Women's Soccer Recognized For Playing Their Cards Right

by Tim Volkmann

Anyone who has ever watched a soccer game is more than likely familiar with what a yellow card is. Used as a means to discipline a player for misconduct during a match, officials can “award” a yellow card as a caution for any offense they deem more serious than a typical foul. Coaches are also subject to yellow cards as well if their conduct does not meet with the expectations of the official.

As the game has progressively become more physical, especially at the highest levels, yellow cards are often dealt more like playing cards. Using the 2014 World Cup as an example, there were 187 yellow cards handed out over the 64 total matches played. While significantly down from the 345 shown in 2006 (the most ever in the history of the tournament), all 32 teams in the field were booked at least twice, including a tournament-high 14 by host Brazil which by most standards is one of the best teams in the world.

Enter the Geneseo Knights women’s soccer team. While they have yet to make any World Cup appearances in their 34 years of existence, they carried a streak into the 2015 campaign that may have seemed almost as improbable in such a card-crazy world. The Knights were the only intercollegiate soccer team out of every men’s and women’s program in the entire nation that hadn’t received a yellow card in over three seasons. Total all the squads in NCAA Division I, II and III as well as NAIA and NJCAA, and there were 2,948 programs in 2014. Not to mention 75,650 soccer-playing, card-eligible student-athletes.

“Many coaches believe that yellow cards are just part of the game,” said head coach Nate Wiley, who was voted the 2014 State University of New York Athletic Conference (SUNYAC) Coach of the Year after leading the program to its sixth conference title. “However, the reason you get a card is because you have done something incorrect or inappropriate. To me, that really isn’t an acceptable part of the game. While we understand that those sort of things happen, if you are intentional about how you do things, I don’t think they necessarily have to occur that much. That’s how we try to run our program.”

On November 21, 2011 in the semifinals of the SUNYAC Tournament against Cortland, the Knights received a yellow card in the 57th minute of the contest. That was the last card of any type Wiley, now in his 10th season at the helm of the women’s soccer program at his alma mater, and his team had seen.

“We discussed the streak in terms of it being the standard we set for ourselves as soccer players, students and people. We spoke about how we expect greatness from our players in all three of those areas and are not willing to sacrifice one at the expense of another. The streak was a product of those expectations, and never about telling our players, ‘don’t do this or you will get a yellow card.’”

Fast-forward 67 matches spanning five seasons with no cardable offenses. While Geneseo was the only program in the country to win three-consecutive Gold Ethics Awards citations from the National Soccer Coaches Association, don’t mistake the squad for a bunch of push-overs. Included in that span of time were 31 wins, an appearance in the NCAA Division III Tournament second round, the 2014 SUNYAC Championship and back-to-back showings in the SUNYAC Championship match.

“What I have the most pride about when it comes to the cards is the reputation that our program has. I think the officials that have worked our games realize that we are not the type of team or the type of coaches that are going to have bookable offenses. It is also means a lot to me to be able to show the parents of our players that what I told them when we were recruiting their daughters is what we actually carry out in the program. That we are intentionally not only about wins and losses and being great soccer players, but also that they are great students that do things the right way.”

However, there is always more than one way a situation can be perceived. Case in point, earlier this season when Wiley himself became more vocal than usual with an official during a match.

“I had a parent come to me after our Skidmore game that said they were hoping I’d get a yellow card because it would kind of ‘let the girls off the hook,’" chuckled Wiley. "To me, that is not what I want at all, because letting them off the hook means letting them perform at a level that is lower than we are expecting.”

Two matches later, the Knights found themselves in an early 1-0 hole during the first half of a road match at Buffalo State. And, while it wasn’t exactly Joe DiMaggio going 0-for-4 after getting a hit in his previous 56 games with the New York Yankees, all streaks eventually come to an end. Wiley was issued a yellow card for arguing with the head official about the Bengals being awarded a throw-in after a ball had appeared to go off a Buffalo State player. While it didn’t immediately sink in, it did after the match as he addressed the team.

“Whether we win or lose, I always try to leave the team with a message. I started by apologizing because I always hold them to a higher standard, but I let them down and didn’t hold myself to that standard. It almost brought me to tears because I felt so bad about being the one that ruined that streak, which I probably cared more about than they did anyway. But I think years down the road if any of them ever get into coaching, or have kids that play the game, they will remember and take some pride in the fact that they were a part of a program that carried themselves at a very high standard across the board in everything that they did.

If Cal Ripken had sliced his finger cutting a grilled cheese sandwich and wasn’t able to break Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games played streak, that would have been unfortunate. And according to Wiley, there are good ways and bad ways to end a streak.

“Did I deserve a yellow card for what I did? I don’t think there is any coach that would readily admit that. But at the end of the day, it was the referee’s discretion and he decided it was. And so it was. It was unfortunate to end the streak that way, but as hindsight is always 20-20, I should have known better.”

Wiley vaguely recalls only one other card he received during his coaching career. And like that one, the memory of this card will eventually fade just like it was part of a bad poker hand.

“It hurt. It still hurts. I don’t enjoy talking about it. However, I enjoy talking about the streak and have a lot of pride in going as long as we did, while also being as successful as we were. When this streak started, we weren’t a bad team, but our record just wasn’t very good. When you are the team that is always fighting and chasing the game, I think you’re the team that is more likely to get a card. However, when you grow a bit more toward the successful end of the spectrum, you always get your opponents’ best effort as they try to hit you harder and knock you off of your game. Then you are more worried about the retaliatory type of events occurring. There are different challenges based on the success of your team and either can be difficult to work through. This is a program that, over the course of the last five seasons, has been both of those types of teams and has been able to fight through and not get carded.”

Tim Volkmann is the Director of Athletic Communications and Media Relations at Geneseo.