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A deep dive on men’s soccer head coach Ian Hennessy

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Delaware men’s soccer head coach Ian Hennessy has experienced nearly every level of professional soccer during his playing and coaching careers, from top-tier European competition to the inaugural season of Major League Soccer in the United States.
Courtesy of Delaware Athletics

BY
Managing Sports Editor

Born in Cork, Ireland, men’s soccer head coach Ian Hennessy grew up in a European culture surrounded by top-notch soccer competition. The advanced state of soccer, along with its extreme economic relevance, made the sport a hot commodity as well as a near impossible dream to play at the highest levels, according to Hennessy.

As a budding soccer player in Ireland, Hennessy tried out for the Arsenal Football Club, which is a top-tier soccer club based out of London, England that now competes in the English Premier League. However, he experienced something not uncommon for young athletes with soccer aspirations when he did not make the cut for the team.

“Because it’s so difficult to make it as a pro in Europe, you could look at this as failure,” Hennessy said. “It is very difficult to be one of the few [and] despite the fact that you may have a lot of talent, you just don’t have enough to be at that level.”

Hennessy’s playing days as a midfielder in Ireland continued with a stint on the Cork City Football Club in 1984. Shortly thereafter, Hennessy traveled overseas to play soccer in the United States. This new opportunity put him in an entirely different competitive atmosphere.

“I came to the U.S. and the culture shock to me was all of a sudden being seen as a major asset,” Hennessy said. “Even though I had the same skillset, because the U.S. was maybe not the equivalent of Europe, all of a sudden [my] skillset had me seen as a huge [talent].”

His American journey began with enrollment and scholarship with the Seton Hall Pirates in South Orange, New Jersey. 1986 marked his freshman year at Seton Hall, and in 1987, the young Irish native was named a Third Team All-American. The Pirates claimed the Big East Tournament in Hennessy’s first three years with the team.

In 1988, the star midfielder helped Seton Hall win a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament game against Long Island University to advance to the quarterfinals. While 1989, Hennessy’s senior year, did not end in a conference championship or an NCAA Tournament appearance, he ended his senior year as one of the program’s top players ever.

Hennessy’s 134 points and 52 goals are both the second most at Seton Hall, and he ranks fourth all-time at the school with 30 assists. In every Big East Tournament game, Hennessy notched a goal for the Pirates, and in his freshman and sophomore years, he was named as the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

“[Seton Hall] was a culture shift, all of a sudden your talents are certainly more than good enough as opposed to not being good enough in Ireland, and that was wonderful,” Hennessy said of his time playing college soccer. “The people were awesome, they were embracing [and] the student athlete experience was a wonderful experience.”

His soccer career continued in America, as he played in the American Pro Soccer League for the Boston Bolts in 1990 and 1991. In the years following, Hennessy also played for the New York Fever and New Jersey Stallions in the United States Indoor Soccer League.

Jumping between teams came as no surprise during the late 1980s and early 1990s, as American soccer was disjointed and relatively unpopular compared to other major sports. That narrative changed though, as the sport grew during the mid-1990s, namely with an American-hosted World Cup.

“I don’t feel, at the grassroots level, the United States had a real grasp and understanding of soccer in the 1980s,” Hennessy said. “But there was absolutely an appetite in the 1990s, after the World Cup was here in 1994.” 

In 1993, the United States Soccer Federation founded Major League Soccer (MLS). Three years later, MLS took off for its first year.

Hennessy landed a roster spot on the New York MetroStars, a startup MLS organization, at the age of 29. In the league’s inaugural season, he played 311 minutes for the MetroStars, scoring one goal and one assist. 

“I was a second year graduate student at Columbia University, finishing my doctorate in molecular biology when the MLS started,” Hennessy said. “I was at the very tail end of my career — that would never happen today.”

Hennessy also noted the boom of MLS in the United States signifies the growth of American soccer and its popularity. For him, today’s American culture of soccer is nearly unimaginable.

“We played in joint stadiums, now teams have their own specific soccer stadiums and their training facilities are absolutely top notch,” Hennessy said. “The growth in the game has been monumental and the professionalism and business interests are night and day from then to what we see now.”

For Hennessy, however, his playing career ended just as soccer boomed in popularity in America. His 1996 season with the MetroStars was his only time spent in MLS, and by the turn of the century, he had moved on to coaching.

His coaching career began with Rutgers University in 2001, and the next year, he took an assistant coaching job at Boston College. After four years with the Eagles, Hennessy’s coaching career took the next step.

In 2006, the Delaware Blue Hens men’s soccer program came knocking, with a vacant head coaching position. Hennessy was hired for the job, making him just the program’s third head coach since 1963.

“It was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, and the best decision that I’ve made,” Hennessy said of the Delaware job.

A resurgence was in the air the moment the former player and assistant coach took the job. By his sixth year, Hennessy transformed a historically struggling Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) program into a rising team of national prominence.

In 2011, the team went 13-6-4 (6-4-1 CAA), won the CAA Championship, and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Two years later, the Blue Hens returned to the NCAA Tournament for just the fourth time ever, fresh off the heels of a 14-5-1 (4-3 CAA) regular season.

In 2014 and 2015, Delaware fell just short of winning the conference championship, but still maintained winning records in the regular season. 2016 saw the Blue Hens return to the NCAA Tournament via Hennessy’s second CAA Championship as head coach.

In order to turn around the program, Hennessy mentioned focusing on recruiting, on-field improvements and off-the-field issues. 

“I tried to get the players to balance everything, and that was a challenge,” Hennessy said. “It was a mixture of everything, and it took time and perseverance.”

On the pitch, Hennessy’s coaching style is described as “expansive, attacking and hardworking” by assistant coach, fellow Irish native and former Blue Hen defenseman John Dineen. For Dineen, who played for Hennessy from 2010-2013, being able to work for his former head coach has been a great opportunity.

“Our philosophies are very similar, [we] love to play and coach the same way,” Dineen said. “I’m so fortunate that I got the opportunity to change my life by coming [to the United States], playing under [Hennessy] and coaching under him.”

The coaching staff and student athletes ended up having sustained success, as the team amassed five winning seasons during a six-year span from 2011 to 2016. Since the 2016 campaign, the Blue Hens have not been able to reach the NCAA Tournament — a constant goal for the program, no matter how difficult it is to achieve.

“It’s really difficult in all sports, when you get to the NCAA level, because you’re going to come across the ACC and Big Ten, and it’s not a level playing field,” Hennessy said. “You have to have all the stars aligned to compete with those teams.”

Following a canceled fall season and a spring season that only consisted of five matches, the team is now on a four-year stretch without a winning season. 

“Long term injuries have been the most critical [the past few years],” Hennessy said. “When you lose a scholarship player or two, and you have to honor that scholarship, it really hurts in terms of competitiveness.”

With players returning from injury and a season more likely to be devoid of COVID-19 restrictions and cancellations, Hennessy is optimistic about the team returning to its winning ways.

“I think this fall’s team will be probably the strongest one we’ve had in years, and hopefully it’ll be one that’s healthy,” he said.

As he heads into his 16th season with the Blue Hens, Hennessy’s dedication to the program, university and the Delaware community persists.

“I love the people here, and my two daughters have grown up here [in Delaware],” Hennessy said. “Coaching is a lot more than just about the money; it’s more about family values and being rooted in the community.”

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