By Scott Martin
The year 2020 will be remembered as simply “weird”. Now THAT was the most glaring Captain Obvious statement that I’ve ever made. But for the Pacelli High School soccer team where I assist, it goes much deeper than masks, social distancing, and missing events with family and friends. Starting the season, we were returning four all-conference players and the program was looking up. But something was “off”.
From the beginning, Nick (head coach) and I noted a lack of consistent “flow”. Like a family that needs an intervention or to at least head out on a mini-vacation/adventure, the team failed to communicate. They had no mojo — no funky swagger.
Last week, we ended the regular season with the biggest THUD that I have ever experienced in my 40 years of coaching. It was like the entire team fell onto a concrete slab. Maybe that match represented their inability to move forward. They were tired of COVID. They had enough of juggling in-person and remote school. They were exhausted with the politics and bullcrap going on in America.
With a 10-day gap before we began state playoffs, Nick announced a four-day break from training. But not before he found and presented a video of our opponent’s most recent game in the team room. Knowing that Nick had the movie, I stopped at Walmart and picked up a big container of cheese balls for the kids. Yes, cheese balls. This is a Wisconsin school.
I entered the room at exactly 4:00, knowing that all the players would already be seated. I looked to Ian who, as always, was sitting at the front table and tossed him the tub of crunchy, finger-lick’n, yellow orbs. Ian is a cerebral player that usually sees 5-10 minutes of action each match, but the one player that I look to for his analysis. This is Ian’s senior season. He’s visiting a college in Michigan today as he decides where to attend to study mechanical engineering.
In my two seasons working with the Pacelli program, the kids always used video sessions to remark on their own play. Not to analyze, but to chuckle at themselves. They failed to grasp the information. But on this day, I think they decided to pick themselves up and use this to gain an upper hand. They had decided to change their season. Screw COVID. Screw the outside distractions. They wanted to play with quality.
For the session, Nick told everyone to jot down what they saw. What is their formation? What are their tendencies? Where is their speed? Where is their weakness?
Immediately, it became apparent that they were uncomfortable playing on their left — including with their left foot. Their left back was slow, their central midfield was soft, and they depended on one attacker. We had our information. Our players had bought into the session.
Last night was the match. Following a 45-minute delay due to lightning in the area, the referee’s whistle began the onslaught. There was a flow that had been missing all season. James Brown had returned with some nasty funk.
As expected, their primary attacking player slid right, as did their entire team focus. But we countered by pushing all counter-attacks to our right. It was a gamble that we were confident was to our advantage IF we played with “flow” — with funk.
The Godfather Of Soul had returned. Our backs sorted out marks, our midfield linked passes forward, and our front runners served passes away from defenders and the goalkeeper. The half ended with us in control 3-0.
Last year, we tied this team 1-1 and knew that their head coach was boisterous and expected his players to play aggressively. As we approached our covered bench area from the heated and dry concession stand after intermission, I watched their head coach make his players run continuous 10-yard sprints. This meant one thing. I immediately pulled our team together and told them that they were going to experience a rapid first 10 minutes. “Get through that and they’ll hit a wall. Score within the first 15 and you’ll knock them on their asses.” I said.
Sure enough, with James Brown’s funk still on stage, we kept our cool and played with confidence and a bit of flair. Charlie knocked in his second goal after receiving a slotted pass from Sam 30 yards out to face their keeper in a 1v1 at the six-yard box. And, as expected, our opponent’s aggressiveness faded.
Ten minutes later we received a penalty kick. But as Sam set the ball on the PK spot, Nick called him off. “Ian!” Nick yelled to get everyone’s attention. “Hit it!”. Moments later, playing in perhaps his final match because his ACT exam was moved to Saturday, the day of our Regional Final, Ian scored his first-ever varsity goal.
I’ve coached teams at the youth, high school, and college levels. My teams have gone through highs and lows. They’ve lost touch with their inner James Brown. But this was my first experience where The Godfather of Soul checked out for an entire season. Let’s see if he appears again tomorrow.
Let’s simplify the game.