Friday, August 08, 2008

Campus corner: Gaels make soccer coaching switch

More notes on (one of) our teams of interest from the 613...

- Gaels: Queen's announced earlier this week that Carlo Cannovan (or Carol, if you believe the Whig-Standard) would take over from Chris Gencarelli as the head coach of the men's soccer program. It's the second coaching change in two seasons and happens at about the same time of year, as Gencarelli took over from Al MacVicar at a similar time last year. Gencarelli led the Gaels to a 6-4-4 regular-season record last year and a somewhat-surprising playoff run, where they knocked off Ryerson at home and Toronto on the road to advance to the OUA Final Four. In the Final Four, they lost a close 1-0 semifinal to York, but rebounded by beating Carleton (the top-ranked team nationally heading in to the Final Four) in the bronze-medal match. Unfortunately, the OUA only had two berths in the nationals this year, so they missed it by that much.

This is a bit of a surprising move to me. Yes, Gencarelli was an unconventional hire (he's still a graduate student at Queen's and played for the team only the year before), so I thought he might have been the only guy they could get on short notice at the start of the season. I covered the men's soccer team all year, though, and he certainly changed my mind. Gencarelli did a tremendous job after coming in with so little preparation time, and managed not only to maintain the status quo, but actually improved the team's results (they were first in the regular season the year before, but fourth after the Final Four). He wasn't afraid to shake things up tactically, often opting for a 4-5-1 formation with a lone striker instead of the standard 4-4-2 and frequently rotating his squad based on matchups and who was in form. I'm not sure if he had the official coaching qualifications of most CIS coaches, but he certainly seemed to understand the tactical, practical and technical side of the job. Now, granted, I was only a bystander, but from my observations, he also seemed to relate well to the guys on the team without crossing the line between coach and buddy, sometimes a danger with players turned into coaches. Gencarelli demonstrated a great understanding of soccer, player development and tactics, and my thinking is that he certainly would have been a good choice as a full-time head coach.

Now, on to his replacement. I don't know much about Carlo Cannovan besides the brief bio given in the press release []. However, what I've seen is impressive, but not mind-blowingly so. The release states that he brings "over 10 years of playing and coaching knowledge to this part-time role." I'd be interested to find out how they tally that up between coaching and playing, and at what levels, as that may or may not be impressive: for example, I could say that I have over 10 years of experience playing soccer (which is true: at last count, it's up around 15), but much of that is at pretty low levels and it certainly doesn't qualify me to be a CIS coach. There are probably a lot of people in Canada who have over 10 years of playing experience, given soccer's popularity as a youth sport. Again, that's not to bash Cannovan's qualifications, but that statement alone really doesn't mean much.

The detailed experiences listed are Cannovan's coaching with the Ontario Soccer Association and the provincial U-14 team, and his work as the Technical Director with the Kingston United Soccer Club. Now, provincial coaching is impressive. There are plenty of legitimate concerns about the role of provincial governing bodies in Canadian soccer (see Ben Knight'swork for some of them, but most of the provincial coaches I've run into know their business. The problem, though, is that that experience is at the U-14 level. There is a massive difference between coaching university athletes and coaching 13-year-old kids. For one thing, coaching at the university level, to my understanding at least, is less about building fundamentals and skills and more about systems, tactics and the like. 13-year-olds are still growing and developing, while university athletes have probably reached their physical peak.

Even wider still is the gap in the team dynamics. From my own experience of playing at various levels, the drills, instructions and attitudes that effectively motivate 13-year-olds will do next to nothing for university athletes and vice-versa. That's to say nothing about the complicated task of keeping a group of university-age males in line, focused and on the same page over a long season filled with road trips, and again, there probably isn't much experience from coaching 13-year-olds that's applicable to that part of the job. The drills and such will probably be less of an adjustment for Cannovan due to his time as a technical director, who presumably works with a variety of different clubs. The man-management side of the job may be more difficult to pick up.

One positive I can see from Cannovan's provincial team experience is that it will likely help in recruitment. He was the Ontario U-14 coach until 2006, so a lot of the kids who played under him won't have hit university age yet, and I'm sure he has a wide network of contacts at clubs across Ontario from his time with the provincial program. He probably has a good array of contacts in other provinces as well from the Canada-wide and international competitions he's been involved with, and he'll certainly be tied into the local prospect pool from his time with Kingston United.

Interestingly, recruiting was probably the biggest chink (or perceived chink) in Gencarelli's armour, as he hadn't been a coach at a high level before and probably didn't have a wide array of contacts. It might be tougher to sell a recruit on a school with a rookie head coach only slightly older than themselves. Now, that may or may not have actually been a problem, as Gencarelli didn't get a chance to show what he could do with recruits, but if I'm the Queen's Athletics Department, that's probably the biggest weakness I can find with him.

Thus, overall, it looks like Queen's has decided to get rid of a man-management/strategy specialist who had coached at the CIS level, but whose recruiting and player-development qualifications may not have been the strongest, only to replace him with a recruitment/player-development specialist whose man-management and CIS-level coaching qualifications aren't the strongest. The success of either option is predicated on the coach developing the other necessary skills, and there's every chance that both coaches will be able to do so as their careers continue. My point is that hiring Cannovan is pretty much as big of a risk as keeping Gencarelli would have been. I could see dumping Gencarelli if there was a chance to obtain a sure thing in a full-time, highly in demand CIS coach with a tremendous track record, but Cannovan doesn't really seem to be any more of a known quantity at the CIS level than Gencarelli was last year.

In one way, Cannovan presents a bigger risk than keeping Gencarelli: if the team regressed this season, Gencarelli could have been axed with no questions asked, but if Cannovan's axed after the season, the team would then be on to their fourth coach in four years, which sends up severe red flags. Therefore, regardless of what Cannovan does, he's probably here for at least two seasons.

The other problem with this hire, in my mind, is that it seems to somewhat buck the trend Queen's has recently exhibited of hiring young, innovative coaches. Last year, there were three coaching vacancies created shortly before the season: women's volleyball, women's hockey and men's soccer. All were filled with younger coaches who hadn't previously been a head coach at the CIS level: Joely Christian in women's volleyball, Rob Lalonde in women's hockey, and Gencarelli in men's soccer. It seemed like Queen's was thinking outside the box most CIS institutions live in, where they only hire experienced coaches. As James Mirtle noted in the Globe a while back, NHL teams seem to be finally interested in avoiding the coaching carousel model: I was excited by the idea that a CIS institution might be doing the same. Of the three hires, Gencarelli was easily the most unconventional, as he hadn't even been a CIS assistant coach and was a player only the year before (in fact, he still had playing eligibility last year to my understanding). Now, he's gone.

Cannovan certainly isn't a conventional carousel hire, either, as I pointed out above, due to his lack of CIS coaching experience. However, he's much closer to one than Gencarelli was (perhaps he has one boot in the painted-on horse saddle?). He's probably slightly older (no way to tell from the provided information, but I'm guessing he is unless he became a provincial coach before 18, which is unlikely), he has "high-level" experience (most of which really isn't all that applicable due to the age disparity, as I pointed out above) and he's got a partial "known-name" factor due to his work with the OSA. He's still a bit of a unexpected choice, but he's from a more conventional mould.

In any case, I don't want to condemn Cannovan before he gets a shot at proving himself. I think he certainly could turn out to be a great coach, and there's every chance he'll turn in a strong performance with the team this year. I don't think the timing was the best: it would have been far better to make this switch right after the season to give the new coach time to recruit and develop plans for the program. I also don't think Gencarelli was really given as fair of a shot as he should have been, unless there are other factors I don't know about. Certainly, based on his record and my observations of his work, I think he definitely deserved at least another year. I'm quite confident he'll turn out to be a great coach, and he may catch on somewhere else at the CIS level. However, the decision's been made, and both it and the timing certainly aren't Cannovan's fault. Here's hoping he finds a lot of success with the Gaels this fall and continues the program's strong progress in recent years.

: My initial story on Gencarelli's hire last year [Queen's Journal, September 7, 2007].

Addenda [6:32 A.M. PST]
: I've been asked by Queen's Sport Information Officer Mike Grobe to include the part of the release about Gencarelli focusing on pursuing his degree. Here it is: "With the addition of Cannovan, the Gaels have also announced that Chris Gencarelli will not return to his position with the team, focusing his attention on obtaining his master's degree in education."
For the sake of balance, here's part of Gencarelli's e-mail to me last month to inform me of the coaching change when I asked him about recruits. "Unfortunately, I won't be returning next season. Queen's has decided to hire a new coach for this upcoming season."


Tyler King said...

Great article. But please tell me you didn't just refer to Rob Lalonde as a "young, innovative coach".

Andrew Bucholtz said...

Haha, I said "younger", and Lalonde is younger than Parsons to my knowledge. He also hadn't previously been a CIS head coach. As you mentioned, his innovation on the ice is up for debate, but my point was more just that he didn't quite fit into the typical CIS head coach model (although he came far closer than either Christian or Gencarelli).

Jeff W. said...


I have heard a rumor that Gencarelli didn't want to leave the team and is now working with RMC soccer? Do you know anything of this?

Anonymous said...

I have spoken with Chris. He has read this blog and wanted me to thank you for your kind words. He did enjoy his time at Queen's and did want to continue on with the program for years to come. Also, he did have an opportunity to help out RMC this year but has decided to take a year off from coaching. There may be a coaching opportunity for him after this season as an assistant at a CIS institution but he did not disclose information as to where this may be. He did want to clarify one thing... He did NOT choose to step down and focus on his Masters. The Athletics and Recreation Department at Queen's decided to let him go one month prior to the start of training camp and move in a different direction.

Andrew Bucholtz said...

The forced leave was also the impression I got from the e-mail Chris sent me (although it wasn't made explicitly clear), but the release sent out portrayed a very different impression. That's why I chose to include both in the postscript to my original post. The RMC offer confirms my impression that Chris should be able to find another job, at least as an assistant coach, whenever he's ready: an OUA bronze medal and a win over the top-ranked team in the country in a rookie coaching campaign is not to be overlooked.I certainly wish him all the best, and I'm sure he'll find success down the road.

Anonymous said...

Good article. Want a real perspective? Contact the alumni. They are not happy with this move. The whole process was shady from the start to finish. Firing the coach that has the fourth best Queen's finish in 40 years, to the shady interview process with a student on the interview panel who quit queen's soccer after one year. That's a great representative of what queen's soccer stands for. And Red Flags surround the history of the new coach. How about alumni not knowing this change was going on, let alone being part of the process. The whole thing stinks

Anonymous said...

I know this is a rather late response. but I have had previous experience with Carlo Cannovan, he is one of the worst coaches ever. His father is very high up with the OYSL, Cannovan got fired from the position, not even his high raned father could keep him in there, he ruins almost every team he touches, and it certainly showed this season with a 6th place finish. Absolutely terrible. Every high ranked coach I talk to when I mention his name will berate this man. I would not be mad if they ended up replacing Cannovan by next season.