Coach Jon Pascale on the Division I Transition and the 2021 Season

The UCSD Guardian sat down with thirteen-year head coach Jon Pascale of the UC San Diego men’s soccer team to discuss their first season in Division I, the positives and negatives of his team’s performances, and how the Tritons are looking to tackle next year. This interview transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

This was UCSD’s first Division I season, and I’m sure the results weren’t as positive as you might have hoped, with the team only winning 5 of the available 16 fixtures in all competitions. What was the most challenging aspect or biggest learning curve of the transition to D-I?

There were a couple big takeaways. I remember from my time before Division I as an assistant coach that pretty much every team you play is pretty good, regardless of their record. So we felt there were a few teams throughout the season that we were better than, but everybody has enough to beat you on a given day if you don’t finish your chances, or if you give away a silly goal. Those teams make you pay for your mistakes a lot more than at the Division II level, so that was certainly a big takeaway. 

The other one was challenging when you’re not getting the results, keeping a positive mindset and having a good attitude, working hard. The guys, it was tough for them — they’re used to winning and they’re competitors. It didn’t really matter that it was our first Division I season. We wanted to win, and we expected to win going into games and it was disappointing when we didn’t win. But it showed me just how strong our team’s resolve was because no matter what happened in the game before, we had a great response week in and week out and I give our guys a lot of credit. They kept coming back for more, approaching every day, every training, every game with a good mindset, a good mentality to win, and that was great to see.

It must have been psychologically taxing at least in some way to go from such a strong season in 2019 to this one. How did the team keep their spirits up?

Any time you’re not getting results, I think it’s natural or easy to fall into this rut of questioning things and thinking, “We should be doing things differently,” or what have you, but the guys were great to work with. They just came out every day and really got after it. I think it’s a testimony to the fact that they actually really like each other. Player to player, there’s great chemistry on the team. They’ve bought into this idea of just being present and working hard every day. It’s not just so much about the destination but the process and the journey and they bought into that. If you tracked our team from the first game to the last game, there were a lot of significant improvements, and that’s not easy to do when you’re not getting the results. So, I give them a lot of credit.

A lot of the losses the team took this year were really close. What do you make of the difference between what you saw on the field and the statistical results?

That was one of the challenging parts of the season. Had we been losing by 3 goals, it would have become clear that “Hey, we’re not going about this the right way. We need to make some serious changes.” But we weren’t. We finished second in the league in goals against and it’s something that we’ve always built the program on, even at Division II. When we took over the program, we asked ourselves how we thought we could be successful. We knew we had really honest, hardworking, intelligent players. We knew that we could teach them how to defend and they picked up on it right away. Again, in Division I, the teams make you pay for your mistakes a little more, so it was a little disappointing that we weren’t able to really shut out anybody. I think that’s something, moving forward, that we can look to build on. Honestly, our guys weren’t intimidated by anybody. We created enough chances — not a ton of chances — but the other teams didn’t create a ton of chances either. That’s the way soccer goes sometimes. You’ve got to finish those chances and not give away silly opportunities. We were close, but we’re not quite there, and I have full confidence in the team that we’re going to be able to close that gap even more going into next season.

Going into the beginning of the season, was there any kind of adjustment period to take into consideration after last season was cancelled?

We trained all last year, we practiced all last year. We had five scrimmages against Big West teams that we were really successful in; we didn’t give up a goal all spring. But, the spring doesn’t replicate the edge of a fall game. So, there was definitely an adjustment of the intensity of a fall game, where we didn’t experience that in the spring. It was a good reminder — maybe a minute into the opening game of the season, like, “Oh, yep. This is the intensity of the fall.” And, if you look at our schedule, there was an adjustment from Division II to Division I. We played a lot of games on the road. I think we only had six games at home all season. We traveled everywhere: St. George, Utah to Las Vegas to Portland to San Jose to San Luis Obispo to LA. It is really hard to win on the road, and all that travel certainly was an added obstacle for us. So, when you add that element into it and you look at the guys and how they approached it, there were a lot of positives to take away from it. It’s just difficult to see them sometimes when the results aren’t there.

How will you use this season’s highs and lows to inform the way you prepare for next season? What are you looking forward to most?

We talked to our guys a lot about trying not to ride that emotional roller coaster. It’s so hard to do, not getting too high over a good win and too low over a tough loss, but to be able to keep a clear head and just keep moving forward. That was something that we talked about all season and it’s something I thought the guys did a great job of, and that’s no different going into the offseason. This fall gave us a good indication of the level of the competition and where we need to be. We’ll walk out of there saying, “Hey we’re right there, but we need to get a little bit better.” There’s no time to take your foot off the pedal. We’re going to give the guys some time to be regular college students, get their academics together, and come wintertime, I have full confidence that this team will be motivated to put everything they have into it.

Image courtesy of Derrick Tuskan / UC San Diego Athletics

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