Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Q&A with Coach Cullen

The Charlotte 49ers Athletic Media Relations Department recently sat down with former 49ers men's soccer player and first-year head women’s soccer coach John Cullen to get his thoughts on the 49ers women's soccer program and the 2009 season. Last season, the 49ers captured their third straight Atlantic 10 regular-season championship and their second consecutive A-10 Tournament title and made the program's fourth NCAA Tournament. The 49ers blanked Tennessee, 2-0, in the first round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament for a school-record 18th win. The 49ers begin the 2009 season at perennial NCAA Tournament participant William & Mary this Sunday, August 23 at 4 pm.

What does being a Charlotte 49er mean to you? Well it is a coming home for me even though I’m from England because of the immense pride that I have for the school. When I played here I never imagined that I would end up as a coach here. I enjoyed my four years of college soccer as a student-athlete here. Once I graduated from Charlotte, I experienced several avenues of coaching through college and club. I guess I always thought in the back of my mind that I would love to come back here one day. So to be able to come back here and lead the women’s program and to be the person that the administration has faith in is a great thing.
What are your thoughts on returning to your alma mater and the differences you have noticed? There is definitely a sense of comfort here for me as a lot of the professors, staff and administration are still here, which gives you a real support factor. In terms of the facilities there have been so many upgrades,. We want to be a national contender and you look at our field, our practice facility and our locker rooms and it’s an exciting year for Charlotte Soccer. When I stepped down on Transamerica Field to coach my first game in the spring season it just felt fantastic because it has that professional element to it as you look at the stadium and surroundings as a player and a coach you can’t really ask for anything more. So I’m excited to get in front of our own fans and hear them cheering us on and I know that the new players and the returning players are excited about this upcoming year of Charlotte soccer.
What are your thoughts on taking over a program that is the three-time defending A-10 Champions? I think some coaches would be fearful of walking into a program with such success and that is a definite challenge to take it further with even more success. There are already plenty of aspects in place but as every new coach I will want to put my own handprint on the team, but I have a great core of players that have experienced success and I will call upon them. Since I have such a solid foundation of players returning that gives me a great chance to succeed as a first-year coach.
What are your thoughts on the senior class of Hailey Beam, Lauren Brown and Leah Zappone? With Lauren Brown it is great to have a senior captain as our goalkeeper because it’s important to have experience and leadership in the goal to work with the defense. She is a very game-like player and very enthusiastic. She competes every time whether at training, practice or in games. Hailey Beam is a Hermann Award candidate, which is a reflection of her ability, but knowing Hailey it is much more than her natural all around game, she is a competitor and that's what drives her. Hailey has the gift to unlock defenses and she has the ability to create extraordinary opportunities for us. Just like Lauren in the back it’s nice to have Hailey up front in the attacking spectrum so that we have someone going forward to create those goals. She is a leader in the way she trains and works. Leah Zappone is a good role model for younger players by showing that there is a role for everybody on the team and you must be ready when called upon. Since Leah is a such a versatile player she adds depth to a number of positions on our team.
What are your expectations for the 2009 season? We want to play a certain way and we talked about that in the spring. We want to be a very pass-oriented team, but at the same time we want to be a team that is very difficult to play against. So on both sides of the ball when we do have the ball and when we don’t we want our style of play imposed upon our competition. For this coming season I want to see the players embrace that and maybe at that same time adapt in-game. I also want to see the new players come in and learn from the more established players about what it takes to be successful at the Division I level.
What are your thoughts on returning players that accounted for 60 of the team’s 69 goals last season? With Whitney Weinraub (the 2009 A-10 Offensive Player of the Year) we are going to move her around a little bit. Last year she played more in the wider areas, but we may look to put her more central to give her more touches closer to goal. Again we might use her in the wide areas to give her more one-on-one opportunities. So obviously we are expecting goals from her as well as Hailey and Sam Huecker (a second-team All-Atlantic 10 selection) from midfield as well as assists. We also have other players such as Macky Wingo who can score goals. Wingo missed a portion of last season because of injury. I think we can get goals from a variety of players which causes problems for our opponents since they can’t just focus on one or two players. We definitely feel as if we have goal producers on this team it just comes down to creating chances and then of course taking them.
What are your feelings on the midfield, which is spotlighted by Hailey Beam and Sam Huecker? Potentially the strength of our team as those two can really be effective as a combination. We are looking how we can use both of them working off each other and working with each other. They both are effective defensively and very dangerous going forward towards the goal. This spring I thought they were are two most consistent performers. We didn’t try to use them as a combination, but I believe we will try that this season to see if we can play them together and get the best out of both of them.
On the use of junior Danielle Mayeaux, a returning two-year starter? Danielle Mayeaux is a player that we are going to look at for our backline early in the season. She played there in the spring and had some strong games for us and obviously she is very dominant in the air. She has a good range of passing and works hard in the game so we like her attributes as a central defender and at the same time we know she can step into the midfield. With her at either position we know that we have a better team with Danielle on the field.
The 49ers defense recorded a school-record 13 shutouts and limited 16 foes to a goal or less last season. Charlotte returns a majority of the players that contributed to the 49ers stout defensive effort in 2008 which only allowed six goals in 11 A-10 regular-season games. What are thoughts on the defensive backline that features three-year starting goalkeeper Lauren Brown, All-Atlantic 10 performers Whitney Bryant and Megan Minnix as well as two-year starters Danielle Mayeaux and Katie Davies as well as Jenna McKeon who started on defense last season as a freshman? I think that is the pleasing part of this season because we have a good place to start with in regards to our defense. Some of the players mentioned will have to adapt to new roles. With Jenna McKeon we are looking at her to become a more attacking player. We are going to ask Megan Minnix and Whitney Bryant to get forward more and have Danielle Mayeaux stay back more to serve as a solid rock at the back with Katie Davies. But the backline is a group that we can hit the ground running with. I want them to continue with the not conceding goals mentality that is tough to play against. I was pleased with what I saw in the spring as we played six games and had four clean sheets, which is very encouraging as we move into the new season.
What are your thoughts on the goalkeepers? Lauren is obviously the focal point of the position but behind her we have Natalie LaVigne. Natalie has had a rough time since I arrived here as she hasn’t been able to get on the field much as she has had several setbacks with injuries, but we are hoping for a good bill of health. So that she can push herself and become an elite number two. Jessica Barton, who arrived here this spring, was able to train with the team this past spring. She had a very strong showing this spring so we definitely feel that we have quality depth behind Lauren and with all three we will be very solid in the goalkeeping area.
What are your thoughts on the 2009 schedule? Their are some programs on the slate such as William & Mary, Georgia and Villanova that are strong established soccer powerhouses so we are excited about those games especially with William & Mary as they will be an early test for us. Then we have a home stretch of three games followed by a local road game at Davidson. Overall I think each game presents its own challenge for us because we are going to play a new brand of soccer and we are going to change up the formation so there will be new roles for some of our players. Each game we will look to learn and garner something from it because at the end of the year we will be looking to contend for the Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament here in Charlotte.
Your thoughts on hosting the 2009 Atlantic 10 Conference Championship? Without stating the obvious we want to be in the tournament and obviously win the tournament, but who knows as anything can happen. There is definitely an excitement in the air that the A-10 Championship will be in Charlotte and at that time we want to be playing our best soccer in front of our own fans and get them an opportunity for a chance to cheer us on for a title.
What steps need to be taken to reach that next level of success? I think every program in the country asks themselves that question and I think the honest answer to that is a little bit of everything. I think when you look at those teams that are contending for a national title all of them find ways to win games even when they are playing . We have to make sure that when we are on top of our game and when we’re not getting a particular result that we are can utilize our team organization and teamwork to get a particular result that we desire. You also a need a touch of good fortune as you need your team to remain healthy, but ultimately it starts with leadership, which is where coaching comes into play by everyday improving the players. That is something I’m trying to teach the players is that everyday we can become a better player and a better team.
What can fans expect to see from a John Cullen coached team? Well I hope that when they come the first thing they say is that this is how a game should be played. I want them to look at the college game and say if my daughter wanted to play here or my young child was watching this is how soccer should be played. Players brave on the ball and everybody moving off the, looking to maintain possession and then obviously we would have a very high work rate as well. I’ve said to the players since day one that we have an obligation to continue to take this program forward, but we also have an obligation to show people how the game should be played. I want the players, spectators and fans to leave the stadium saying that tonight was an exciting soccer match and I want the fans to really see what our players are striving to do and this is how the game should be played at this level.

Next week we will preview the 2009 Charlotte 49ers men's soccer season with third-year head coach Jeremy Gunn.

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