Coach Muldoon takes a technical approach to the beautiful game

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By Peter Morrow

In a light team practice two days before Kingston FC kicked off at home, Colm Muldoon’s actions evidenced the drive he has on the pitch.

The 43-year-old head coach could be seen running, shouting and gesticulating at players, without break, for upwards of two hours. He commanded the training session, his voice cracking with urgency.

Midfielder Paul Waiganjo Kihara was stretching his legs by the sideline at West Campus Field, grinning when asked about his coach’s intensity level at practice that day. “This is nothing,” he said, “below average.”

The following Saturday, Kingston FC went on to beat Niagara United 5-2 — a team that defeated Kingston 2-1 last season. After finishing 14th out of 16 teams in its inaugural Canadian Soccer League First Division season, Kingston is a mostly different crop of players under new management and sits in first place with a 10-3-1 record, but they will need some help to stay in first — they have lost twice, 3-2 and 1-0, to the defending champions, Toronto Croatia.

There are no distractions at West Campus field. City traffic is out of sight and the pitch is fenced off. It’s ideal for the task at hand — co-ordinating a 4-3-2-1 formation that’s proven difficult to beat thus far.

The enclosed space allows Kingston FC to develop, in Muldoon’s words, an increasingly “co-ordinated effort.” Teammates study the game plan several times a week.

“An unco-ordinated effort is like trying to win a tug-of-war,” Muldoon quipped, “with everyone on your team pulling in a different direction.”

Kingston FC’s 4-3-2-1 — four defenders, three midfield players, two wide attacking midfield players and a lone striker — has generated 45 goals in fourteen matches. It’s a variation of the 4-3-3 system developed by renowned Dutch club AFC Ajax in the late 1970’s, notes Muldoon.

To lead the league with 16 goals in 13 matches, Guillaume Surot has played the striker role magnificently. He’s the primary target to receive passes, has an eye for goal and knows how to shoot.

“Guillaume’s doing great, he’s bringing all the right characteristics,” Muldoon said, “and although he’s much more than just a target, he’s become a primary target for us.

While he’s considered a deep-lying striker, he’s not the only forward. He’s joined up front by three others who’ve been tasked primarily with attacking roles — namely two speedy wide players, Edgar Soglo and one of either Waiganjo or Nathan Klemencic.

“It’s part of our system that the wide players will receive the ball isolated and take their man on,” Muldoon said. “I’m looking for Nathan and Edgar to receive balls off fullbacks and go at their man.”

Romania native Catalin Lichioiu is the third attacker — playing in a pocket in between the wide players and behind Surot. “If the wide players are isolated wide, Catalin’s now isolated in the box.”

“Basically, it’s more than just Surot presenting as a target; we have Catalin presenting in that little pocket.”

The remaining two central midfielders are Jason Massie and Joey Pineo, tasked with more defensive roles, who receive the ball from the back four and play it forward. Fullbacks Rory Kennedy and Ryan McCurdy are centred by Joe Zupo and captain Austin White, anchored by the goalkeeper, Czech Republic native Jaroslav Tesar.

Kingston FC’s starting 11 have stayed consistent. In a sergeant-like manner, Muldoon’s instilled position-specific roles into them.

When Tesar retains possession of the ball, the whole team knows what will probably happen next.

A boot upfield is unlikely. Kick-and-run soccer isn’t really an option under Muldoon’s watch — it turns his stomach. Nine times out of 10, Tesar turns to feed one of his two fullbacks.

A structured buildup usually starts with a short ball, not a long one, said Muldoon, but not always. “It’s a good ball if he finds an open man; it’s not if he doesn’t,” he added.

Ball on his foot, left back Ryan McCurdy looks upfield facing nine Kingston FC teammates who know their roles under Muldoon’s scheme. Each player’s task in the 4-3-2-1 formation is set; and as they shift accordingly, the formation set out on paper purposefully distorts itself on the field.

If Surot is open downfield, McCurdy finds the CSL-leading goal-scorer directly.

“Everybody’s going to observe the picture — whether it’s going to be possible for him to make that pass, or not,” Muldoon said. “If that’s not on, he’ll slip it to Edgar.”

Luckily, Edgar Soglo is also making his run on the left flank — either asking for the short pass or long ball. The right side is occupied by Kennedy and the right winger.

If that’s not on, Lichioiu sits in a pocket in behind Surot. Massie and Pineo provide two more options in the central midfield behind Lichioiu. As a last resort, central defenders White or Zupo are viable — along with a return pass back to Tesar where it all started.

“If we’re moving the ball right to left, the gaps are going to be there now,” Muldoon said, “and if the gaps aren’t there, we go to the other side until the gap is there.”

He calls it the game of opposites — defence versus offence; if the right side’s not open, move to the left — as a way to simplify a game that appears complicated.

“When we’re defending, they’re attacking,” he said. “When we’re going wide with the ball, they’re collapsing, narrow and compact. All it means is we must do our opposites at a higher level than them.”

There are more factors than just defending and attacking in this game of opposites — the apparently simple game. Beyond the co-ordinated effort, each player has individual responsibility.

“Within that you need ability, execution, smarts — you need every characteristic imaginable,” Muldoon said, adding recognition, conviction and personality.

Tied 1-1 in the 88th minute with the Windsor Stars on June 9, some of those characteristics took the driver’s seat. Kingston FC’s 4-3-2-1 formation went right out the window momentarily. McCurdy left his defensive role and pinched forward, all the way to Windsor’s six-yard box, where he connected with a low cross from midfielder Jason Massie to win the game 2-1.

McCurdy’s six-foot-one, but not a single Windsor defender saw him in time.

As the game flows, players apply their judgments and the formation adjusts accordingly. “The formations change, the shapes change, but the principles never do,” Muldoon said.

By now they know the formation quite well. But every week at training, Kingston FC works tirelessly with Muldoon to execute the game plan, perfecting those dozens of other characteristics.

Team owners Lorne Abugov and Joe Scanlon say they were lucky to find Muldoon when they wanted to transform Kingston’s professional soccer club into a contender. He had just relocated to Belleville when they took over the team.

On the surface, the energetic native of Athlone, Ireland, bears little resemblance to the coaches he admires, including Arsenal bench boss Arsène Wenger, an understated Frenchman.

But it’s not Wenger’s chosen formation that catches Muldoon’s interest — Wenger has switched between a 4-4-2 and a 4-5-1 approach during his 17 years with Arsenal. Instead, Muldoon admires the purely tactical approach Wenger brings to the game. Quoting Pele, the retired Brazilian soccer legend, Muldoon calls soccer “the beautiful game” and feels it should be played as such.

“It’s ‘beautiful’ first. You’ve got to be able to watch and say, ‘that looks pretty,’ ” Muldoon said. “To me, getting a 1-0 win when you gave up chances all game, and the other team just couldn’t capitalize, I don’t call that football. No respect in that.”

Wenger’s tactics are one version of the universal “ball on the ground” approach used by all top teams. The formula’s not a secret, but perfecting it is easier said than done.

Beyond hard work or pure ability, an easily forgotten key to success in soccer is personality, Muldoon said.

“In the end, after many years, you realize we’re all teaching the same stuff,” he said. “The real difference is the personality: how it’s done, what demands you make and what you’re willing to accept (from your players) as a coach.”

His own vibrant, sometimes brutally honest charisma on the pitch is something he hopes resonates with his players. “As they say in soccer, the team is molded into the personality of the coach,” he said.

Similarly, Muldoon fully expects what he describes as an “honest effort”: some combination of intelligence and motivation in players, as opposed to one trait or the other.

“I used to bring that (honest effort),” Muldoon said, speaking of his playing days back in Ireland. “I wanted it more than anybody, so when I see people around me who don’t want it the same level as me, I remove that.”

The Irishman grew up in Willow Park, an estate in Athlone, where he began playing organized soccer. He played with Athlone Town FC — founded in 1887, the oldest club in the League of Ireland — until he became a coach there at age 30.

Muldoon’s knowledge of the game and his style of instruction can be traced back to his early Athlone years. He still recalls learning from top local products such as Michael O’Connor and Dennis Clark as an ambitious young player.

“They wanted to see you succeed so they would teach you everything they knew,” Muldoon said, “and they would teach you the hard way.”

Since leaving Ireland, he’s coached with the Football Association of Ireland and across the U.S. for several academies, before arriving in Canada. His playing days behind him, he’s fully experienced the highs and lows of professional soccer.

With an influx of talented new players at Kingston FC, one challenge has been the task of selecting starting lineups. Beneath his tough demeanour is a deep understanding of the game’s hardships — particularly the struggle of players who work tirelessly and can’t crack a starting position.

“I’ve gone through it in my own career,” Muldoon said, adding, “it certainly doesn’t mean that when you’re not in the lineup that you don’t warrant being in there or that you don’t deserve to be in there.”

Beginning with starting goalkeeper Tesar, an import from the Czech Republic, and backup Yasuto Hoshiko from Japan, depth in the back end has been a useful asset for the team. Tesar’s started each match, but Hoshiko’s proven capable of handling the role if needed.

Despite past injuries to two reliable fullbacks, Hugo Delmaire and Taylor Benjamin, Muldoon’s had no issue filling the sudden void on defence.

Fullbacks McCurdy and Kennedy have excelled since claiming starting roles. Anchored by White and Zupo, there are seven or eight total men capable of starting in the back four. And with Zupo set to return to his OUA season with the Queen’s Gaels, those players will have opportunity.

Along with assistant coaches Thomas Moran and Mike Akai, Muldoon makes calculated decisions on whom to play.

“To be honest with you, I could play any of them,” Muldoon said, “(but) in the end, the coaches and I make a judgment call on what’s quality and what’s not. Everything gets looked at — physical, tactical and mental.”

Once they’ve chosen the starting 11, the expectations on game day are clear. Under Muldoon’s soccer guidelines, it’s either play beautifully and aim to win with integrity, or bust.

“At the end of the day, I’m in it for respect. For the team, for the group, the only way to get respect is play a combination game,” he said, with a nod to the type of soccer modelled after the world’s best — Barcelona, Real Madrid and the like.

“‘Win at all costs’ isn’t a win if it goes against everything you believe in.”