Antony Howard considered this a rebuilding season for his Danbury boys soccer team, but with three weeks left it currently sits tied for first place with Trumbull in total points.
However, a look under the microscope is revelatory about the Hatters’ standing. First, they have played one more game than almost every other team. More telling, they have defeated just one team that would qualify for the league playoffs if the season ended before. At the same time, Danbury has tied four of the other schools. There is also a draw with St. Joseph, which was winless a year ago.
A study of results this fall lead to a common belief among coaches: there is no clear-cut favorite and the bottom of the league has take a huge step toward the contenders.
Preseason favorite Greenwich has a tie with New Canaan, which is winless with one other draw. Westhill, Stamford and Brien McMahon, currently in a three-way tie for ninth place, all have wins and ties against teams high in the standings. The Black Knights might be the poster child for the season. Since a season-opening 4-1 loss to Trumbull, every one of their games have been draws or decided by one goal. Appropriately, they have a .500 record.
“I can’t give you an overwhelming No. 1 favorite going into the playoffs,” said Darien coach Jon Bradley, whose team generated little talk in late August but is 6-3-3. “This year I wouldn’t be surprised to see a lower seed win the tournament.”
Right now six points — two wins — separate the top eight teams. Norwalk, a side many believe could win the championship, would be the last school in.
“If Norwalk finished eighth I wouldn’t want to finish first,” Howard said. “It’s craziness. But who do you want? We’ve only beaten Warde in the top eight. We don’t know how we came out of that game with three points; we only had five shots on goal. I wouldn’t be surprised if they won it all.”
While there is less separation than usual up top, there are only three schools with one or fewer win. Eighteen games have ended with ties.
“It’s probably, since I started in 2002, back to the beginning again where there’s probably one or two easy or weaker teams on the boys and half a half dozen easy teams with the girls,” said Bradley, the girls coach at McMahon before coming to Darien. “So you are seeing a disparity in the points between the boys and the girls. The boys are so clustered when you look at it. It is tight out there. The results are close.”
The girls season thus far has three teams that have separated themselves from the pack: St. Joseph, Ridgefield and Staples have yet to lose a game. While there are several other teams enjoying strong seasons, it would be a surprise if one of the trio did not win the conference title.
As for handicapping the boys race?
“You’re not going to put a bet on the postseason, let me put it that way,” Howard said. “It could be anybody right?”
Based on their play so far and remaining schedule, the Black Knights would seem to have the best chance of the teams on the outside looking in to disrupt the present landscape. Bradley feels it is a likely scenario.
It is equally likely that, given the parity, the seedings for the playoffs will look quite different from how they appear today.
“I think at this stage in the season, in previous years you’ve been able to say here are the top two seeds,” Howard said. “Now that’s not the case.”
Howard’s goal right now is the same as his colleagues.
“We want to finish in the top four,” Howard said. “We want to give ourselves the best chance of having a home game in the first round.
With no dominant team, FCIAC schools will probably be seeded closely for the state playoffs. That might reduce the chances of the many opening-round meetings that often occur. It also means there could be some surprises.
“There are going to be one or two good teams that are going to miss out on the playoffs and make a really good run in states,” Bradley said. “The league is getting harder.”
Greenwich, Trumbull, Fairfield Ludlowe and Trumbull each have won two conference titles during the past decade. While one could easily add to that total, this year an outsider has as good a chance of earning the trophy as ever before.
“At this stage right now you’re just trying to give yourself the best possible chance of progressing and after that all the soccer gods need to align to try to help you through,” Howard said. “It’s going to be really interesting for sure.”