For BU Men’s Soccer, a long-awaited Patriot League Championship, and one collective exhale

Featured image by Joe Eachus

By Sam Robb O’Hagan

BOSTON — Kevin Nylen couldn’t hold it in any longer.

All along, it was clear that the road for Boston University men’s soccer (12-3-4, 7-1-1 Patriot League) was leading here: the Patriot League Final, at home, a chance to finish the job.

The Terriers were clearly the conference’s best team, and Nylen’s players knew it. Graduate student midfielder Colin Innes said “it’s a ring or nothing for us” in late September after a 3-0 drubbing of Holy Cross. And maybe, internally, Nylen knew it, too.

But throughout his fourth season as head coach, Nylen avoided talking about it. He maintained his job was to keep his players humble. He was shortsighted, purposefully, focused on the next day’s training session and the game that followed. He focused on the process, and the progress, not the looming conclusion to what was quickly becoming one of the program’s best seasons in recent memory. Everything was taken day by day.

Even after BU’s 2-0 semifinal win against Colgate, which sent them so close to the top of the mountain there was seemingly nothing else to look up to, Innes had to backtrack, conceding he “got in a little bit of trouble” for his earlier ultimatum. Nylen slowed everything down even further, saying he would now take things second by second in the mere 90 hours that remained before his team played for a ring.

Through 11 wins and just three losses on their way to the title game, the Patriot League Coach of the Year never let himself look too far forward.

And then on Saturday, with BU’s 12th win and first Patriot League championship secured after a 1-0 triumph over Lafayette College (9-5-6, 4-2-3 PL) — he let out one emphatic exhale as he looked all the way back.

“I’ve said it before, we got to keep the guys humble at different times throughout the year,” Nylen would say later. “And, uh, that goes out the window when you win. Especially today.”

First, an exit from the mob at the center of Nickerson Field to acknowledge the fans that remained in the stands, raising his arms up again and again to ask for applause. Then, a gracious concession to the Gatorade cooler ice bath in the sub-40-degree wind chill of BU’s West Campus. Finally, another sudden rush towards the stands to give three giant fist pumps, audacious enough to resemble the iconic post-match celebration of Jurgen Klopp.

The Terriers’ cool head finally let go.

“Love,” Nylen said. “Love.”

“There’s not many better feelings. My wife would say the birth of our three kids, and I would agree with her, but there’s not many better feelings than winning. And for us to do it in the regular season, and for us to do it again today to win the conference tournament, that’s love and passion for me.”

He might regret comparing the moment to the birth of his three kids. He might regret getting carried away and letting it all out. Or, he might not.

“I love what I do,” Nylen said. “I love who I do it with, and so those were those emotions today.”

There is an especially unique bond between Nylen and the players he just did this with.

He was named head coach in the spring of 2020 and, before his first season at the helm, he got right to work on the recruiting trail. Forwards Andrew Rent and Eitan Rosen arrived as freshmen for Nylen’s first season, as did defender Ryan Lee. Then, after a “2020” campaign that was cut short and moved to the spring of 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Nylen went out and added the final pieces to his core before his first complete season leading the Terriers. Goalkeeper Francesco Montali eventually followed Nylen to BU from Florida International University. Innes and fellow midfielder Quinn Matulis arrived as transfers. Defender Griffin Roach, who started 16 of 17 games he played in as a freshman in 2019 but didn’t play at all in “2020,” returned to the field.

And with that, Nylen had his core. All seven of those players were in Saturday’s starting eleven — a lineup that, overall, trotted out with over 30,500 combined minutes of experience under Nylen’s leadership.

But the road to the Patriot League Championship game was long. And it was not smooth.

In 2021, BU won just four games, tied for their lowest output since 1975. They conceded 25 goals, over 1.5 per game. It was Nylen’s first complete season at BU, and save for Roach, it was his budding core’s first complete season, too.

“Yeah, winning four games isn’t fun,” Montali said after the game. He sat in a hidden team meeting room under Nickerson Field’s grandstand, the Patriot League trophy just a couple of feet away.

“We knew that as a team in ‘21, it was only up from there.”

It was only up from there. But development, of course, isn’t linear.

A year later, BU finished as the Patriot League’s second seed and conceded 10 fewer goals. But they only scored 16, a decline from their four-win 2021. They drew seven times, scored twice just three times, and were held scoreless in five games. Rosen, who scored three goals in his sophomore season in 2021, didn’t score once in 2022.

“We needed to get that solid foundation,” Rosen said. “As a program, I think when you’re rebuilding, as we were, it’s about keeping that clean sheet.”

And so, BU sacrificed their goalscoring to make progress defensively, because, as Montali put simply: “In ‘21 we leaked goals.” The Terriers played a ‘three-back’ formation, allowing them to get three central defenders on the field. Rosen, listed as a midfielder/forward the season before, was played as one of two defense-focused wing backs, limiting his attacking contribution to the occasional foray down the flanks.

“That’s something that was very emphasized coming into ‘22, where if we don’t concede a goal we’ll be in every single game,” Montali said. “That’s why we had so many draws, we tied every single game ‘0-0’ or ‘1-1’, because we’d kind of hunker down a bit.”

At least defensively, BU’s process worked. The team finished with nine clean sheets. Montali and Roach won their first PL Goalkeeper and Defensive Player of the Year awards, respectively, and the Terriers lost just five games after losing nine the year before. It was the fruits of taking things one step at a time, a Nylen specialty. BU lasered in on its defense, hindering its attack in the process, and immediate progress followed.

But immediate postseason success didn’t. That, of course, was the flip side of the one-thing-at-a-time coin. The Terriers finished second in the Patriot League regular season, sure, but in the semifinals, they lost at home to Navy in a penalty shootout after a scoreless 110 minutes.

“Unfortunate result,” Montali said. “We thought we were the better team the whole 110 minutes.”

But there was still value in that loss, one that, in hindsight, Nylen probably planned for.

“Coach Kev said it after that game, and it took some time to really realize, but moments like that are required to grow,” Montali said. “The saying that ‘you never lose, you just learn.’ It’s cliche, but it’s really important as an athlete.”

And learn from it they did. The Terriers scored 30 goals this season, almost double their 2022 tally and the most BU has scored in their 11 seasons in the Patriot League. Rosen scored seven in regular season conference play alone and won Offensive Player of the Year. Innes scored four and assisted seven to finish with a career-high 15 points and earn a first-team All-Patriot League selection. To round out BU’s attacking quartet, Matulis and Rent were named to the second and third teams, respectively.

And, crucially, Montali and Roach repeated as Goalkeeper and Defensive Player of the Year. Despite bombing forward, the Terriers conceded 15 goals in 2023, less than one per game and the exact number they conceded in 2022.

Rosen and Montali repeatedly cited the team’s switch from a ‘three-back’ formation to a ‘four-back,’ which plays only two central defenders along with the two wing backs. They said it allowed their attacking players to play higher up the field, leading to more goal-scoring opportunities. Rosen was now playing as one half of a striker-duo or as an advanced wide winger.

“Once we showed we could (defend) last year,” Rosen said, “it was about putting our best players in attacking positions. That’s all it is.”

But, Nylen’s process was a long, frustrating journey. “The guys have been disciplined, they’ve worked every day,” he said. His players had to commit to the ups and the downs, the ebbs and the flows, the goals for and the goals against. His defense needed to withstand a brutal first season in Boston, and to make up for it, his attack needed to be willing to commit to a pragmatic, unadventurous approach the year after.

In short, the Terriers had to move at Nylen’s speed.

Once they did that, once they learned all of the lessons they needed to learn, they would earn the right to let loose, to dream big, and to play their game. Earn it they did, and play it they did.

“I always say this, players play,” Nylen said. “So, a testament to their work ethic, a testament to their abilities. I’m really proud of them.”

In the semifinal against Colgate, staring at another scoreless playoff draw against a stout low block that would be decided on penalties, Innes, one of Nylen’s most consistent players, played his game. He broke the deadlock with a heroic individual effort from outside of the box in the 81st minute, then calmly slotted a shot into the bottom corner three minutes later to send BU to the final.

“Colin, in the semifinal, put us on his back,” Rosen said. “You could say ‘3-5-2’, ‘4-3-3’, whatever formation, he’s put us on his back and was the best player on the pitch that day, and he won us that game.”

And then in the final, with all of it on the line, Nylen’s process — BU’s process — was firing on all cylinders. The defense was stout. The attack, playing, of course, in a ‘4-3-3’ formation, created chances throughout the first half. But the game remained scoreless. The Terriers needed just one final push, one final moment, to finish the job.

“I said, you guys keep it 0-0,” Rosen said, “we’ll find one.”

Maybe, with the help of one final word from the architect of it all.

“I said to (Rosen) at halftime, make sure (they) know you’re the Offensive Player of the Year,” Nylen said. “I said you better go finish one.”

“I don’t remember it exactly like that, it might have been a few words cut out,” Rosen joked. “But, I just have faith that I’m going to get that moment.”

He got it. And he took it. Rosen received a pass on the edge of the 18-yard box in the 64th minute, took one dribble inside, opened his foot, and guided the ball into the bottom left corner.

“Once you get the ball up to our best attacking players in the final third, little magic happens,” Montali said. “And Eitan just opens up his foot every time and it goes inside of the net.”

It was so poetic. The Terriers’ first playoff opponent, in a game where they sought to avenge a scoreless draw from a year ago, was Colgate, the only conference opponent they tied with in the regular season.

That regular-season meeting, by the way, was a scoreless draw at home.

Their second playoff opponent, in a game where they sought to finally finish the job, was Lafayette, the only PL team BU lost to in the regular season.

And, the only PL team that Nylen’s Terriers, over four long seasons of slow and steady progress, had yet to beat.

“We had a saying that the job wasn’t done,” BU head coach Kevin Nylen said. “And I got to tell them that they finished the job.”