“I think the younger players don't want to sit back in two blocks anymore. They watch the top levels, they watch the Bundesliga: They want to chase, they want to run, to press, to get forward, to get into the box.”
Navy’s Men’s Soccer coach Tim O’Donohue spent his first few seasons in charge searching for a style of play that fit the Naval Academy and the players he thought would land there. He talked with Philadelphia Union Head Coach Jim Curtin and former New York Red Bulls head man Jesse Marsch — now of Red Bull Salzburg — about why they chose to aggressively press in the opponent’s half, the tempo they played at, and how to build a system from a philosophy based on the types of players available.
“I think that the type of players we'll be able to get here are athletic, come from really good clubs, and are 100% bought in, O’Donohue says. “I think this style of play works for us because our guys are committed to run, our guys are committed to get the second ball, to get forward, to get into the box. That's the ethos we have here at the academy.
“I think it really hit for me when I spent the day with Jesse Marsch three years ago. I sat with him and he was so gracious. He walked me through the whole system.”
Implementing the system, though, still required marrying players to system. O’Donohue watched Curtin focus on the defensive side of his tactics in training: front-foot defending, counterpressing, winning second balls. It was all about preventing the opponent from dictating the game, and O’Donohue thought he could make it happen at Navy.
Now, entering the 2019 Army-Navy Cup on Friday, Navy is 11-0 with only two goals allowed. They are ranked 17th in the nation, and have yet to give up a single goal in conference play.
The 4-4-2 diamond Navy plays will be familiar to Union fans, and Union players like Alejandro Bedoya and Brenden Aaronson are already familiar to O’Donohue’s young squad.
“I've shown our guys this year a lot of the Union games,” the head coach says. “I clipped from the Fire game to show the movement in the diamond against the 3-5-2. “I love the way the Union are playing, with Bedoya and Aaronson -- I just tried to show my guys how those guys were playing. Their commitment to run and press’ they cover for each other.”
One Union player in particular is most familiar to the coach himself. While working at the University of Connecticut, O’Donohue saw Andre Blake develop into one of the best goalkeepers the NCAA has ever seen. “He's one of the hardest workers I've ever coached,” O’Donohue says simply. “He'll do whatever it takes to get there.”
Similarly, Navy will do whatever it takes to continue their dream season against Army on Friday. After a difficult loss in last year’s contest, O’Donohue wants to see his players embrace the big stage this time around.
“It's so important to the midshipmen here: The Army-Navy game,” he says. “Playing at Talen Energy Stadium is a great experience for the players. It's more than just soccer. The fans are coming because they're celebrating these young men, who are choosing a different path: To serve their country.
“I think fans are coming for a good soccer match, but also to celebrate these young men.”
Army and Navy meet at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, October 11 at Talen Energy Stadium.