By Scott Martin
Last night, the high school team that I’m assisting, Pacelli from Stevens Point, Wisconsin, opened their abbreviated season. We’ve had seven training sessions, plenty of time to come to enough conclusions to play a non-conference match. Without summer play, the main field at the soccer complex was lush and green with no worn spots in front of the goals. At kickoff, the temperature was 72 degrees with a light breeze, and the burnt orange sun which was discolored due the wildfires out West was setting as play began.
My role with the team is to prepare the lone goalkeeper, manage the defense, and adjust tactics based on the opponent and situations as the match flows. Going in with a roster of 14, the head coach, Nick, and I knew our biggest issue would be fitness. Knowing that there was no way to dramatically improve that aspect of the group, we relyed on designing a scheme that would best fit our players and limit what I call “sprint steps”.
Sprint Steps: From the first whistle, players have a certain number of sprint steps within them much like the number of miles a car will travel on a full tank of gas. The number must be managed during a relaxed pre-match warm-up, an inner self-confidence of the players, proper hydration and rest during halftime, and an understanding that their egos must be kept in check in order to avoid unnecessary bursts. In summary, players must manage their minds and their bodies from the time they arrive at the field until the referee blows the final whistle.
Having lived in Las Vegas for five years, I picked up counting cards while playing blackjack at the casinos. No, card counting is not like what you may have seen in movies. I wasn’t part of a team of players, scouting the perfect six-deck shoot while the pit boss speaks into his/her sleeve to assistants as they looked to hone in on our coup. My objective was always to walk out of Caesar’s, the Bellagio, or another gambling establishment with enough for a nice night out. Much like playing center back as I did for years, counting cards is taxing on the brain because of continuous evaluation of the ever-changing situations — and I love it.
Managing a successful season with only 14 players will not be easy. Last night’s opponent brought 29 to the Portage County Youth Soccer complex. But our players were well aware of managing their sprint steps from my first year with them in 2019. Nick and I knew that each of our back five would need to go the full 90 minutes with key attacking players needing to play at least 80 minutes each. Three substitutes would be used to provide spot rests of between five and ten minutes. That is Nick’s job, so he will need to stay ahead of play.
Four freshmen started almost every match for us in the back last season so when training began last week, we knew their understanding of our defensive philosophy would be a strength. We added another sophomore that possesses the speed and ability to play the ball forward when starting a counter-attack to the mix this season, giving us an alignment that could withstand a more fit opponent attacking us during the final ten minutes of each half. You may have noticed this leaves us with a major problem when all five graduate. That issue will need to remain on the back burner this year.
With two first-team all-conference attackers returning, our attack cupboard is not bare. But we can’t play them together up top. Sam, probably our best overall play and a true soccer rat, has slotted into a central role that reminds me of the old Dutch style of Total Football. In no way can a roster of 14 play this way. But Sam is free to roam as needed. He has carte blanche in the midfield. Left, right, up, back — he’s allowed to make decisions based on numerous factors. We discuss these during training, during pre-match analysis, and even when he and his folks came to our house for dinner before COVID hit.
On paper, we play a 3-5-2 alignment. But we look at this mathematically, so to us, there are various triangles and an important diamond in the middle that provides balance to both sides of the field plus stability to our defense and our attack. This system can change shape easily when needed. Sitting at 2-2 at halftime last night, I told Sam, our supporting midfielders, Dakota and Jacob, and our center back, Bennett, that if we are up with 10-12 minutes to go, they will form a compressed diamond. Sam will fall back slightly, Dak and Jacob will pinch in, and Bennett will manage a now limiting middle of the field.
During the entire match, we were losing shape which had Nick and I concerned. Without shape, our midfield became exposed and our opponent, with a deep bench, was able to run wild at the cost of our sprint steps. But after going up 3-2 at the 30-minute mark, our objective was to get to the point of implementing the compressed diamond which came with exactly 12 minutes remaining — not soon enough for me.
But then fatigue and the lack of a deep roster came into play. Charlie, who had scored two goals, had his right calf seize and had to be removed. Then Sam’s entire left leg cramped and he had to come off the field. To counter this, we moved to a design of a square of four midfielders in from of Bennett. But as legs tired and confidence wained with our top players receiving treatment, openings happened and the score locked at 3-3. Charlie did return into the back side of the square but Sam remained frustrated on the sideline as the match came to an end.
Needless to say, the group is off today. We were able to gain a great deal of knowledge from the tie. After the match, Bennett and I discussed him taking more control of the defense and the importance of the back playing more cohesively. They must hold their shapes and attack as a team from those shapes. And, perhaps most importantly, they must continue to manage their sprint steps. This small band of soccer rats can come together. As coaches, we must trust them to do so.
Let’s simplify the game.