The Stony Brook men’s soccer team before the match against Long Island University on Aug. 26. The Seawolves are off to the best start to the season since 2004. JOCELYN CRUZ/THE STATESMAN

It’s no secret that the 2020 Stony Brook men’s soccer team struggled greatly, going 1-6-1 overall and 1-4-1 in conference play. It left many wondering what went wrong, and it caused some serious doubt within them ahead of the 2021 season.

As it would turn out, this team is much better, with a lot more to look forward to than the team that was seen last. So far, after playing five non-conference games, the men’s soccer team has started the season 4-1, beating LIU, Drexel, Columbia and Fairfield while only narrowly losing to Hofstra in between. The team’s 4-1 start is the best since 2004.

But what has been the key to this turnaround, and is it something to look forward to further down the road? Or is this just a pipe dream –– a flukishly good start to the season?

“There’s a formula to being successful, and that starts with limiting teams’ chances and not giving up goals,” head coach Ryan Anatol said in an interview with The Statesman. “I think that the group has bought in to defending and how important that is. I think we have players on the attack that can cause problems and create chances.”

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Stony Brook is now utilizing a 3-5-2 formation, which is coming up roses so far. However, it has not been perfect.

“We’re just trying to become better and learn the nuances of the formation, figure out where teams are causing us some problems and try to get better in those areas,” Anatol said. “We’re trying to get better in possession and create some more chances. That’s an area that we need to get better at.”

The team is led by their sixth-year graduate midfielder Gabriel Fernandes, who was named team captain, and believes that several things are responsible for their hot start. He accredited their attitudes as a huge reason for their newfound success.

“I think it’s just the belief,” Fernandes said in an interview with The Statesman. “Everybody’s bought in. I tell everybody, ‘It’s one through 29.’ We need everybody. You can’t take a day off because then the guy next to you is taking a day off … Once the guys really start believing, we can really get something going. We’ve already started so hot.”

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Fernandes also said that the new additions to the team have made a big difference between last season’s team and this season’s team.

“We needed new recruits to give us new blood and new energy,” he said. “We’ve added coach Carlos [Delcid], and he’s really tough on us. He does a really good job. A bunch of guys are just stepping up and doing their part everyday.”

The wins have greatly improved the liveliness around the team as well, which can have a positive impact on their performance later this season. 

“Back in 2019, when we had a terrible season, you would walk into the locker room and you wouldn’t even want to be there,” Fernandes said. “Definitely walking into the locker room is easier now that we’re [4-1] and the vibes are great at practice.” 

Fernandes credits sophomore forward Sean Towey as a contributor to this team’s improved attitude.

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“[Towey’s] the Energizer Bunny,” Fernandes said, praising his intensity and its influence on the team. “Whenever practice is low, I’ll grab him and say, ‘Do your thing.’”

Other young players provide Stony Brook with promise. Sophomore forward Aki Solvason was named Second-team All-America East after the 2020 season after leading the team in shots taken, goals and points. The Iceland native, who recorded a 63.6 shots-on-goal percentage last year, said that he put in a lot more work on his shots and expects to score more this season.

“I feel like I could have scored at least three more goals last season, so I’m just hoping to get more shots on target,” Solvason said. “That will cause some problems.”

Similar to Fernandes, Solvason believes that the main reason for the team’s improvement is due to their chemistry and morale. He also credited Fernandes’ leadership as a huge contributing factor to their turnaround. 

“He’s a great motivational speaker and he gets a lot out of all the players just by talking to them and keeping it real,” he said. “Every team needs a guy like him.”

Anatol acknowledged the improved morale of the team, but also noted that there is much more work to be done. He mentioned that he has been preaching to them how to deal with adversity in several different situations, and feels as though they’ve done well with it so far.

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“I think spirits are high [and] the guys are excited to come out,” he said. “The season’s long, we have a lot of games ahead of us. We just want to make sure that we get better. Never get too high when you win, never get too low when you don’t win.”

Solvason was injured in Stony Brook’s contest against Columbia, with Anatol labeling the best case scenario as a one-week absence, but his spirits are not hurt. Graduate defender Evan Peters will also be out for a longer period of time. 

The team’s matches against America East Conference opponents hold importances to its players beyond the scoreboard. Junior goalkeeper Edmond Kaiser seeks revenge against NJIT, not only because Stony Brook lost to them last year, but because their goalkeeper is from Germany like Kaiser. Solvason is also inspired by knowing “about five” Icelandic players who have played for Vermont. Fernandes listed NJIT for eliminating Stony Brook from postseason contention last season at home, Albany because of the New York rivalry and New Hampshire for their national ranking and lofty expectations.

Anatol did not disclose any specific expectations for his team, other than just the goal for them to get better as the season progresses.

“For me, it’s just one day at a time,” he said. “It takes a lot of things. We can’t win an America East championship right now … The goal is to continue to get better so that when the opportunity does come, we’re ready for it.”

This team is a different bunch than the last one. Other than the obvious statistical improvements, such as shot percentage and goals allowed, this team shows a lot of camaraderie. All of the players have bought into their coach’s message and faith in one another. The winning has only helped improve that confidence.

“The most important thing for this year is getting that ring — the America East championship,” Solvason said with faith.

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Stony Brook opens up conference play on Saturday, Sept. 18 against the Vermont Catamounts home at Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium. If there is anything to take away from these non-conference performances and the words of the Seawolves’ players, this team has the type of defensive play, team chemistry and pure confidence in themselves to maintain its winning ways against America East opponents.

Expect the bar to be raised in the coming weeks.

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