Men’s Soccer | Shapiro leads resurgence of Tufts men’s soccer

Step inside the Halligan Hall office of Tufts men’s soccer coach Josh Shapiro and you won’t see much.

Scouting reports are neatly organized in binders on his desk, four chairs line the far wall, and a few small photos of Shapiro, his wife Amy, and their young children, Benjamin and Sophie, are modestly displayed on the near shelf.

In a world of college athletics that places an ever-increasing emphasis on flash and ornamentation to attract top recruits, Shapiro’s office is one of the rare exceptions. That’s because the Jumbos’ head coach doesn’t need or want to show off past successes like his three NCAA tournament appearances as a player at Middlebury or his seven years of Div. I coaching experience.

In fact, take a look at the writing on the wall behind Shapiro’s desk, and you’ll see that the coach’s focus rests squarely on the present and the future.

To the left, written in big black letters, is Shapiro’s current depth chart at every position. To the right is his “war board,” a list of about two dozen current high school seniors — chosen out of an original pool of several hundred — that Shapiro wants to bring to the Hill next fall.

In only his second season at Tufts, Shapiro’s impact on the program is already tangible. The men’s soccer team had gone nine straight seasons without a winning conference record, posting a 28-46-7 NESCAC mark during that span. But this year, Shapiro has led the Jumbos to a 4-2-2 conference record, and a ranking of No. 5 in New England by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America.  

How has Shapiro experienced so much success so early in his head coaching career? David Saward may have the answer.

The Middlebury days

Saward, now in his 27th season as Middlebury’s men’s soccer coach, has talked with hundreds of prospective students in his office. While Saward has forgotten most of these conversations, he still remembers his first meeting with Shapiro.

“The first thing out of his mouth was, ‘I’m from Leonia, New Jersey. Leonia doesn’t have soccer, but thank God for my club team,'” Saward said.

Eventually, the Middlebury head coach secured a commitment from Shapiro, who was impressed with Saward’s passion for soccer. Under Saward’s tutelage, Shapiro’s play steadily improved each season.

“I thought Coach Saward created an atmosphere where players loved to train,” Shapiro said. “I thought that was really important for me as an individual and for the teams that I played on.”

In his four seasons at Middlebury, from 1993 to 1996, the Panthers qualified for the NCAA tournament three times and reached the Sweet 16 twice. As a senior, Shapiro had an assist in the first round of the NCAA tournament to lead Middlebury to a 1-0 victory over Tufts. That season, Shapiro also served as one of the team’s captains, showing off one of the qualities that Saward says makes him a successful head coach today: leadership.

“Josh was a terrific leader,” Saward said. “And obviously when you talk about coaching qualities, that’s going to be something that’s fed upon.”

Although Shapiro was a four-year starter at midfield while playing in Vermont, the Jumbos’ coach was quick to give most of the credit to his teammates.

“I was on some very good teams,” Shapiro said. “I definitely wasn’t the best player on my team.”

Bouncing around

After graduating from Middlebury with a degree in psychology, Shapiro, like so many recent college graduates, still wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. He spent two years out west before moving to New York to work as a day trader, a job he hated.

In 2000, Shapiro got his first opportunity to coach when he was offered a part-time job at Fieldston High School in the Bronx, his alma mater. It wasn’t until the next year, however, that Shapiro got the phone call that he had been long awaiting.

“I got a call from coach Saward saying, ‘Hey, we have a position open as an assistant staff up with me, are you interested?'” Shapiro said. “And I immediately told him yes and was happy because the timing was just very good for me.”

In 2003, Shapiro moved on to Lafayette College, a Div. I school in Pennsylvania, where he served as an assistant coach for the Leopards, who were 2003 Patriot League champions and qualified for the NCAA tournament. He left after two seasons, however, proceeding to American University in D.C. to follow his wife who was starting graduate school in Washington.

After a season at American, Shapiro moved on to yet another new Div. 1 school, Georgetown University, where he worked under head coach Brian Wiese. Before coming to Georgetown, Wiese served as the top assistant for renowned coach Bobby Clark at Stanford. This connection immediately drew Shapiro to Georgetown.

“Georgetown was a bigger-profile, better academic school,” Shapiro said. “I knew Brian Wiese, and I knew the Bobby Clark coaching tree was an outstanding coaching fraternity, and I wanted to get involved with them. That was really the biggest basis for my education as a coach.”

From devastation to elation

Following a 2009 season in which Tufts went 2-10-2 overall and 0-8-1 in the NESCAC, it was announced that men’s soccer coach Ralph Ferrigno, who had spent 19 years at the Jumbos’ helm, would not be returning in 2010. Director of Athletics Bill Gehling declined to comment on whether Ferrigno resigned or was let go, but he did explain the process in looking for and eventually hiring a new head coach.

“We had done a very thorough search throughout the spring and early summer of 2009,” Gehling said. “And clearly, we chose Carl Junot. The truth was, however, that Carl Junot and Josh Shapiro were really tied at the top of our pool and it could have gone either way.”

Back in Washington D.C., Shapiro was upset because he believed that he had as good a chance as anyone of getting the job.

“I was pretty devastated when I didn’t get the position because it was an ideal situation for my family and me,” he said. “I thought I was an excellent candidate because I think I have a good background in the league, and I understand how competitive the NESCAC is.”

Only a few weeks into his tenure at Tufts, however, Junot, formerly the top assistant coach at Harvard, was offered the head coaching position for the Crimson. He accepted, forcing Gehling to offer the Tufts job to Shapiro. If Shapiro didn’t accept, the Tufts athletic administration would have had to undergo another coaching search just weeks before the start of the 2010 season.  

“I moved very, very quickly to reach out to Josh,” Gehling said. “Fortunately for us, he was still available and still excited about Tufts, so we were able to close the deal and get him started right away.”  

Even though he wasn’t Gehling’s first choice, Shapiro holds no grudges towards Tufts. He was initially interested in a head coaching job at a school that combines academic prestige with the potential to be competitive on a national level. According to Shapiro, Tufts not only fits these criteria but also boasts unique features that make it attractive for recruits.

“Tufts is a little different than everybody else in the NESCAC,” he said. “We’re bigger, we’ve got the university background, we’ve got Boston, and for that reason, I knew I could go toe-to-toe with the traditional conference powers. I think, right now, we have the best freshman class [in the NESCAC].”

Athletics and academics

Senior tri-captain goalkeeper Alan Bernstein was finishing up his sophomore year at Tufts when he sat on a committee of administrators and soccer players who interviewed prospective new head coaches. From the very beginning, Bernstein was impressed with Shapiro’s ability to understand the players while also maintaining total control over the team.

“He relates to the players very well, but he also does a great job of keeping it serious and intense,” Bernstein said. “Guys want to play well for him, but he’s a player’s coach in that I totally feel that I can talk to him about any issue that I’m having.”

Gehling echoed Bernstein’s sentiments and also came away with a positive first impression of Shapiro.

“It was obvious to me from the very first day that Josh got here that he was just a great match for Tufts,” he said. “He’s a terrific guy, he’s got an infectious personality, and he understands the role that sports play at a place like Tufts.”   

Tufts, like all NESCAC schools, places heavy restrictions on practice time to maintain athletes’ focus on academics first. After playing at Middlebury, Shapiro was already familiar with these conference policies and has used Tufts’ strong academic background to his advantage during the recruiting process.

“The students are out there who want the best academic opportunity they can find,” Shapiro said. “Most Div. III athletes want great academics with a great soccer program, not just a great soccer program. And frankly, that’s what your priority should be.”

Saward knew that Shapiro, like himself, would embrace the NESCAC’s “school-first” mentality.

“I feel strongly that the league has got it right with regards to providing each student-athlete with a terrific education first,” Saward said. “Josh is going to be a very, very good NESCAC coach, because unlike others who are new to the conference, Josh already understands the balance that’s needed.”

Championship contenders

Last season, the team showed dramatic improvement, going 3-4-2 in the NESCAC and 5-8-2 overall. Out of the Jumbos’ eight losses, only two came by a margin of more than one goal.

This year, Tufts has taken the next step forward by winning those close matches. The Jumbos have posted an 8-2-2 overall record this season, including three wins on golden goals.

“I can’t say I’m unhappy at all with our record at this point,” Shapiro said. “I think we’ve continued to get better and have handled some really tough teams pretty well.”

One reason why Tufts has had more success this year is its improved fitness. Last season, the Jumbos went 1-3-2 in games that reached overtime, a clear indication of fatigue toward the end of matches. This fall, however, Tufts is 3-0-2 in games that have gone beyond 90 minutes.

Bernstein credits the team’s increased level of intensity in training sessions, depth all over the field, and Shapiro’s greater emphasis on scouting as the main reasons for their turnaround this season.

“It’s unacceptable now to show up to practice and not compete at the highest level that you can,” Bernstein said. “Our team is very deep, and if you’re not willing to put in the time and give your best effort, you can be assured that somebody else is and is more than capable of taking your place.

“Coach Shapiro will be able to get a lot of information from other coaches, watch film from other teams, and give us exact scouting reports,” he added. “Now, we can change our lineup depending on what kind of team we’re playing.”

After two crucial wins over Williams and Bates this weekend, the Jumbos jumped from sixth to third in the conference standings with only two NESCAC matches left, putting them in a strong position to host a conference quarterfinal match.

“Coming into the year, we wanted to be competitive as a top four team in the conference,” Shapiro said. “We felt that, at that point, you’re competitive for a NESCAC championship and, by the transitive property, have a good opportunity to be a top 25 team in the country.”

The future is ‘extremely rosy’

More than halfway through the 2011 season, it seems that the word is finally out on this year’s Jumbos.

“What’s out there is, ‘Uh-oh, we’re in trouble now,'” Saward said. “Tufts is going to take off. I think he’s building a great foundation at a fantastic institution in a great city. It’s such an appealing place to play soccer. With Josh’s enthusiasm, his ability to manage players, and his knowledge of the game, I would say the future is extremely rosy for Tufts.”

Even seniors like Bernstein who are nearing the end of their collegiate careers recognize that there are even better days ahead for Tufts soccer.

“I would fully expect this team to regularly compete for the NESCAC championship and become a regional if not national power,” he said.  

Shapiro, who says he sometimes receives 40 emails a day from high school soccer players who are interested in Tufts, also does a lot of active recruiting to improve his team. While he doesn’t always have the resources to reach every prospective recruit, Shapiro has already taken full advantage of his connections in areas relatively close to Boston, including New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia and eastern Pennsylvania.

Shapiro’s expectations for the future of the program are high, but he knows that the league’s competitiveness will make it difficult for Tufts to dominate every fall.

“I know the conference too well, and I know we’re not good enough to run the league each year,” he said. “The likes of Middlebury, Williams, Amherst, and Bowdoin will have something to say about that.”

Still, one can only wonder how good this program will become in the near future if Shapiro continues to out-recruit the rest of the conference.  

“Remember that he only has one of his classes so far,” Bernstein said. “What’s going to happen when he has four?”

One thing is for sure: Shapiro won’t be ditching his “war board” for a wall full of shiny championship plaques. Like he always has done, the Tufts coach will let his results speak for themselves.