Hamilton, ON- Just when it looked like it was over, there was one last chance. For 90 plus minutes on Sept. 3, the McMaster Marauders and Waterloo Warriors men’s soccer teams were in a deadlock. McMaster scored off an Amir Shirazi penalty. Waterloo answered with a goal by Kevin Espiro shortly afterwards.
The clock was now ticking past 90 minutes when the Marauders had one final free kick in their home opener. The ball was whipped into the box and there was a foul. Then the referee pointed to the penalty spot. Penalty!
For the second time that match, Shirazi stepped up and slotted the ball home. Celebration ensued. The Marauders celebrating their late 2-1 victory – their first victory of a new campaign – in their home opener.
Shirazi said as a kid, he used to shoot to the same side. However, given that opposing teams have tape on his previous penalties, he randomizes them. He was a bit nervous after he missed his first career McMaster penalty last season.
This time around, he finished both. “Definitely in my own head a bit,” he noted. “Just kind of calmed myself this time. Drawed on the experience from last year and I was lucky to put it away.”
McMaster head coach Tristan Joyce has seen Shirazi’s growth over the years. A night and day difference, according to him. He sees his maturity and composure. “He’s one of those guys we know we can rely on,” Joyce added. “When the times get tough, he’s going to preserve.”
Even though the season is still young, the Marauders have already had to persevere through some adversity. In their regular season opener to those same Warriors two days earlier in Waterloo, they lost 4-3 – falling behind early before making a late push.
In that game, they were caught out with their high line – a disconnect between their back line and midfield – according to Joyce. Waterloo hit them with balls over the top.
This time at home, the Marauders dropped a little further to defend against them. They spent an hour and a half the day before the second game, seeing the simple mistakes they were making, according to Shirazi.
As the game went along, the Marauders created more and more chances. They outshot the Warriors 13-11. Shirazi credited teammate Joseph Guindy for making the runs and drawing fouls. They were rewarded with two penalty kicks.
“Yeah, there’s all these tactics in their game plans,” Joyce noted. “We just got to work hard.”
As the Marauders celebrated their first victory, the players gave Joyce a Gatorade bath to mark his first career win as head coach.
It’s another step in what’s been quite a journey for him. Joyce is not too far removed from being a player himself. He was a goalkeeper at McMaster from 2017 to 2021 and a two-time OUA All-Star. His assistant coaches – Nicholas Matsos, Santiago Patarroyo, Carlo Difeo and Matt Montiero – also had stellar career with the Marauders not too long ago. With their recent experiences comes positives.
Relatability for instance. “There’s a lot of guys in positions in this league that are a lot older and can’t really relate to the players,” Joyce noted. “They don’t really change, they don’t really grow and that’s something we bring.”
The coaches have drawn upon their recent playing experience and the lessons they’ve learned. It includes scouting current players they’ve played against.
Joyce drew on that experience heading into their season opener. He told his team about how Waterloo would come out hard. How much energy their opponents would bring and how many tackles they would make. How different the game would be from the preseason.
It took the team a while to adapt from the first game but they did. A wake-up call, Joyce called it. “It’s better to get that in the first game of the season than right before the playoffs,” he added.
That reliability is evident on a more macro level. The coaches understand the demands of being a student-athlete and how hard it can be. “You have to understand that guys come to practice excited because they love the game,” he noted. Joyce said it’s easier to understand players given how close in age he and the coaches are with them.
One dynamic that stands out: Joyce was teammates with some of the current players – including Shirazi. The forward remembers not knowing initially how things were going to go with Joyce as head coach since they were close when they played together in Shirazi’s first year.
“As soon as we come in every day, it’s just straight professionalism,” Shirazi said. “All the memories we have together, it’s fine, it’s in the past and it’s just a normal coach-player relationship.”
However, their relationship is also unique. It’s one where they can talk to each other openly, without having to hide anything, according to Shirazi. He called it a really big positive and said he’s enjoyed every minute of it so far.
Joyce and the coaches have also modernized how they train and prepared, Shirazi noted. They brought back some old traditions as well as some new things. They have a TV in the locker room now to go over film before the game. It’s helped Shirazi realize where he’s going wrong in his game and where he’s going right.
As Joyce continues in his role, he’s excited about it.
“I know a lot of people have a lot of questions about the way that McMaster has chosen me to go forward but I’m super excited and I know the guys are super excited,” he noted. “I can bring a little bit of a fresh mentality, relatability, accountability into the lineup and bring back the culture of McMaster soccer you know, and keep the dynasty alive.”
As the Marauders pulled off a victory over Waterloo, they also drew from the last season’s experience, when they won the OUA championships and reached nationals.
A core group of players are back. Joyce was also an assistant coach on that team. Shirazi remembers how many times they’ve had to dig in and win close games. He remembers how to stay composed in the important parts of the game. “We know the game’s not over till the whistle’s done,” he added.
While the Marauders have lost key players such as Ahmad Mansour, Sam Richardson and Miles Green among others, there are replacements. Guindy and midfielder Mohamed Alshakman return after not playing in 2022.
The opening weekend of OUA action also marked the debuts for some of their rookies. It’s a large rookie class – 16 players in total. First-years Jameel Durhan, Paul Ekwueme and Jacobo Cordon Cruz started in their home opener. Can this year’s team defend their OUA crown?
“With the additions of these guys,” Shirazi noted. “With guys who now played nationals, played OUA finals, I think we might be stronger than ever.”
Featured Image: McMaster Athletics