By Devon L. Suits, Army News ServiceMay 9, 2019
FORT MEADE, Md. -- As regulation time expired, the Army and Air Force teams were locked in a 1-1 tie during the 2019 Armed Forces Men's Soccer Championship match. With an additional five minutes in stoppage time, both sides adjusted their formations in an attempt to score the go-ahead goal, or risk overtime.
There was so much at stake. A victory here would solidify an Air Force three-peat, said Col. Bernie Koelsch, known as Coach Bernie to his players.
The countless number of hours spent running drills, reviewing tape, and formulating plays would be all for nothing if the Army failed to win against their longtime rival.
Meanwhile, the fact that the Army team squeezed out a 3-2 victory against the Air Force earlier in the tournament was in the forefront of their minds.
There was something special about this team, Koelsch said. The coach felt he had done all he could to prepare himself and the team for this pivotal moment. The team was ready -- standing together, "Eleven as One"
FROM PLAYER TO COACH
Starting at a young age, Koelsch appreciated the sport of soccer, but grew to love the game after he was stationed in Germany.
"Playing with the post team in Germany, I learned a lot from the local coaches and fellow players," he said. "Back then, there was just this huge difference between the [European] approach to the game and the American game. Soccer is religion over there and still is."
As he progressed through his Army career, Koelsch continued to play soccer for several installation and regional teams. Later, the Koelsch family landed an assignment to Fort Meade, Maryland in 2013, arriving to a base without a soccer team, he said.
While he could have found another team to play for, Koelsch was determined to start a base soccer team of his own. It didn't take long for players representing all branches of the military to respond to his ads in the base paper or through social media.
A year later, Koelsch was back on the field with the Meade United Football Club as both a player and coach.
Nevertheless, all the years on the field started to catch up with him. Koelsch was forced to make a difficult decision, so he reluctantly hung up his grass-stained cleats in 2015, and replaced them with a coach's whistle.
"Being a player and coach is not the same. When you get to a certain level of competition, you have to be able to make the hard decisions, and you can't make those decisions as a player," he said.
"I wanted to focus on coaching the team. I felt like that was where my expertise was leading me," Koelsch said as he smiled. "I had a lot of encouragement from players who helped me grow."
With him as the new head coach, the Meade team played hard and advanced quickly to higher levels of competition. In 2015, the Meade United team secured a spot in the Capital Military Soccer League --- a regional-based conference that includes 10 area installations and the British Embassy. The team has since progressed to the semi-pro Maryland Major Soccer League.
Meade United also participated in several Defender's Cup National Military Soccer Tournaments, Koelsch said. During these annual competitions, roughly 40 installation teams from around the U.S. compete in a grueling three-day tournament.
Meade United is the 2018 Defender's Cup champion.
"Soccer is good for the Soldiers. It's an opportunity for them to lead in a unique environment," Koelsch said. "The concept of selecting … and leading a team -- tools you learn in the Army -- are the same, no matter how you employ them."
Through it all, Koelsch perceives every match as an opportunity to grow. Even after the Army soccer team placed placing third during the 2018 Armed Forces Championship, as an assistant coach at the time, he sought to bring out the best in his players.
In January, Koelsch was selected to be the head coach for the 2019 Army soccer team. With just three months before the tournament, he didn't hesitate to get to work.
'ELEVEN AS ONE'
Shortly after accepting his new role, his inbox exploded with player applications and messages from other coaches. In need of support, he quickly selected Chief Warrant Officer 4 Mike Guidry and 1st Lt. Anthony Uriarte as assistant coaches.
"Mike is an assistant coach at Fort Bragg, [North Carolina]," Koelsch said. "Mike was the other assistant coach with me during the 2018 Armed Forces Championship. He is a phenomenal goalkeeping coach and a great defensive coach."
"Anthony was a player on the Army team in years past," Koelsch said. "He is an incredibly smart student of the game. He's the kind of guy who can read the game, understand what is happening, and break down the opponent using his own observations."
Traditionally, competitive U.S. soccer teams finalize their team rosters by reviewing each candidate's physical, mental, technical, and tactical abilities, Koelsch said.
He worked remotely with his coaching staff and received input from last year's Army coach Capt. Roy Locklear, assigned to the Florida National Guard. The They had many long nights and extra hours on weekends.
In the end, the coaching team had to make many difficult decisions as they cut through the stack of 150 applicants, Koelsch said. Eventually, 25 players were selected. Only 18 would make the final team.
"Focusing on the physical domain was our last priority," Koelsch emphasized. "I wanted players that can stay mentally focused for 90 minutes. I wanted players that will do things on and off the field that help their team."
With four weeks left before the start of the tournament, everyone converged at Fort Hood, Texas for training camp and the final player selection. During the initial weeks, Koelsch aspired to change the team's reputation, all while emphasizing smart play.
"We were not going to be known as bruisers," Koelsch emphasized. "This was not a jab at individuals … or my fellow [or previous] coaches. In the past, we relied too much on athleticism and physicality to get through a match. I think that is what resulted in us getting into penalty trouble [last year.] "
During the first two and a half weeks, he forbade players from slide tackling during practice and matches. The goal was to reinforce good defense, without "cutting a player down like a tree," he said.
Overall, the coaches reinforced soccer fundamentals and implemented a tactical system that players could understand.
"[Koelsch] is professional, competent, and an approachable coach," said 1st Lt. Tanner Vosvick, the team's center back. "The thing I noticed most about Coach Bernie was that he cared for his players. He used his playing experience to dictate the practice tempo and the drills we were going to execute in the day's training session."
Overall, Koelsch committed to his vision: Fielding a team of 11 players that would act as one cohesive unit -- Eleven as One, he said.
"We are one team -- not a bunch of individuals," he added. "I wanted to focus on playing the beautiful game. We can use our speed and physicality to win the ball, but we won't rely on that to get through a match."
To reinforce the total-team concept, the coaching staff all chipped in to purchase patches and two sets of t-shirts that included the Eleven as One logo.
During practice, "that's all the team wanted to wear -- they loved it," he said. "These shirts ripped through the whole Army soccer community, from our friends and family. Everyone wanted one."
The training was in full swing and Koelsch could already see positive changes as the team came together. However, one of the most memorable experiences happened during the team's first dinner, he said.
That evening, the coaching staff met their team at a crowded Italian restaurant. Upon arrival, the coaches noticed a big pile of phones sitting at the end of the row of tables. Koelsch and his fellow coaches did not hesitate to contribute their own devices.
"You were forbidden from talking on your phone during team dinner. I believe there was a meal-payment penalty if you were the first person to pick up your phone," he said jokingly.
As the food arrived at the table, 1st Lt. Cameron Niccum a former West Point player, was the first player to dig in, Koelsch recalled. In response, one of the team captains Capt. Andy Hires, pointed to Cameron and said, "Ok, you're it!"
"Apparently, the first person that took a bite must lead the team in prayer. So, everyone stopped, and they all held hands; and the whole restaurant just stopped," Koelsch said as tears started to form in his eyes.
"I never told them to do any of this," he said. "I caught the eye of my other assistant coach Mike Guidry, and he just smiled at me. I just knew there was something special about that group."
By coming together in prayer, Koelsch felt the team had a common purpose, well beyond the Armed Forces Championship.
"The team was extremely close," Vosvick said. "This bond carried over to the game pitch; everyone trusted each other and were open to what other players had to say. The amount of energy and motivation that was brought to practice allowed each player to push through the long days and get better."
Beyond praying at meals, the team would also take a quiet moment every day at practice, and the beginning and end of every match.
"When you see them in a huddle on the sideline … somebody was leading the team in prayer," coach said. "Somehow, this group of men just decided that that was an integral part of their day. It left me speechless -- the first time it happened and every time after that.
With two minutes left in stoppage time during the final game of the Armed Forces championship, the Air Force team pressed hard, leaving three to four players high in the attacking zone, Koelsch recalled.
For a brief moment, the coach turned his back to the field, telling his trainer to prepare for overtime. At the same time, the Army team won the ball back and started their counterattack.
"We were grotesquely outnumbered when we countered," Koelsch said. "The team found a piece of space in the middle of the field, which was a weakness … that we kept trying to exploit."
The Army team chained a series of well-executed passes past the midfield to enter the Air Force zone. Eventually, the ball landed in front of Sgt. Alan Ibarra. He executed a brilliant feeder pass off the side of his foot, setting up Spc. Steve Palacios near the center of the of the field, Koelsch said.
Only one opponent read the play -- Air Force Capt. Johnny Melcher.
"Melcher is probably the best friend I have in military soccer. He's a brilliant player," Koelsch said about the airman, who also served as a team captain for the Meade United Football Club for three years. "He chased Steve all the way back from the midfield but could not get there."
Palacios put his foot through the ball and it rolled past the Air Force goalkeeper, who was diving to attempt the save.
Time slowed as the ball rolled toward the corner post, Koelsch said. At the same time, Uriarte starting squeezing the head coach's arm on the sideline, screaming at the top of his lungs, "It is going to go in, it is going to go in!"
The ball glanced off the side netting and gave the Army team a 2-1 lead.
Overcome with joy, Uriarte picked up his coach and started walking up and down the sideline. A few seconds later, the refs blew the final whistle.
The game was over. The Army had just won.
"I cried a little," Koelsch said as he smiled. "The coolest part of that experience was delivering [the win] to my players. I can't take all the credit ... they made it happen"
At the end of the game, the Army team lined up to exchange handshakes before running to the stands to see their loved ones. As one of the last through the line, Koelsch turned to see his team waiting for him on the sidelines.
Like every other match, the team had huddled together and kneeled. However, for the last time, one of the players gave thanks as he led the team in prayer, Koelsch said.
"It was an incredible feeling; words can't describe it," Vosvick said. "Air Force is a good team, and we owe them a lot of respect and credit for what they were able to accomplish. They were well-coached and had a lot of good players on their squad."
Overall, "I think all the players on the team played for Coach Bernie. They wanted to win for him and the team -- not themselves," Vosvick added.