiac third all-time in goals (35) and was the unanimous 2018 MAAC Offensive Player of the Year.

Quinnipiac men’s soccer is looking to avenge their semifinal loss in the MAAC tournament last year. (Connor Lawless)

Midfielder Romain Daniellou, who was a member of the 2019 All-MAAC Second Team, is another tough player to replace. Both played a pivotal role in Quinnipiac’s 9-6-3 record last season. But Da Costa is confident that the team is well-prepared to succeed without Whelan or Daniellou — at least on the field.

“I’d say that we have moved on,” Da Costa said. “And that’s no offense to those guys by any means. Every year I say the same thing at the end of season and replacing players is easy … What’s difficult to replace is people, the impact that a person has had on your program and every one of our players comes through and leaves an impression on our program … That’s gonna take some time to figure out.”

It certainly helps to have three 2019 MAAC All-Rookie players in forwards Tomas Svecula and Brage Aasen and defender Henry Weigand on the pitch. Da Costa described the sophomore trio as “really special, rare breed talents.”

“I think we’re gonna see their roles grow, we’re going to play a little bit differently, partly because we want to accentuate their talents and their strengths,” Da Costa said. “So we’re gonna placate to that a bit as a team, and we have the opportunity to do that. We have some really special players.”

The preparation for this season has certainly been unique. Normally the team gets to play a schedule of non-conference games. But due to COVID-19, those were canceled.

The challenge and failure were a part of the formula as they faced different teams with different play styles. Da Costa acknowledged that battling in those games normally helps the squad perform later in the season.

“We found success in that sort of struggle early, in order to be successful late, and try to peak at the right time, which is usually in October,” Da Costa said. “We don’t have that now.”

What Da Costa did have was a fall semester dedicated to cohesion and culture. Without any games to play against opposing schools, practices and team bonding became just as important as the matches themselves. Normally, the team only has two weeks of preseason before non-conference games begin, a schedule Da Costa deemed as “Baptism by fire.” This time they had over three months.

“We had the entire fall with our entire incoming class … to integrate into the team to become ingrained in the culture of what we do and learn their teammates and learn how to play with each other, and for their teammates to learn how to play with them, and see their value early, which you don’t always get,” Da Costa said.

Weigand was the only player on the roster to stay home in Germany during the fall semester, but Da Costa believed that Weigand didn’t miss a beat when returning to the team this spring.

“He’s jumped back in this spring and integrated himself seamlessly,” Da Costa said. “So what could have been a little bit of a hurdle hasn’t been one at all. He’s taken a leadership position, he’s a lot more mature and vocal and a lot more comfortable within himself as a second-year player than he was as a first-year player.”

Senior midfielder and team captain Simon Hillinger also saw the fall as a good opportunity to bond as a team, which was much needed after such a long break.

“It was definitely easier because we were all more together, closer,” Hillinger said. “We were fortunate enough to be able to practice, which helped us a lot as well, which also helped us, or me, to integrate the new players.”

Leadership is an essential skill for any captain, and Hillinger knows it. It’s why he spent time talking to his teammates about the things they want to change. He knows what this group is capable of, and the tempo during drills reflects it.

“We’re also very positive because we saw what is possible with this team,” Hillinger said. “Two years ago, I have to say now, and we saw with the incoming freshmen, that we added a lot of good players to our team to our squad. The mentality is very high. The intensity in practices is very high.”

What’s one name to look out for? How about Paulo Soares, who played just 41 minutes in 2019 due to injury. The senior midfielder was on the MAAC All-Rookie team as a freshman in 2017 and was selected to play for the Cape Verde National Team in 2018.

“He’s been really sharp, really effective and really focused and really honed in, and he’s really starting to have the team take shape around him, cause he’s the engine of the group,” Da Costa said.

A unique offseason promises a unique season, and it’s already born fruit. The team was set to play against Manhattan on March 11, but the home opener was postponed. Da Costa knew this was a possibility even before the game was pushed.

“We have games on the schedule, but we don’t know if we’re gonna play them,” Da Costa said. “And that’s something that is really abnormal, and you never prepare for that. So how do you prepare for a game on Thursday that, all of a sudden, doesn’t happen on Thursday?”

That’s something the team will have to figure out ahead of its match against Fairfield, who won its opener against Canisius 2-0 last week. One thing is for sure — this team is itching to kick off its season with a bang.

“Fired up,” Hillinger said. “We’re very excited.”