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Syracuse men’s soccer head coach Ian McIntyre called Antonino Pagano early in the spring last year. He wanted to get Antonino’s commitment out of the way early since he knew Syracuse was where Antonino had always wanted to play in college. McIntyre knew Antonino had the same desire as his brother, current SU freshman Francesco Pagano. With the entire family sitting in their Manlius living room, Antonino told them McIntyre offered him a scholarship to Syracuse.
“Everything we talked about, thought about when we were younger,” Antonino said. “When the moment actually came, I just couldn’t believe it.”
Antonino and his brother played soccer together for 15 years — and despite a year playing on different teams, Francesco with the Orange and Antonino finishing high school — they will both take the field next fall for Syracuse.
But their path to the Orange began before recruitment. The Paganos have been going to SU soccer games since the boys were in elementary school. They would arrive an hour early to watch warmups. First, they did it to idolize the players. Years later, they went to watch the player’s pregame routines to mimic themselves in youth soccer. They sat together behind the Syracuse bench in the first two rows. And after the game, Antonino tried to speak with some of the coaches.
Antonino and Francesco began their playing careers with Soccer Central, a Rochester-based youth club team, when they were four and five years old, respectively. They started playing games together three years later with the now-defunct club and have played for the same club team, with the exception of this season, every year since. Francesco’s graduation to Syracuse meant that it was Antonino’s time to lead Fayetteville-Manlius High School’s dominant soccer team, a school that has lost only one game since Antonino rejoined in 2018.
Throughout their 15 years of playing they’ve built a relationship that Antonino describes as “close.” He said that he’s closer to Francesco than anyone else in the world. “There’s never a moment where we lose sight of each other,” Antonino said.
Francesco even helped Antonino out with his psychology class last year. Antonino wasn’t used to all the work that the class brought, so Francesco would spend part of his nights helping out his brother.
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“It’s the strongest relationship you can kind of get,” said former high school teammate Ziad Abdul-Malak. “You would think they’re twins. They just know each other so well.”
Now, the Pagano brothers sit together and watch movies — mostly comedies — while cracking jokes and talking about whatever comes to mind. Antonino is a fan of Manchester City and Francesco of Manchester United, Abdul-Malak said. There’s always been a natural rivalry between the pair.
At F-M, head coach Jeff Hammond noticed a constant frustration with the brothers, especially with Francesco. He said Francesco wanted to score a hat trick each game, which caused him to try and take the game onto his own shoulders. The brothers expect to do everything perfectly, and unlike other kids, Hammond said the Pagano brothers had a tough time letting go of their mistakes.
But the brothers utilize different styles of play that complement each other. Francesco is a “big, strong, powerful forward.” McIntyre described him as playing with his heart on his sleeve. Antonino is more technical, Hammond said. He’d pull off new moves that would impress Abdul-Malak, now a midfielder at Le Moyne College. Seeing either Pagano inside the box gave Abdul-Malak confidence during games. He knew that he could whip the ball inside, and nine out of 10 times either brother was going to finish or get a shot on target.
“I can just put it over the top knowing he’ll get there every single time, beat the kid and finish it,” Antonino said.
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Because they were two of the top athletes in New York’s Section III, Hammond said they raised practice to a level that he’d never seen before during his time with F-M. The two expected a great deal from one another that turned practice into a “battle,” Hammond said. Abdul-Malak noted that during some practices, they’d become visibly mad with each other, picking at one another for their play. But the team knew it was just the Pagano brothers’ way of motivating each other. Scoring more goals was never a competition, but they wanted to each score a goal, Antonino said.
Over the summer, the Pagano brothers would run stairs and go through a large bag of soccer balls working out with one another every day. They started with passing drills, then opened up to playing long balls, juggling, working on touches and finishing off with shooting drills. It was Francesco’s way of taking Antonino through what a Syracuse preseason routine would look like and helping show him what McIntyre expected out of his players mentally and physically.
“There’s no jealousy. They want the best for each other,” Hammond said.
While the Paganos nagged each other, their reactions weren’t the same when someone else got involved. During a game against East Syracuse-Minoa Central High School, Antonino took a hard hit from an opposing player on a bad tackle in the waning seconds of a five-goal win by Fayetteville-Manlius. Francesco chased the ES-M player down and yelled, “Don’t you ever touch my brother.” Antonino said Francesco’s “big brother instincts” kicked in.
“They can whack each other all day long, but if someone touches (either of them), they’re going to have to answer,” Hammond said.
Despite spending the 2021 fall on separate teams, the family still tried to be at each home game. On the night of Francesco’s first collegiate goal, Fayetteville-Manlius had a 6-0 lead on Corcoran High School. The Saturday before, Antonino scored a game-winning goal with two and a half minutes left to beat Liverpool and maintain FMHS’ winning streak. He brought down a high kick and fired a left-footed shot that left Hammond in disbelief.
It’s the strongest relationship you can kind of get. You would think they’re twins. They just know each other so well.
Ziad Abdul-Malak, former Fayetteville-Manlius soccer player
Hammond told Antonino at halftime against Corcoran that he’d only play around 10 to 15 minutes in the second half, but after eight, Antonino returned to the bench. With his parents and eldest brother, Joey, in the stands, Hammond told Antonino he could leave to watch Syracuse’s game against Binghamton.
Later that night, Hammond received a text from Antonino saying the family arrived at SU Soccer Stadium just two minutes before the goal. Giona Leibold fired a cross in from the far side to Francesco. Antonino saw the ball’s movement from the stands and knew he was going to score. He’d done it so many times before; the ball just had to hit Francesco’s right foot correctly. It did, and after the game, Francesco blew kisses to his family and pointed at his brothers in the stands.
“Every single time we play together, it’s special, because you don’t want to take it for granted because eventually it’ll be gone,” Antonino said. “So just every moment, cherish it.”
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