New England Soccer Today

A Season to Remember

Photo credit: David Henry/sweetdogphotos.com

Photo credit: David Henry/sweetdogphotos.com

AC Connecticut did not win the PDL championship this year – that distinction belongs to KW United FC following Sunday’s title game win in Seattle. But in many respects, what the Nutmeg State selection did this season was far more meaningful than any trophy or award could signify.

The Blues were led by first-year head coach Shaun Bailey, who was battling stage four brain cancer during the course of the 2015 season. Bailey, a name synonymous with Connecticut soccer after holding various posts at the youth and collegiate levels over the years, took the helm last winter after David Kelly stepped down.

Despite fighting the illness – which he’s fought since spring 2014 – Bailey was determined from the outset not to let his condition interfere with the task at hand, even though he admitted to hitting some speed bumps along the way.

“It can be draining,” Bailey said. “Like when we were 2-0 up (in a game at Western Mass on Jul. 3), we shouldn’t have let them back into the game, and when it gets like that, everything starts going around and around in my mind.”

Of course, the mulling over the “what ifs?” makes Bailey very much a typical coach from an outsider’s perspective. But taking a deeper look at what the former English pro, who said his doctors are optimistic about his prognosis, has endured this year showcased his commitment to his position, as well as his passion for the game.

While the thought of hiring a coach with stage four cancer isn’t the safest play in any sport, Connecticut general manager Robin Schuppert believed that Bailey, who served as an assistant on the squad in 2013, was the right man for the job even before he was diagnosed last spring.

Bailey has served as the assistant coach for the women’s soccer team at Western Connecticut State University (WestConn) for the last nine years. In addition to his collegiate coaching duties, he’d served as Director of Coaching for the Connecticut Junior Soccer Association, and prior to that played professionally for Colchester United FC, Harwich & Parkeston FC and Halstead Town FC in England.

“Shaun Bailey’s resume is pretty much unmatched in the state of Connecticut,” Schuppert said. “He’s big time. So to me, the natural thing was to give Shaun the gig. It was just a matter of him being up for it.”

Bailey entered the season knowing he’d need to good support system around him if was going to take the dual challenge of fighting cancer and taking on a new coaching job in a new league with equal fervor. So he did what anyone in his position would do: he employed the help of a few friends.

Prior to accepting the job in December 2014, Bailey reached out to his fellow coaches at WestConn. After getting affirmatives from Joe Mingachos, Alex Harrison and Anthony Howard, the next step was to assemble a team, and keep that team together during the course of a grueling 14-game schedule that spanned eight weeks.

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It wasn’t easy. Bailey’s condition sometimes affected his train of thought, and he’d stumble while trying to coach his players in training or during a halftime pep talk. Even so, his assistants would offer support whenever needed.

“He’s got a great bank of knowledge, and it hasn’t gone anywhere,” Harrison said. “If he forgets a word, we’re there to pick him up, and remind the players. We’re 100 percent supportive of him.”

Bailey, who underwent regular MRIs to track his progress in fighting the cancer, also admitted to difficulties in simple tasks such as filling the out the team sheet on gameday, but that hardly gave pause to the coaches or players around him.

“We don’t use the cancer as an excuse, we don’t ever bring it up,” Mingachos said. “We’re just doing the best possible jobs to make this experience not only for ourselves, but for all the guys that are here an enjoyable experience, and the cancer doesn’t even come into play.”

The Blues finished the season on 11 points with a 2-7-5 record, and did not make the playoffs. However, there were plenty of positives that Bailey and his coaching staff can take pride in.

Goalkeeper Steven Sasso emerged as one of the best in the Northeast Division, while attacking midfielder Zach Zurita proved to be a fire-starter down the stretch.

But the most evident sign that the season was a success nonetheless was the camaraderie established between coaches and players. While long practices on late weekday nights didn’t produce a championship-caliber season, Sasso said that Bailey was the embodiment of what it takes to succeed in both the beautiful game, and in life itself.

“Passion and commitment,” Sasso said. “Passion for the love of the game, and once you’re part of a team, stay committed, keep working for them. Don’t work for yourself, work for the team. He has our backs, and we have his back, and we’re all in it together.”

Of course, the most impressive aspect of the 2015 season for the Blues was how the coaching staff and players all rallied behind their coach to show that nothing – not even cancer – could stop one man’s passion for the game, and for coaching it, too.

“When this position came around and he came back to some healthy where he could get back on the field, we just wanted to be here for him,” Harrison said. “And I think he’s really taken it in and given it everything he’s got and credit him, we’re super proud of the guy.”

As for Bailey, the 2015 season was nothing more than a testament to how the beautiful game kept the fire within one man’s heart brightly burning, even in spite of his condition.

“I love the game, and I don’t ever want to give it up,” Bailey said. “When they found out it was a brain tumor, and they told me it was stage four, I always said that I’m going to make this the best life I can have. I could be out here for another 15 years – no one knows. But I want to be sure that I’m happy regardless.”

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One Comment

  1. Robert

    August 4, 2015 at 10:39 am

    All the best to Coach Baily. Courage and determination will keep you on the sideline for the next 15 years at least . Hopefully, you and the team can lift that trophy next season.

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