SMOKEY POINT, WA— One of the biggest compliments Steelheads Head Coach Dagi Kesim got during the 2019 Western Washington Premier League season was “your club is very organized.” More often than not the observation was first and foremost about the Snohomish County defense.
It was a record-setting defense that allowed just 6 goals over 10 league matches and 9 goals over the entire 14 match season. It set a new standard for both the club and the league. The .60 goals against average in the WWPL is a mark the Fish will hope to one day match and other clubs will work to reach.
The Steelheads used a defensive scheme which employed just 3 players in the back. Dagi Kesim says it took him a while to embrace the style. “When I started coaching, I used to prefer 4 defenders. As a player my pro teams played 4 and 3 defender systems. As a coach and a former defensive midfielder I felt a void in the midfield. Teams get through easy and leave all the work to defense. Being a big fan of Italian coaches like Arrigo Sacchi, Fabio Capello, Antonio Conte (and some others like Diego Simone and Jose Mourinho), I decided defense is a full team effort and should really happen in the midfield. 3 defenders allows more players in midfield and having 3 strong center backs is pretty hard to beat as a last resort.”
Kesim has experienced success with this system before. “3 years ago my U-19’s (Gala FC) were in the top division in Washington state and only gave up 3 goals total. Broke the state record. This Steelheads team —6 goals in league— probably will be a record that is hard to break as well.”
Gunnar Stohl (Marysville Pilchuck High School, Everett Community College) was on the very first Steelheads team that trotted out back in April 2017 for a friendly with South Sound FC (now called Washington Premier FC.) That was a quickly pulled together group, playing before the new club had even held open tryouts. The final score that night was an 11-1 rout that had Snohomish County looking for answers about competing at a higher level. Hard to imagine that just 2 years later the club would only give up 9 goals in an entire 14-match season.
The Steelheads suffered two big blows in 2019 on defense, losing starter Logen Flem early in the season to injury and then Stohl midway through to medical issues. Gunnar is better now, and looks forward to helping the Fish defend their title in 2020.
“My role is essentially a sweeper, I’m generally the last man back ensuring that we don’t get beat over the top. I only leave my spot if I have to or if I know I’m going to win the ball,” Stohl says.
“2019 was so successful for a handful of reasons. We had some new players join the team this year who are very talented, we all bought into the system and believed in Dagi’s tactics. I would say we were the epitome of the phrase defense wins championships. When you don’t let in a lot of goals it makes it hard to lose games.”
Stohl was named by the Steelheads coaches as Honorable Mention – Defender of the Year.
John Troka (Kingston High School, Peninsula Community College) joined the Steelheads at the perfect time this season. He was an instant hit with the coaches, fellow players and fans. “Ginger Jesus” elevated the back line.
“I started out at right center back. With that position we needed key distribution and moving the play and after we lost Gunnar I moved into the center back role. Back there you can’t make any mistakes you’re the last person back besides the keeper and you need to be able to lead the team.”
Troka is a star player indoors in the Western Indoor Soccer League with the Snohomish Skyhawks. But outdoor his desire to control the ball had to be held in check. “Biggest adjustment I had to make was not stepping to the ball like I’m used to. You have to be patient and choose your opportunities wisely. The system we played worked because our defensive line was on the same page; we can’t have missing links or the chain will break.”
Troka says it was all about the team in 2019 and the defense was a total group effort. “I think we were so successful because we had each other’s backs. When one person went out we pinched in and covered the holes. We never stopped talking to one another and to me that is everything.”
Troka was named by the Steelheads coaches as Defender of the Year.
Cade Cooke (Kamiak High School, Everett Community College) was named Man of the Match in his very first Steelheads contest in late March at Wenatchee. He kept up that level of play the entire season.
“My role on the team was to learn the three defender system, help keep shutouts, help build the attack out of the back, and do long throws to help us score goals,” he explains.
“I think our defense was super successful mainly because of Dagi teaching us how to use this system, but also because we have great talent back there. We lost 2 starters but were able to replace both without missing a beat and that speaks great volumes to Dagi and our ability to adjust with what we have.”
Did the defense deliver the trophy in 2019? Cooke has no doubt about it. “I’ve always believed defense wins championships. Without a great defense, the offense will always be playing catch-up and when you’re winning 1-0 or 2-1 with 10 minutes left, you have to be able to rely on your defense to get you the dub.”
The Steelheads coaches named Cooke Newcomer of the Year.
Dorian Lair (Shorewood High School, Warner Pacific College, FCM Portland) was a big part of the push to a championship. The defense was already doing its thing in front of which ever goalkeeper the Fish were featuring. Lair added leadership, vocal direction, experience.
“As the Goalkeeper, it’s our role to direct and communicate how the defense moves,” Dorian says. He was ready for that, but was he ready for 3 in the back? “Coming into SnoCo FC, I was not looking forward to 3-back system because it’s hard to do right.”
What makes this kind of system work? “You have to have the right personnel, the right mentality and you have to like defense,” says Lair. “For me it meant that I had to communicate A LOT more because with 3 in the back, it can be easy to get overwhelmed. This wasn’t the case for us. We had the right players, the right personnel and all my defenders loved to play D. That made my job easier. That’s precisely why we won the championship.”
The Steelheads coaches named Lair Goalkeeper of the Year.
The Steelheads really defend with eleven men. It’s a complete team system and effort. The back 3 would not be as successful as they are without some pretty good midfielders dropping back, or even stopping the attack before it gets anywhere near the box. Rio Alcorta, Fabian Panduro, Victor Villasenor, Hector Palomera, Kevin Baron, Blake Camilleri and others were instrumental to making Kesim’s plans work. The forwards were top defenders as well. There was also the crucial efforts of defender Marcus Swanson, fresh out of Kamiak High School (now playing with Tacoma CC.)
“It’s about dedication, passion, patience and composure,” Kesim says of great defending. He got all of that and more from his squad in 2019. That’s why there is a beautiful shiny silver trophy now resting in his living room.