Western Michigan’s Unique Path to Success

Western Michigan’s Unique Path to Success
by Victor Olorunfemi
March 22, 2024

In a modern men’s college soccer world where the best teams in the country have either occupied that spot for generations or recently earned a seat with an influx of international talent, out of seemingly nowhere, the Western Michigan Broncos have broken through by embracing the roots of college sports in recruiting heavily within the region and building a program that reflects and embraces the community it exists within.

The latest example is the 2023 season where behind a trio of in-state high school soccer legends turned collegiate All-Americans, the Broncos finished 17-1-4 and earned a second consecutive sweet sixteen berth before losing on penalties to eventual finalists Notre Dame, a game after knocking out ACC power Duke with its only home loss of the season.

It is an accomplishment that gives credence to the value of carving out a niche identity, something Bronco Head Coach Chad Wiseman built his program on. “What may work for one institution may not always work for another. My advice to any young coach out there is to know who you are. Anybody that will reference anything about WMU soccer will say that they know exactly who they are.”

For context, in the last seven collegiate seasons, 17 institutions have made the NCAA sweet-sixteen on at least three occasions. Of those schools, only Western Michigan, New Hampshire, Kentucky, Marshall, and Pittsburgh had never reached a College Cup before 2017. And in the latest collegiate season, international players accounted for 39% of Kentucky’s minutes, 50% for Pittsburgh, 51% for New Hampshire, 94% for Marshall, but just 6% for Western Michigan.

For many, it had almost become a foregone conclusion that only storied powers such as Indiana, Notre Dame, Stanford, Virginia, Georgetown, and North Carolina could afford to compete at the highest levels of Division 1 soccer with a collection of domestic talent since their historic standing afforded access to the best American prospects around the country. For any hopeful newcomers, they would have to find international routes such as Marshall, who, in 2021, won its first-ever national title in a final where 11 of the 12 players featured came into the country by way of college soccer.

Western Michigan has now routinely gone toe to toe with the best programs in the country, revealing it is still possible to compete at the highest level of college soccer while utilizing a regional recruiting focus.

The Broncos’ 2023 roster of 31 featured 28 (20 in-state) who played high school soccer in the U.S., including Charlie Sharp and Dylan Sing, two Michigan-born collegiate All-Americans who finished first and third in the country in points. That was not an anomaly either. The 2017 team that reached the first sweet sixteen in program history was entirely domestic, and the 2022 roster that reached the same heights featured 28 domestic on a roster of 31.

The tandem behind the new era of Western Michigan soccer is Wiseman and assistant Shane Lyons, who each have a special connection to the state and the institution. The two are graduates of the school’s men’s soccer program, Wiseman in 2001 and Lyons in 2012, a detail Wiseman believes plays a role in the success the Broncos have found in recent years.

“Myself and my assistant, Shane, are both Bronco alumni. We wore the uniform. It’s not that we want more for our program than somebody who is not. I just think when you’re coaching for your Alma mater, there’s a little bit of a different passion there.”

It is hard to argue with the basis of that belief, considering the Broncos have reached new heights since Wiseman took over in 2013 and Lyons joined as an assistant in 2016.

Since finishing with a .500 record in 2013, the Broncos have reeled off ten straight winning seasons, shattering the previous program record of three, set between 1987 and 1989. The 17 wins from last season are one better than the 2022 season and tie the program record set under the same staff in 2017. Three of the school’s four NCAA tournament appearances have come in the last six years, with the other in 2003. The five All-Americans in program history have been since 2017. The Broncos have become an MLS factory with six picks in the last two drafts alone. And what is perhaps the coaching staff’s favorite accomplishment, the program has had 15 Academic All-Americans in the last five years after having none before that.

But while that success may seem like it occurred overnight, it results from years of a concerted effort to revolutionize the program from a minimized Division 1 school to a perennial contender. To emerge from the shadows of state and regional powers such as Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Notre Dame, and Akron, Wiseman set out a recruiting goal for his staff- win the 131.

“There’s a highway called 131 that connects from the top of Michigan to the bottom, from the Upper Peninsula and then into Indiana. We’re the only Division 1 institution down that path, and we want to make sure the best guys up and down that highway stay here,” Wiseman stated before adding, “In the state of Michigan, we are very lucky that it is a strong youth soccer state. Other states might not be as fortunate, but we are, so we want to get the best players in Michigan.”

Those efforts proved prudent. Brandon Bye, the program’s first All-American in 2017 who has now played 170 games for the New England Revolution, grew up just 10 miles from campus. 2023 All-Americans Jaylen Shannon and Sing grew up 40 miles from the school. Hermann finalist Sharp is also from the state, and MLS draft pick Jonathan Robinson hails from Gurnee, Illinois, a three-hour drive from Kalamazoo. Not to mention a five-year streak from 2015 to 2019 of signing the Michigan Mr. Soccer, an award that recognizes the best high school player in the state.

“We needed to generate something community-based. For example, if you get a kid that’s within 50 miles of Kalamazoo, now all of a sudden, not only do you get that kid and their family and extended family, you’ve got that high school community too, they’re going to rally behind him because he was a star in that community.” Wiseman said as he reflected on the program’s recruiting efforts. “Now you do that over and over, now you’ve got several pockets, many around your university that all support your program, and that’s what happened when you talk about some of these local kids we’ve brought in.”

That concerted focus created a feverish support for the program in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a town of 73 thousand that rallies around the university’s sports teams. Suddenly, donations from alumni and the community poured in, whether by financial means or something more inter-personal like a family hosting the team for a post-game meal. It became common to see the WMU Soccer Complex packed with fans from all over the 131 and through the state and region, an atmosphere that gave the Broncos a formidable home standing and, more importantly, laid the foundation for more recruiting and competitive success.

Take the case of Carson Hodgson, a sophomore selected by CF Montreal in the latest MLS draft, who will return to continue his development thanks to the new draft rules. A Michigan native, Hodgson’s father played for the Broncos in the early 90s, but it was not guaranteed that Carson or his twin brother, Tanner, would sign for the university as the two became accomplished prospects in the region. But a core memory Hodgson held concerning the program helped seal the decision.

“I remember a lot of my buddies and I went to a regular season game in 2017, and it was packed. There were a lot of fans there, and all my friends were cheering for Western. And it was like, wow, this is pretty cool.”

And while it may not seem like it now that they are collegiate stars, the Broncos have built a foundation on the backs of often-overlooked but uber-competitive recruits.

“We have more none MLS Next kids than we do MLS Next. A lot of times, coaches won’t recruit out of those other platforms. From our standpoint, it’s great because we’ll find a player that makes sense for us . . . That’s part of our team culture. We love to compete. You can’t come to Western Michigan if you don’t like to compete. It’s that simple,” Wiseman said before Lyons contributed, “We see value in academy-level players and state-level players. Having a mix of kids from the region and those two levels gives us a competitive edge.”

That Bronco culture of competition in everything has paid dividends in the immense player development and winning pedigree the team has earned over the last decade.

“Every training session is so intense, everything is so competitive . . . Every team has talent. It’s all about how badly you want to win and how much harder are you willing to work than the other team. That is what our coaches preach all the time,” Hodgson said as he provided insight into the day-to-day environment.

Wiseman and Lyons echoed that same sentiment, with the three-time Coach of the Year revealing a life-changing quote he heard as a student-athlete when legendary college basketball coach John Wooden came to speak at the institution.

“One thing he [John Wooden] said that I’ll never forget and I’ve used my entire professional life is ‘Nothing good will happen out of sports without enthusiasm.’ And I agree with that, and that is what college athletics is all about. We inject that into our players every single day.”

That type of enthusiastic atmosphere is exclusive to teams with a plan for recruitment and team building. It paves the way for the year-to-year player retention vital for passing a specific team culture from one generation to the next.

“We’ve got three Conference Player of the Year, 2017 was Brandon Bye, 2022 was Daniel Nimick, 2023 was Dylan Sing, all three of those guys are four-year players . . . If you want to have a culture, culture is built by four-year players. Transfers can add to your culture, but they cannot create the culture.”

That formidable, competitive, and family-oriented culture is why a player like Sharp, who could have signed a professional deal with Toronto FC after the 2023 draft, negotiated a return to Western Michigan for one final season to compete for and with teammates and a coaching staff he would go to war with a million times over.

Just as important is that even though the Broncos have emphasized an old-school recruiting model, they have also embraced certain aspects of the modern college soccer landscape. Wiseman and his staff utilize the transfer portal in cases where it makes sense, with the likes of Robinson, from Marquette, and Will Perkins, a former Michigan State captain, coming in as transfers that elevated the team to new records. Nimick, who won conference player of the year in 2022, was recruited straight out of the Canadian soccer scene. Another example of that modernization is TDS Freshman All-American Noah James, who traded the warm beaches of Southern California for the harsh winters of Western Michigan to come and compete for one of the best programs in college soccer.

The results are inarguable as Wiseman and Lyons have flipped the Michigan collegiate soccer landscape. The Broncos have won 14 straight games against in-state opponents in a streak that dates back to 2018 and features at least one game against every other in-state D1 institution, including the Michigan Wolverines and Michigan State, two traditional powers. In fact, the Broncos’ three sweet sixteen trips in the last seven seasons match the combined total of every other Michigan school in that era.

The latest recruiting class features five prospects from Michigan, spanning the MLS Next, ECNL, and traditional club soccer scene. With a few marquee transfers likely to be sprinkled in and a challenging schedule aided by a passionate supporter base and an Athletic Director in full support of the program, the Broncos will be ready to add to their growing legacy in the fall, all while embracing the local communities that make it all possible.

Related Topics: Big Ten, Missouri Valley
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