Phil Bergen was driving home following the Ridgefield High boys soccer team’s season-opening victory over Staples when a thought crossed his mind.
“For some reason, I wondered how many career wins I had,” said Bergen, the Ridgefield head coach. “I realized I had never added them up.”
An intrigued Bergen called Ridgefield High Athletic Director Carl Charles, who did the math: The triumph over Staples was precisely Bergen’s 100th since taking over for longtime head coach Al Diniz prior to the 2004 season.
“In a way I was glad I hadn’t known,” said Bergen. “It would have been frustrating knowing I ended the previous season stuck on 99.”
The episode was emblematic. Counting this fall, Bergen has now coached the Tigers for nine seasons, yet the shadow cast by Diniz, who guided the program from amateurish to polished in his 31 years, remains large enough to obscure any successor. Diniz left with a 343-140-40 record, two state titles, five FCIAC championships, and a spot in the Connecticut Soccer Hall of Fame, and Bergen is first in line to vouch for his former coach.
“Al was a wonderful instructor of the game,” said Bergen, who played on the 1984 Class LL state championship team in his one school year at Ridgefield High after moving from Austria with his twin brother Jon. “When Jon and I arrived here for our senior year from Vienna, we didn’t know anyone. But Al took us in as if we had been part of the team the whole time. I will never forget that, and it is one of the reasons I want the program to always live up to his expectations and do Al justice.”
Replacing legendary figures is often a thankless task, the coaching equivalent of serving as human shield. Few succeed, fewer last. Bergen, though, is proving to be among the exceptions. After steering Ridgefield to a Class LL state title in 2007, Bergen added his first conference crown this fall when his team defeated Greenwich in the semifinals to earn a share of the FCIAC championship alongside Norwalk. (There was no finals contest due to scheduling issues after Hurricane Sandy). The title followed losses in the conference championship game in 2007 and 2009.
One of Bergen’s attributes is his curiosity.
“I’m constantly learning,” he said. “I like to think I’m evolving. I’ve learned how to read the players better, and some of the old school in me is no longer there. I realize that the my-way-or-the-highway approach is outdated.”
“In my seven years working with Phil he’s gotten better every year,” said Charles. “He’s always looking for ways to improve. And his teams play with good intensity but are very classy and exhibit good sportsmanship. Phil creates that kind of environment.”
A dose of Bergen’s tactical malleability was on display this season. Realizing his team’s strength centered around strikers Kent Coleman and Joey DeVivo, Bergen installed a 3-5-2 formation that placed an emphasis on attacking soccer. The result was 65 goals, a 16-3-1 record, and the share of the FCIAC title for the Tigers, who lost to Stamford on penalty kicks in the Class LL second round.
“It was a very good season, but when I look back now I wonder if we could have done even better if I did some things differently,” he said. “I guess that is just my nature.”
Bergen may be prone to self-reflection, but when his input as director of coaching led the Soccer Club of Ridgefield to revamp its travel program a while back, eliminating travel teams at the youngest (U-9 and U-10) levels, it was others who were questioning him. Many others.
“A lot of parents couldn’t understand why we were playing in-house games and not playing against other towns, as we had in the past,” said Bergen, who has been SCOR’s coaching director for 16 years. “But I wanted to play smaller-sided games and have the younger kids focus on developing skills, not winning and losing.”
The continued outcry led to reinstituting travel games at the U-10 level, but the U-8 and U-9 players still play strictly in-house, and SCOR’s academy model has since been incorporated by other towns.
Bergen takes the criticism in stride, understanding that it comes with the territory. Besides, that territory is exactly where he wants to be.
“I’ve only coached in Ridgefield and I won’t coach anywhere else,” he said. “The Ridgefield people have been great to me, going back to when Jon and I came here, and I have a strong bond with the soccer program. It has given much to me, and I want to give something back.”