Confident coaches land in MLS Cup
The Home Depot Center -- is the best stadium in the league. The teams are two teams whose coaches have kept a very stable approach to their team all year. Knowing a thing or two about stability, I know that when you can work in peace, it makes your job easier.
Last week I talked about making changes or not making changes as you approach big games. I went into how players look for cues from their coach that tells them whether to be nervous or confident going into the game. When there is a calm that exists in an organization, everyone gets down to work and confidence prevails.
Kansas City is very stable. Bob Gansler has been the coach there since 1999. His players feel the support he has from the organization and this allows him to be very demanding of them. There is no complacency because they know his word is final and will receive full support. They have won titles -- MLS Cup in 2000 and the U.S. Open Cup in 2004. But they have struggled at times in between.
Still, the key to their success in 2004 is the team concept he has built. There is a belief that they can succeed even through difficult times. The team and the experienced players -- players like Kerry Zavagnin, Diego Gutierrez, Tony Meola, Nick Garcia -- that have been with the team for a period of time, know that they have to work through difficult times. Like a good marriage, they do not throw up their hands at the first sign of trouble.
Gansler demands a lot from his players at training, but no one is more driven then himself. He wants his team to play responsibly and defend with integrity and give an honest effort. Their style reflects that commitment to defending. But make no mistake: when they win the ball, they want to score goals.
When they had Preki, and even with Chris Klein, they would try and counter through these two players. Preki would often provide the insightful pass, or the creative dribble. Many times he would hold the ball up to allow the rest of the team to get forward into spaces. Klein would do this in his way through the speed dribble and power running in midfield.
Without these two players, they now rely on Josh Wolff and Davy Arnaud on the attack. They have changed their game a little. They play more directly, to use the speed and aggressive dribbling that their forwards possess. Good coaches adjust their style to suit what they have. Sometimes the change is subtle, but it is there. Gutierrez has become a terrier in midfield with more freedom than before because they need his tenacity and ability with the ball more than last year.
D.C. United changed coaches at the beginning of the season and Peter Nowak had to teach the players what he was all about as a coach. Everyone knew he was a great player. But coaching is different and not all great players become good coaches -- some do, some never do. He also had the additional burden of Freddy Adu's first season. That's certainly not an easy task for an experienced coach, and even harder for a first-year coach.
I am sure Peter will admit that there are some things from the start of the season he would like to change. When new to coaching, we always think everything we try will work, but the good ones soon realize we still have a lot to learn. Coaches continue to learn everyday, just like great players.
But Nowak knew how he wanted the team to play. The club was committed to him and the players knew they had to adjust to this new way -- or it was the highway. He used players who played little the year before -- such as Brian Carroll -- increased minutes for others (like Alecko Eskandarian) and brought along Freddy. The team worked the ball around with short passing combinations from a tight, pressurizing defensive posture. He had some aggressive players like Ben Olsen and Dema Kovalenko and used their tenacity as a cornerstone to his defending scheme.
Peter knows the value of defending because if the team defends well then players like Jaime Moreno can do their thing more frequently. The philosophy of good teams is to defend well to get the ball back to play offense. You cannot attack without the ball, so you need to teach your team to win it back, quickly and high on the field of play if possible.
The players started to believe as the season went on. All the changes in personnel from the year before started to bear fruit as the understanding increased. But most important was the better balance of experience and youth. The addition of Christian Gomez for Bobby Convey made them a better team. I am not saying that Gomez is a better player than Convey. I am saying that what he brings better fit the team and made the team better due to his understanding of playing with Moreno and Eskandarian.
The game Sunday will be fun. Both teams believe in their coaches and how they want play. I know I am giving some love to coaches here -- being a coach myself, I think that's what you would expect. But I know these two guys, and I know myself. All three of us would tell you the reason Sunday will be fun, the reason their teams did well this season, the reason they are where they are -- PLAYERS.
Good players make good teams make good coaches. The coach has a job to create an environment that allows the players to shine. In training and games, the coach wants to set up situations where the players continue to develop and grow.
Moreno has had a great season and hopefully his injury late in the New England game will not prevent him from playing all out. Eskandarian has scored some great goals, Ryan Nelsen commands and organizes as well as anyone. Olsen just competes like few others and Kovalenko is a pit bull. I wish D.C. United a good game to allow the sport to be showcased as it deserves.
On the other side, Jimmy Conrad is up for Defender of the Year, Gutierrez has become a linchpin for this team, and together with Zavagnin they force turnovers that create offensive opportunities for the team. Wolff and Arnaud are very active and have great speed. I wish Kansas City a good game because the final draws the attention of the media and soccer deserves the attention.
Enjoy MLS Cup 2004. I will -- two very deserving organizations are in the final.
Sigi Schmid is one of the winningest coaches in MLS history, having led the Los Angeles Galaxy to four honors in his five-plus years at the helm, including the 2002 MLS Cup championship. Send comments to Sigi at firstname.lastname@example.org. Views and opinions expressed in this column views and opinions are the author's, and not necessarily those of Major League Soccer or its clubs.