October 26, 2012 – In his young head coaching career, Jamie Clark has taken Harvard and Creighton to the NCAA Tournament.
In his first season at Washington in 2011, the Huskies missed making the tournament, even after going 12-4-2 and finishing second in the then Pac-10 Conference.
Clark’s team is doing everything it can to end the program’s four-year tournament drought. The Huskies have posted 10 wins and are in first place in the Pac 12 with a 5-0-2 record, which includes a rare win at sixth-ranked UCLA.
Last year’s snub was an obvious disappointment, but Clark told his players to take the high road and look at it as part of a character building process.
“That’s why we’re all in it,” he said. “You can’t cry foul when things don’t go your way. You have to find the positives and look at how well you did and where you had growth. And we had it, we had great growth last year and so many positives. The fact we didn’t get a chance to show everyone how we play and make a NCAA run was disappointing, but I still think of those guys and all the seniors who didn’t get the chance. They know how proud we were of them.”
Clark has a lot to be proud of with this year’s team. The Huskies have all the ingredients to be a solid College Cup contender: they’re experienced, disciplined, sound at both ends of the field, skilled, motivated and united.
“I wouldn’t say we’re doing better than expected at Washington,” senior center back Dylan Tucker-Gangnes said about the team’s success this season. “I’d say we’re on point to where the program should be, what the standard should be moving forward for the next generation coming through.”
Tucker-Gangnes started his Washington career playing for Dean Wurzberger, who resigned last season after 19 years at the helm and 220 wins.
Tucker-Gangnes says Clark has “brought a fresh start to the program, which maybe needed a kick start. Jamie and the staff, in my opinion, is the best coaching staff in the country. Jamie, (Craig) Weibel and (Jeff) Rowland here as one group is pretty unbelievable. It’s definitely helped turn the program in the right direction.”
Clark said what made replacing Wurzberger difficult was everything done before he arrived in Seattle was done right.
“You know the expectations, what you have to do is bring who you are to the front,” Clark explained. “I tell my guys you have to be true to yourself. They have responded well, not just to myself but to the staff around.”
Weibel, a former Washington star, is a four-time MLS Cup champion. Rowland was a standout forward at New Mexico when Clark was an assistant there and played a couple of years in the MLS.
Washington showed early it was a team destined to have a big year. In early September, it traveled to Storrs, Conn., and battled fourth-ranked UConn into overtime before falling 1-0.
“It was a big game for us,” Taylor-Gangnes said. “UConn is a top-10 team and we could have won; we pushed them to the limit. That game, for me and the rest of the team, was big for our confidence moving forward, even though it was a loss.”
Clark called it one of the team’s “belief games. It showed when we play properly we have the ability to be better than anyone in the country.”
He said another belief game was a 1-0 win over Oregon State in their Pac-12 opener. The win came after the Huskies’ blew a 2-0 lead and lost 4-3 to Brown at home.
“Getting that first conference win sort of set the tone,” Clark said.
The win at UCLA also was huge. The Huskies’ snapped the Bruins’ 16-game conference winning streak dating back to 2010.
Clark said the UCLA win convinced his team it could win the conference.
The Huskies won by playing their style.
The key, Tucker-Gangnes said, “was not letting them dictate the style of play and keep putting them under pressure. We played aggressive the entire game.”
Washington has one of the tallest teams in the country. Thirteen players on the roster stand over 5-11. That kind of height is a luxury on set pieces.
“Our size and strength as a team is one of our strengths,” says Tucker-Gangnes, who stands 6-3 and leads the team in goals with seven. “It’s shown in our ability to score on set pieces and defend the goal. I’d say it’s a major part of our team.
“I’ve always been the tallest guy, hands down, for the past three years,” he added.
He’s now got plenty of tall company: senior forward Nate Sackeyfio stands 6-3, freshman forward James Moberg is 6-2, junior fullback Taylor Peay and freshman centerback Michael Gallagher are both 6-2, goalkeeper Spencer Richey is 6-1, defensive midfielder Ben Fisk and attacking midfielder Patrick Pacheco are both 5-11.
“We have a few big guys, for sure,” Clark said. “It presents itself with options. It’s certainly allowed us to be very efficient defending set pieces and attacking set pieces.”
Tucker-Gangnes, who was recruited to Washington as a forward and has scored most of his goals on set pieces, said he still carries the mentality of a striker.
“Somewhere deep within the centerback mold is a little bit of forward left,” he said with a laugh.
Tucker-Gangnes and Richey, both All-Pac-10 second-team picks last year, lead a solid defense.
“It’s a really good defensive unit, and it starts all the way in the back with Spencer Richey,” Clark said. “He’s as good a goalie there is in the country. Steady and calm, he gives us that presence that let’s guys settle in and be comfortable.”
Richey has recorded seven shutouts and has a 0.82 goals-against average.
Clark said “there is no better defender than Dylan (Tucker-Gangnes). It’s that steady calmness that’s allowed a freshman (Gallagher) to play beside him.”
Fullbacks Peay and Thoma have the speed and toughness to shut down attacks up the wings, and Fisk diffuses attack in front of the back four.
The Huskies have allowed just 14 goals in 16 matches.
“We have this really solid unit that allows other players more freedom to go pressure, defend and attack when they want,” said Clark.
Washington’s offense has been bolstered by a couple of transfers, Sackeyfio from Denver and Pacheco from New Mexico.
“Those two in particular have been huge for our team,” Tucker-Gangnes said. “Patrick has given us an added boost in the midfield we need. He’s an attacking-minded player who has the ability to take guys one-on-one, drive the ball and take space, which allows us to build our attack in the final third.”
On Sackeyfio, “Nate has been stepping up in the Pac-12 season,” Tucker-Gangnes said. “He’s a big forward, a target kind of guy.”
Tucker-Gangnes noted that what’s cool about both senior transfers is they both bought into the team mentality right away.
That mentality and their solid play should land Clark’s Huskies back into the NCAA Tournament.
Barry Punzal is a contributing writer for College Soccer News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org