Michael Gagliano has always loved being around the game.
Gagliano is currently the head coach of the Algonquin College Thunder men’s soccer team. He was formerly a player on the Thunder.
“I think it’s something that will probably never leave me whenever I stop coaching,” he said.
Growing up in Ottawa, Ontario, Gagliano was introduced to multiple sports at a young age.
“My parents just threw me into a whole series of sports, and I was pretty athletic, so I excelled in most of them,” he recalled.
Gagliano regularly focused on both hockey and soccer. However, as indoor soccer began to become more prominent, he gravitated towards the latter.
As he began to focus more and more on soccer, Gagliano focused his time with the Nepean Hotspurs.
Along with the Hotspurs, Gagliano also played for the Ottawa Fury, as well as seeing some playing time at the Ontario Summer Games.
In 1999, Gagliano and the Hotspurs flew to Scotland to take part in the Robbie Burns International Invitational Tournament.
“We ended up actually winning that tournament surprisingly enough, and it was a really great and cool experience,” he said.
The following year, the Nepean Hotspurs took part in the Ontario Summer Games.
Gagliano also saw playing time for the men’s soccer team at Notre Dame High School, as well as joining a Premier Development League (PDL) at the Ottawa Fury.
From his time with the PDL of the Ottawa Fury, Gagliano then went on to play for the Thunder, where he would spend the next five years.
Gagliano noted the “really good recruitment” by the coaches in his final decision on joining the Thunder.
“They came, they found me, they told me they wanted me to play, and it ended up working out,” he said.
His five-year college career with the Thunder came with some personal accolades, team accolades, and newfound friendships.
Gagliano first began playing for the Thunder at the start of the 2005-06 season. The team was just coming off of their first Ontario Colleges Athletic Association (OCAA) win.
As Gagliano progressed, the team would go on to win five more provincial championships, with Gagliano being team captain for four of them.
“The first one that we won in ’05, it was my first year, I had never gone through that environment, and we were hosting it here which was amazing,” he said.
During the 2005 provincial championships, the Thunder defeated the Humber College Hawks 5-4 in extra time, and then narrowly slipped past the Seneca College Sting 2-1 in penalty kicks.
The following year, in Gagliano’s first year as captain, the Thunder went all the way and won a gold medal at the Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) national championships.
Ahead of their national appearance, the Thunder won their provincial final by a score of 5-1, and then steamrolled through nationals with scores of 7-0 and 4-0, respectively.
“My most memorable moment, is the CCAA Conveners coming up to us after and telling us that we were the best team to ever roll through college sport, not soccer, but college sport because of how we won,” Gagliano said.
Along with the nationals win, the Thunder would also win three silver medals during Gagliano’s time on the team.
The first year, in 2005, the Thunder fell in the final by a score of 2-1.
“We were a little bit of an unknown team, we had been piecing a kind of little take together, and we ended up being really successful, and we just came together really well as a team,” Gagliano said.
The second year they won silver as the team lost in a penalty shootout. Then the final year they won silver, the Thunder were up 3-0 at halftime and ended up falling in the game 6-5.
“They’re tough memories and they’re hard to go back and relive, but I’m proud to say that I was able to get that far and proud of what we accomplished as a school,” Gagliano said.
As for personal accolades, Gagliano was named to the All-Canadian Team in 2005 and 2006, as well as being named the OCAA Men’s Soccer Player of the Year in 2006.
“I think there were a lot of really deserving guys that could have gotten the same, and there were a lot of really good players, so I was honored to win it,” Gagliano said.
While playing for those winning moments were memorable for him, building the friendships he made were also very memorable.
One such friendship built was the friendship Gagliano made with Loui Legakis. Legakis is now one of the assistant coaches on Gagliano’s coaching staff.
“Off the field he was quiet, but he got along with everybody, and he understood where everybody was from. On the field he talked, but he did a good job despite his small stature and size, but he was a good communicator and a very good teammate,” Legakis reminisced.
Although Gagliano still remains part of the Thunder organization as their head coach, there are aspects of playing that he misses.
“I think that once I left Algonquin the quality and the competition diminishes a little bit more and you don’t get the same competitive drive, and I think that’s the thing I really enjoyed about it,” he said.
His most memorable moment playing for the Thunder aside from the nationals win, is that bond that all athletes develop when playing for a team for so long.
“You develop these lasting bonds with guys and though you may not chat every day, when you do see them, or when you do touch base, it’s always like you’ve never been apart, so that’s a really big thing that I say I would take away, is the camaraderie, and the experience and the relationships that develop,” Gagliano said.
Following his playing career, Gagliano took on a role as an assistant coach with the Thunder in 2010 following the departure of a few other coaches. He would stay an assistant coach through to the 2013 season.
“The hardest part for me was I had just played the year before with a lot of the players. But after that season I think things started to turn over a little bit more, so after that first year, I really settled in and I was able to find my voice,” he said.
Following the 2013 season, Gagliano then stepped in to the head coach position. It’s position he has now held for the past five years. He is now entering his sixth year.
“I think that program is in great hands with Gagliano, and he always showed those great qualities when he was a player, as a captain, as a leader, and it totally makes sense that he’s there now and he’s having the success that he’s having right now with his players,” former Thunder co-head coach Kwesi Loney said.
Aside from coaching the Thunder, Gagliano has also coached youth teams around Ottawa. He now splits his time between coaching the Thunder and working as a public servant with the city.
The main difference between coaching college kids and youth kids Gagliano has noticed, is you are able to spend a longer period of time with youth teams.
“You have to take different approaches of different age groups, and you really have to be able to focus on the areas where they need to be developing,” he said.
So far, throughout Gagliano’s time as the Thunder’s coach, the team have been CCAA bronze medalists, OCAA provincial champions, OCAA provincial silver medalists, OCAA East division champions, and have been the OCAA Defensive team of the year twice.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have coached some really exceptional players and some really great personalities and people,” he said.
Although coaching and playing can have their differences, Gagliano has noted one similarity between the two.
“You get just as tired coaching as you do playing. As weird as it is, it’s very difficult mentally and emotionally. I did notice, after some of the weekends away, you just come back and you’re completely drained,” he said.
Aside from the thrill of coaching, Gagliano has also had many memorable moments. One such moment was when he remembered the growth of a player, Alex Asmis, who has since passed away.
“I knew Alex from when he was probably 12 or 13 at the Ottawa Fury, and I watched him grow, and he came in to the college as a loud-mouthed college kid, and I watched him grow into a person that everybody loved and respected,” he said.
The coaching side of things has also allowed Gagliano to reunite with fellow Thunder player Legakis.
“I think having him as an assistant coach there is helpful because I know some of these players require some of that personal touch, and I think Loui gives that,” Loney said.
“Loui’s great with building those relationships with the individual and being able to share some of his experiences from when he traveled, and even playing at Algonquin,” he added.
“He’s pretty cut and dry, tells it like it is, and the thing that I’ve really enjoyed working with Loui is that he challenges me with different ideas and thoughts, whether he believes in them or not,” Gagliano said.
In terms of personal growth, both playing and coaching soccer has allowed Gagliano to grow and learn life lessons he’ll capitalize on when he eventually hangs up his cleats.
Like every athlete at some point, Gagliano has faced coaching and playing challenges and adversity. On the playing side, it’s been confidence and moments where he has doubted himself on and off the field. On the coaching side, it’s been the fact he’s not in the locker room as a player and he’s got to make sure the team is functioning well.
Due to the challenges and adversities, Gagliano has been able to grow throughout his soccer career.
“Learning how to interact with people, that’s probably the biggest benefit that you get out of it,” he said.
Alongside his growth, the lessons he has learned along the way have also allowed him to grow.
“It just goes back to relationships and being able to build and develop those relationships with people. It also teaches you patience, it teaches you understanding, it gives you the maturity that you need, discipline,” Gagliano said.
“And I think the biggest thing is leadership, given the roles that I’ve played, I’ve been in leadership positions, and I think that it’s helped me in my own personal life,” he added.
Due to his long tenure of coaching, Gagliano feels like he might step down for a break. But due to his love for the sport, he knows he won’t completely step away from the sport that has been ingrained in his blood since he could walk.
“I’ve been doing it for a while, so I know a break is coming soon. How long, I’m not sure. I don’t know if, when I step away, I’ll be away forever, or if I’ll come back eventually, but I do know I haven’t played for a little while,” Gagliano said.
“It’s been about 7-8 years since I’ve actually played outdoors, full field, 11-11. I think that once I stop, I’ll probably get back into playing and trying to enjoy myself again and finding love for the game that I have.”