Kai Edwards couldn’t help but laugh with his wife about the situation. It’s been 432 days since Southern Utah University director of athletics Debbie Corum announced that Edwards would take over as the head coach of the soccer team, yet his competitive record still stands at 0-0-0.
While Edwards has a few exhibition contests under his belt — including a 4-0 loss to Utah Valley University on Jan. 30 — the postponement of all Fall sports by the Big Sky Conference due to the COVID-19 pandemic has supplied him with more than a year’s worth of preparation time for his first competitive match against Dixie State University this Sunday.
Edwards, who spent six years as the head coach at Saint Mary’s College from 2009-14, hopes to bring what he calls a “go after people type of mentality” and sense of accountability to a program that struggled to find success under Edwards’ predecessor, Fred Thompson.
After being hired in 2016, Thompson coached the team to a 7-31-1 record before mutually parting ways with the program after the T-Birds failed to score a goal in their first seven games of the 2019 season.
Under Thompson and interim coach Jonas Tanzer, who was Thompson’s lead assistant, SUU managed just eight goals en route to a 1-15-2 (1-6-2) record last year.
Edwards is an experienced tactician that wants to fundamentally change the team’s approach to play. He places a heavy emphasis on film study in order to teach players how to recognize areas of the pitch that opposing defenses aren’t covering, then teaches them what to do to create numerical advantages so that they can capitalize on the space afforded to them.
“We coach in principles more than formations,” Edwards said. “We coach ideologies for how to exploit and defend in a 2v2, 1v1, 3v3, whatever those numbers are, so that formations aren’t as important as understanding numbers and exploiting that situation.”
While the 4-3-3 may be Edwards’ base formation, he emphasized that the T-Birds will be built for adaptability this year — especially in a season where players could be sidelined at any time because of COVID-19.
That being said, Edwards made it clear that the 2021 T-Birds will not park the bus and defend for 90 minutes like they did for much of the 2019 season.
“I don’t see anyone on our schedule that we would deliberately sit back and defend,” Edwards said in an interview. “I would expect to go after every team on our current schedule.”
SUU will play a tight eight-game conference schedule over the course of a month. The schedule pits Edwards and his squad against just four Big Sky teams to reduce travel and the risk of spreading COVID-19.
The T-Birds will travel to the University of Northern Colorado (Mar. 12 and 14) and Weber State University (Mar. 26 and 28), and will host Northern Arizona University (Mar. 19 and 21) and Idaho State University (Apr. 9 and 11) at the Thunderbird Soccer Field.
The Building Blocks:
When Edwards and his staff first arrived on campus, they offered a “blank slate” to the returning players to encourage competition in the squad.
The T-Birds return nine players from the 2019 campaign, and they all played as midfielders or defenders last season — positions where continuity and communication are crucial.
Edwards’ defensive approach is designed to set up traps in groups of three near the touchline, affording opposing midfielders time on the ball in the middle of the park, but swarming outside backs and wingers when the ball rotates wide.
This defensive approach should suit senior right back Allyson Carlisle well. Carlisle has already played in 49 games as a T-Bird, alternating between playing as a defender, midfielder and attacker on the wing. She’s an excellent one-on-one defender who is comfortable with the ball at her feet, and her versatility gives Edwards a lot of options tactically.
Juniors Emma Leong and Kennedy Jex started in central defense in the exhibition with UVU, and they may be Edwards’ preferred pairing this season. Leong is an imposing sweeper who specializes in using her speed and strength to get across defenders. Jex converted to center-half after spending time as a midfielder and outside back last season and is more comfortable playing passes between the lines.
Emilia Eir Palsdottir, who appeared in 13 games as a left back last season, will also compete for a spot in the starting eleven each game,
In the engine room, sophomores Gabriella Pagani, Jaylynn Barton and Madison DeHerrera return after encouraging performances as freshmen.
Pagani may not be the most physically imposing center mid, but she’s technically skilled and one of the most proficient passers in the squad.
Barton tended to sit deeper than Pagani under Thompson/Tanzer, but after picking up a goal and an assist last season, Edwards could deploy her farther up the pitch.
DeHerrera appeared in all 18 games last season and scored a goal at NAU. She can play as a No. 8 or a No. 10 to provide some creative bite in the opposition’s penalty box.
The New Pieces:
The T-Birds will have some work to do in replacing 2019 Big Sky Golden Boot winner Makenzie Lawrence, who graduated at the end of last season after scoring 17 goals during her time at SUU. Lawrence led the team in goals, assists, shots and minutes played in 2019.
Edwards prioritized adding goalscorers ahead of the 2021 campaign, and the batch of transfers he recruited in the offseason will have an immediate impact in the final third.
Versatility is the founding principle of Edwards’ offensive approach. He wants his team to be comfortable in possession against teams that drop back and generate attacks quickly against high-pressing opponents.
“Our goal is always to find the free player, and if there is no free player, then we must create the free player with our movement,” Edwards said. “Then we’re looking to get behind teams in a calculated way, not just the long ball or anything like that.”
Edwards described forward Kate Schirmer, who played at Snow College last season, as “the hidden gem of the state of Utah.” Her pace and vision with runs in behind makes her very dangerous to teams that maintain a higher defensive line.
Rachael Hunt played two seasons at left back for Snow after bagging a heap of goals as a striker at Cedar High School. With pace and power to boot, Hunt can provide an attacking outlet down the left side as a wingback or she can play as an out-and-out attacker to chase down balls played behind the defense.
Saint Mary’s College transfer Kamryn Farro made a 40-player training camp at the U-17 national team level in 2017 before committing to the Gaels before last season. Farro played as a left back at SMC, but will get the chance to play as an inverted right winger at SUU. Edwards described her as a “top talent” who can score from anywhere within 30 yards. Farro will also be the team’s set piece specialist.
Farro can also function more centrally as an attacking midfielder, and her versatility underscores one of Edwards’ priorities in bringing new players: diversity.
“I think of the game as a group of problems,” Edwards said. “You have to solve those problems: How do we get behind someone? How do we possess the ball? How do we defend them? Well, if you bring players in that all do the same thing from the same background, that would be like going to play golf with just a putter.”
In that vein, Edwards added Santa Barbara City College transfer Mekaylla White, who scored 19 goals in 22 games and was named Player of the Year in the Western State Conference. White is skilled in combination play and can drop into the midfield to collect the ball if needed.
In goal, junior Jennifer Kovisto appears to have earned the starting job after playing all 90 minutes against UVU. Kovisto started every game at Division II Azusa Pacific University last season.
One area for concern is squad depth. While there are only 19 players on the roster, Edwards downplayed the issue by invoking Dutch footballing legend Johan Cruyff who once said, “Every disadvantage has an advantage.”
While the squad may not be able to scrimmage 11 vs. 11 regularly, Edwards said that they will build more trust and confidence in each other because of how often the players work together in training.
That means younger players like freshmen Alison Keller and Monica Brown will have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves under Edwards. Edwards described Keller as the “top-performing midfielder” in the preseason loss to UVU.
While the T-Birds may not have got the result they wanted against UVU, it was a sign of greater things to come for SUU. The T-Birds took seven shots against the Wolverines on Jan. 30. It took three games for the T-Birds to muster seven shots last season.
“[The players] went out and they tried,” Edwards said of his team’s performance. “They made mistakes. That’s how we’re going to get better, not just conservatively sitting back and hoping we don’t lose. We went out and went after them.”
Edwards and his squad will officially begin the 2020-21 season on Sunday, Feb. 14, at Dixie State University. His message for fans on the long-awaited dawn of a new day for SUU soccer?
“Start by encouraging them and supporting them, not holding them to the past, but start with a blank slate,” Edwards said. “Be aggressively patient. This isn’t a ten-year rebuild, but it’s not a one-game rebuild either.
Potential Starting XI:
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photos by: Mitchell Quartz