Greg Sutton draws on his own experience to guide men’s soccer team over the hump
From playing soccer to coaching it at a university level, Greg Sutton knows what it takes to develop a good soccer player and a good student. The head coach of the Concordia Stingers men’s soccer team combines 13 years of experience playing professional soccer with his experience as a student-athlete to help his players both on and off the field.
Sutton played soccer and basketball at St. Lawrence University in the state of New York before becoming a professional soccer player. The former goalkeeper played with the Montreal Impact from 2001 to 2006, when they played in the A-League and the United Soccer League. He played 132 games with Montreal before joining Major League Soccer (MLS) and played 47 games with Toronto FC and the New York Red Bulls from 2007 to 2012. He retired as a member of the Impact.
During his career in Montreal, Sutton helped out the Stingers as an assistant to former head coach and Impact player Lloyd Barker, and returned to the role after retiring. Sutton was soon promoted to head coach, and he is now set to coach his third season.
“I do not do it for any other reason than I enjoy it,” Sutton said. “I like working with these guys because they all want to learn and become better players.” He also admits that he does not miss the travel required of a professional soccer player, and that he enjoys the time he gets to spend with his family.
Having played soccer for most of his life, the 39-year-old felt like he needed to give back to the soccer community, and did so by coaching.
“I always felt like I wanted to give back to the game” Sutton said. “I believe all pro players that are good people should [coach], because they are the most qualified. That’s how our country is going to grow as a soccer country.”
Outside of Concordia, Sutton is a colour commentator for the MLS on TSN, and has appeared on national broadcasts alongside Luke Wileman. He is also a representative for Umbro, a soccer apparel company, throughout Quebec and Eastern Ontario.
As a former student-athlete himself, Sutton draws on a lot of his personal experiences to help his players grow. Both in school and off the field, he knows what his players go through on a daily basis. Sutton maintains that education is important, but the student-athletes also need to work out their schedule so they can excel on the field.
“I have to be tough on them, I cannot just hold their hand. But at the same time, I want to make sure that I am supporting them in certain way [so] that they are learning,” Sutton said. “Whether it is a mistake on the field or off the field, they are learning from it.”
As a father of two young children, Sutton has not yet dealt with the task of teaching his kids the responsibilities of being a student. As a soccer coach at a university, however, he faces that challenge.
“School is a priority and it is our priority,” Sutton said. “It is a learning curve for me to make [my players] understand the responsibilities of being a student.”
As a goalkeeper, Sutton saw the play differently and is now able to use that knowledge as a Stingers coach. He watched the game unfold in front of him, including when plays were building up or breaking down, and knows the tendencies of both defenders and forwards.
A goalkeeper, like a coach, stands alone most of the game, often barking out orders to the players, so for Sutton, not much has changed.
The former Canadian international soccer player has his own unique way of coaching, but draws on personal experiences from his former coaches on the dos and don’ts.
“You try to create your own identity as a coach,” Sutton said. “I do not try to simulate someone, and I do not try to do what someone did not do.”
Sutton has been growing the university’s soccer program ever since he started. The team improved from a record of 0-7-5 in his first season in 2014 to 3-9-0 last season, scoring four more goals in the process. One of Sutton’s goals was to expand the team’s depth, considering they could play two games per weekend—one on Friday night, and the second on Sunday.
To be a good team in these Friday-Sunday leagues, a team needs depth to carry fresh legs into the second game. Concordia did not win a single game on a Sunday last season, and were beat by a combined score of 7-1 on the three Sundays following their Friday night victories. Sutton believes that may not be the case in 2016.
“You need to create not just good 11 players, but good 16, 17, 18 players,” Sutton said. “We finally have that [depth] this year. I’ll be able to make 4 to 5 changes on Sunday and our level will stay the same.”
The past year has seen many soccer teams around the world, such as Atlético Madrid, Juventus and Leicester City, defend with 11 men, from the keeper to the striker. Those teams create scoring chances from a strong defensive stance, and at times on the counter-attack.
Sutton has the same principle when it comes to the Stingers, but to say he will employ the same tactics as managers like Diego Simeone, Max Allegri and Claudio Ranieri is a stretch. He still is a defence-first coach.
“I’m a stickler about defence. If we do not get a shutout, I’m not as satisfied,” Sutton said. “Our defence will create opportunities for us offensively. On a whole, every player has a defensive responsibility, but not everybody is responsible on offence.”
Considering the Réseau du sport étudiant du Québec (RSEQ) hosts two of the top 10 teams in the Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS), UQAM and Montreal, the Stingers play in a tough conference but feel prepared for the challenge. Sutton feels he has a strong team on the field.
“We have a midfielder who is an all-star already, in my opinion,” Sutton said. “We have some quality in all our positions, and now we have some really good quality in certain important positions.”
When asked about the expectations for the Stingers this season, Sutton was not afraid to set the bar high.
“If we do not make the playoffs this year, I’ll be disappointed,” he said.