How a life coach changed the game for the men’s soccer team

Northeastern's Timothy Ennin dribbles in a soccer game
Timothy Ennin is among the productive leaders of Northeastern men’s soccer, the surprise team of the Colonial Athletic Association. Photo Courtesy of Jim Pierce

A drought of eight straight losing seasons hit bottom for Northeastern men’s soccer last spring when the Huskies went winless in all six of their games. Coach Chris Gbandi knew something had to change.

He contacted a psychotherapist and life coach, Jeff Levin, who had introduced himself during a chance meeting at the Boston airport two years ago. As Gbandi prepared for the new season, he arranged for Levin to meet with the players and coaches in August at their New Hampshire training camp.

“He helped us wrinkle out some things that were holding us back,” says senior midfielder Dan Munch, a co-captain. “Tension between the coaches and the players, tension between players and players—he really helped us open up. Now we see a different side of coach Gbandi, and coach Gbandi sees a different side of us.”

The change in outlook has transformed the Huskies, who had been picked by the coaches of the Colonial Athletic Association to finish eighth in the nine-team conference. Northeastern (7-2-1, 2-1 in conference) is contending in the CAA and has received votes in the Division 1 Top 25 poll conducted by United Soccer Coaches.

Their first conference setback Saturday at North Carolina Wilmington—a CAA preseason pick to finish second—affirmed the character of the Huskies, who recovered from a 2-0 deficit on a thrilling Federico Tellez corner kick that was headed in by senior defender and co-captain Jack Monte with 10 seconds remaining in regulation.

Huskies soccer team huddles.

Their continuing meetings with a life coach have brought the Huskies closer together. Photo by Jim Pierce

“We did a great job of fighting back,” says Gbandi of the 3-2 loss in double overtime. “I’m proud of the group for fighting and giving us a chance at the end.”

On Tuesday, the Huskies will play host to Boston College (3-4-2) in a 6 p.m. nonconference match at Parsons Field.

The well-balanced Huskies are led by a quartet who have generated 8 or more points: sophomore Tellez (3 goals and 7 assists); junior co-captain Timothy Ennin (5 goals and 2 assists); Soren Ilsoe (4 goals), a first-year transfer from Denmark who has provided leadership along with Kolade Salaudeen, who transferred from Oregon State; and Benjamin Klingen, a senior co-captain from Germany (3 goals, 2 assists). They and their teammates have been bringing out the best in each other because of their ongoing talks with Levin, who is scheduled to meet with the team as many as 16 times this season.

“After the spring season that we had, I thought it would be important to bring him in to interact with our guys,” says Gbandi, who in 2000 was named national player of the year as a senior defender at Connecticut. “Because it was a tough spring and I think mentally our guys were a little bit defeated.”

Crucial to the meetings was the openness of Gbandi, who was 21-46-8 at Northeastern entering this season. It was important for Gbandi and his assistants to hold themselves accountable for the disappointing results.

“We were telling them what we think they need to do, so it was only right for them to come back at us and say this is what [the coaches] need to do,” Gbandi says. “And then once we walked through that door, we hugged it out and said, ‘OK, let’s go do it.’

“We all want the same thing—to be successful,” adds Gbandi. “But we weren’t going in the same direction. These meetings with Jeff brought us all in the same direction.”

The talks have been uncomfortable at times.

“We were able to sit down and have these hard conversations,” says Munch. “Everyone was open with one another, everyone was able to get vulnerable and let teammates in rather than keeping them out. It was the same thing with coach—letting coach into the group rather than ostracizing him like we’ve done for a couple years.”

Munch took the lessons to heart.

“I came in in the fall of 2017 as a young, cocky freshman, I had it all figured out as an 18-year-old, I was the best player on every team I played for, I felt like I knew the game better than anyone, and no one was going to tell me what I could do or how to improve,” says Munch. “As I’ve matured through the program, I’m taking a step back and understanding that maybe I’m no longer that best player in the team. I never really had to defend as a young player. I never had to put in the amount of work it takes to play at this level.

“Maybe I was part of the problem,” says Munch, who acknowledges that the conversations with teammates and coaches have “allowed me to look at myself in the mirror—especially this past summer—and admit my flaws. It’s the small things you do every day that if you do them well and do them consistently, it’s going to lead to success. I think a lot of the guys have taken that mindset and it has worked pretty well for us.”

The Huskies opened the season with a promising 1-1 draw at University of Massachusetts, which had reached the NCAA Tournament last spring, and then won 3-2 at Bryant College. A 1-0 loss at home on a free kick by New Hampshire, currently ranked No. 6 nationally, provided ironic hope that Northeastern was turning the corner.

“The only way they could score was by a set piece,” Ennin says. “That game boosted our confidence because we were competing with one of the top teams in the country.”

In another break from the usual method, Gbandi has refused to identify goals for the season. Instead, the Huskies have taken each day as a new opportunity with hope of building upon their relationships with each other.

“We are having the support of each other now, so if something happens, you know you can rely on the other guy next to you,” says Klingen. “In soccer, it’s not going to be one person that decides every game. We are all trusting each other.”

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