Women’s soccer program is building itself back up

Greg Habeeb

Ask any contractor: the most important part to building a house is setting a proper foundation. Without a sturdy base, the home built on top is destined to crumble back to earth in a cloud of dust. 

Fran Kulas, head coach of the women’s soccer team, must be familiar with this law of construction. 

One of his main goals in his first year in charge was to craft a unified identity for the Wildcats, one which the program has lacked over the last few seasons.

Since posting an 11 win season in 2009, the Wildcats have failed to break .500, a trend which continued in 2014 as the Wildcats completed another losing campaign on Nov. 4 with a 2-0 loss to St. John’s in the first round of the Big East Tournament. ’Nova’s 5-10-4 record was its worst in 22 years. 

Yet despite seemingly bottoming out record-wise, the seeds are here for a rebirth of the consistent success the program enjoyed from the mid-90’s to the late aughts. 

The Wildcats developed a defense-first personality as the season progressed, allowing the second fewest goals among Big East sides.

“Once we got into Big East play we, as a team, really found our identity defensively,” Kulas said. “Part of that was we settled in on a system. Whenever you defend well you’re always going to give yourself a chance to win the game.”

Anchoring Villanova’s defense was junior center back Emily Damstrom. The Short Hills, N.J. native was a revelation in the “sweeper” role after being moved to the back line from the midfield before the season began. 

“She’s the best defender in the league this year,” Kulas said. “She’s been big for us.”

However, while the Wildcats’ head coach acknowledged the impressive distinction, he also expressed his frustration at the voters’ inability to recognize Damstrom’s teammates for their solid defensive play.

“Emma Meyer in goal, Emily Damstrom, Emily Kuefler and Renee Hart all, in my view, should have been recognized and it’s disappointing,” Kulas said. “Those four were our most consistent players hands down every single game.”

While the defensive side of the ball remained reliable, the Wildcats struggled to create scoring chances the entire season. 

Villanova was outshot by an average of 8.1 shots per game and only generated 8.8 shots per game of their own. 

Just as the Wildcats defense managed to keep them in every game, their offense was unable to provide enough of a scoring lift to put them over the top. 

As a result, ’Nova lost nine games by a margin of one goal. For a point of reference, the ’Cats had 12 such losses combined over the previous two seasons. 

“We created chances but we weren’t always able to convert them,” Kulas said. “Sometimes in terms of our choices going forward we didn’t always choose the most dangerous option.

“We’d play someone who’s farther away from goal when we should have played someone who was closer, sometimes we dribbled when we should have passed,” he added.

On the field, the Wildcats may have struggled. But for Kulas, who was promoted from associate head coach last winter, what was perhaps more important than actual in game performance was the changing of the program’s culture, a culture which had become fragmented and disjointed under previous head coach John Byford. 

“We want everyone in our program to say; if someone asked them ‘how do you guys play?’ they should be able to say ‘We’re trying to do this, we’re trying to do that.’” Kulas said. “Before, it was all over the place.” 

Hanging in Kulas’ office is a poster of a blue triangle reminiscent of the old food pyramid. Referred to as “the Tier System,” the poster serves as a roadmap which Kulas hopes will lead to future success.

“We relay that to all our returners so they can individually recite it,” he said. “Everything on the field we point back to that. And then all we have to do is bring our freshmen up to speed.”

Kulas feels that the foundation of his program going forward, instead of concrete, will be to craft a winning mentality, one that involves “competing” soccer rather than simply playing it. 

“One of the things we’ve always struggled with in this program is, and this is subconscious, our players would rather lose a game playing ‘pretty’ soccer than win a game playing ugly,” Kulas said. “You still want to play a good brand of soccer, but there’s times when you got to grind it out and you got to get a result.”

This season, the Wildcats were unable to get those results, but there is hope here that while there is still work to do, a return to true relevance may not be far off.  

“We have everything that we need to succeed here resource wise and support wise, and I think our players saw how close we were this year,” Kulas said. “These things take time.”