Goal scoring sells tickets and generates headlines, but defense wins championships.
If that wasn’t true, vendors wouldn’t be selling T-shirts with that message printed on them. Nobody has to tell the Mattituck High School boys soccer coach, Mat Litchhult, or his players how important defense is. It was largely on the strength of their defense last year that the Tuckers won a second straight Suffolk County Class B championship.
Here’s the kicker, though: Mattituck’s entire starting defense from last year, a goalkeeper and four defenders, have moved on. They’re gone. So, despite the fact that the Tuckers have 17 players with varsity experience, including eight returning starters, there is perhaps a degree of concern as they go about the business of figuring out the personnel for their new defense. That task started Monday morning when the Tuckers began preseason practices.
“We always pride ourselves on good, solid defense, and we like to build our teams from back to front,” Litchhult said Tuesday afternoon before the team held its first intrasquad scrimmage. “I know we have guys who can get the job done, it’s just finding the right mix and the right group. That is our number one point of emphasis right now, figuring out our backs.”
Not that Litchhult doesn’t have candidates to choose from. Evan Neighley is expected to play right back for the first time, with Paul Hayes at one of the center-back positions in Mattituck’s 4-4-2 formation with a flat-back four. The other center-back spot will be decided by a competition between Ryan Finger and Kevin Izzo. Tyler Connell and Jake Jacob are in contention for the left-back job.
Meanwhile, the starting goalkeeping position is up in the air, with a choice to be made between Stephen Ostrowski and K. C. Grathwohl.
Litchhult acknowledged that the defensive questions will not be answered overnight. “It’s a work in progress,” he said. “Everyone’s in a battle. No one’s job is safe.”
Mattituck adopted the flat-back four approach last year and it worked in its 11-7-1 season. The Tuckers didn’t allow a lot of goals and reached the Long Island final before losing to Wheatley, 1-0, in sudden-victory overtime despite a superb performance in goal by Scoggin.
“It was very solid,” Litchhult said of the defense. “Even when we weren’t having good results in the league and we were up and down, we weren’t giving up a lot of goals in the back. We just weren’t finishing at times. We were dominating a lot of possession and we had a couple of bad breaks here and there, and we weren’t putting the ball in the net, but we weren’t really giving up a lot of goals.”
Since then, Mattituck employed the flat-back four in the Town of Brookhaven Summer League. “We had some positive results and we had some hiccups along the way, but for the most part it was O.K,” said Litchhult.
What Litchhult likes best about the flat-back four, funny enough, is how it can quickly lead to offense.
“We have quick outside defenders,” Finger said. “Hopefully we can get them up the line, get some crosses in and some goals.”
Mattituck has decisions to make, but it is still early in the process.
“The second day of preseason, we’re still working things out,” said Connell. He said defense is “very important. It’s the last thing they have to go through in order to get to our goal, and you have to be strong there. I really think we do have what we need to have a good defense and overall a good team.”