How York Lions soccer became a powerhouse with Carmine Isacco

Carmine Isacco coaching header

By Alexander Huls, deputy editor, YFile

Over the course of 17 seasons, Master Coach Carmine Isacco has guided the York University Lions men’s and women’s soccer program into becoming one of the best – not just in the province of Ontario, but in all of Canada. The secret to the Lions’ long-term success during Isaaco’s tenure hasn’t just been about talent and athleticism, but factors found off the soccer pitch, too.

When Isacco decided in 2007 to join York University to coach the Lion’s men’s soccer team, he did so for one reason more than any other: potential. He saw it in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) and its leagues, the student-athletes circling York at the time, as well as the growth of the game and program at the University. “I’d like to unlock that potential,” he thought.

Carmine Isacco
Carmine Isacco

Seventeen seasons later and Isacco has succeeded, becoming a coaching star of an accomplished soccer program. Over the course of his York career, the Lions men’s team has won six OUA championships and earned four national championships out of 10 appearances. They have also won provincial medals in 12 of the 13 years Isacco has led the program and finished first in the OUA West Division in each of his 13 seasons. Most recently, the Lions earned silver in a tough OUA championship loss and were victorious in the national U Sports consolation final. Since also taking on the women’s soccer team in 2015, Isacco has guided that team to consistent high rankings and an OUA championship in 2019.

Isacco’s efforts have made him a six-time recipient of the OUA men’s coach of the year award, two-time recipient of the OUA women’s coach of the year award, a two-time U SPORTS coach of the year and a three-time York coach of the year.

When looking back at the success and growth of the program, Isacco credits several factors for its trajectory. Among them is the first squad he coached in 2008 – “Generation One,” as he calls them – whom he praises for re-establishing the men’s program at York and setting a precedent by winning a national championship. “They really set the tone for what the standards were and what the next group of student-athletes had to live up to and strive for,” says Isacco.

The precedent and spirit of that team has been carried forward, not just with a benchmark to emulate, but with Generation One players becoming part of the program over time. For example, Luca Forno, captain of the Lions from 2007 to 2009, has been an associate coach for the team since 2010 and his former teammate Jamaal Smith has also been an assistant coach in the past.

Isacco also credits the soccer program’s out-of-the-gate success and accomplishment since to York’s unwavering support. “York never swayed from its commitment to our soccer program, both men’s and women’s,” says Isacco. The University’s ongoing investment in facilities, all-year-round programming, scouting for exceptional technical ability and athleticism, the York Lions Stadium and off-season Dome, and year-round support have been critical to the teams’ success under Isacco’s leadership. “Without that belief and investment from the athletic director and the people above the staff managers, it would have been very difficult for us to grow.”

More than material investment, what has also been critical to the program’s growth is the morale investment from York. “It’s the words of encouragement; it’s the handshake. Those things are so important for the student-athletes to feel that connection to the school,” Isaaco says. Even former York Lions will reach out to current ones before big playoff games to provide words of motivation.

Members of the York Lions men's soccer squad which won back-to-back OUA Championships in 2017 and 2018
Members of the York Lions men’s soccer squad, which won back-to-back OUA championships in 2017 and 2018.

As for his own impact on the success of the York Lions throughout his time at the University, Isacco has cultivated a holistic coaching approach that has influence on and off the field.

“There’s a higher purpose to doing this for me that is important. It’s not about winning. It’s about being proud of what you’ve done and how you’ve made people around you better,” he says.

For him, that comes through adopting values and responsibilities that ensure positive outcomes – like commitment, ownership, accountability. “All those things, they lead to winning, but more importantly they lead to good people. They lead to better fathers, mothers, aunts, uncles, brothers and sisters,” Isacco says.

It’s about developing accountability, too, he adds. “It’s important that people understand what we preach within our team and within our environment. Not only mental or emotional accountability, but with tactical schemes and their technical skills,” Isacco says.

Instilling those values into his players are important to Isacco, not just to ensure his teams are always full of athletes with strong character, but to ensure wherever they go after their York Lions career, they take those values with them. “It makes you more accountable to life. The field is like a microcosm for real life in the end,” he says.

“I hold my players to high standards. It’s not only necessary in the culmination of winning divisions or OUA and national championships, but it’s in being at your best. It’s being able to look yourself in the mirror and feel that fulfillment,” Isacco says.

After 17 seasons of transformative coaching, Isacco has built a legacy of triumph and positive change both on and off the field.