As the first week of March approaches, teams are pretty much halfway through their preparation process for the upcoming season. Over the last month we've looked at how teams deal with the start of the preseason, but now it's time to look at where they are at.
As the teams enter their fourth week of preseason, the shaping process for each squad has already begun, but now it takes on a more serious note. Coaches are starting to decide who has earned a chance to stay and who needs to move on.
What is shaping? Shaping the team is where coaches decide how the pieces of the puzzle fit best together. This is when the players who are vital to team success are determined.
There are two concepts for putting a team together that every coach will follow. One is that he has a predetermined way that he wants to play. He is now busy at work in preseason to teach this system to his players. The coach will be looking for players who possess the qualities that he needs for certain positions. During the preseason, the coach will give all of his players chances to impress and play. Sometimes that means that he has to change systems, the shape of the team, because the mix of players does not allow him to continue to play the way he wants. But at the end of the day, he is looking for players to play within his system.
The other is that the coach adjusts his shape or system to fit the abilities of his players. In preseason, he spends his time determining who the best players are and who his key players will be. He needs to assess this as quickly as possible and start working with his players to develop and refine their system. This may sound haphazard, but it really isn't. All good coaches have a concept of play, a style they want to play. The shape is merely the best way to allow the team to express the coach's concepts using the abilities of the players.
Both methods work. Steve Nicol in New England, the Galaxy's Steve Sampson and Thomas Rongen at Club Deportivo Chivas USA will be using the first concept. Dave Sarachan of the Chicago Fire and the MetroStars' Bob Bradley practice more of the latter style. My preference is the latter. That is what has worked for me and what I will continue to use.
The real work of preseason is finding the right players. Some players adjust very quickly and make a good early impression. Sometimes they fade after a period of time. Other players start slowly. This might be because of nerves or lack of early fitness. The key is to give them some time, because over time the cream will rise to the top. On the other hand there are some players who show fairly early they are in too deep. Usually the pace of the game is too fast and they struggle technically to stay with the other players.
Each team has basic needs irrespective of which method is used. Coaches are looking for players who can fill those needs. They also look at players to see if he has something special. A player who possesses a skill or ability that is different from the others has a certain value. All coaches are looking for that "specialness" in a player.
The other part is to get the veterans ready. The good one knows his body pretty well. But everyone needs games to get the final tune-up. In these games coaches want their key players to get that sharpness but not pick up any injuries. They also want to see how the new players fit in with the returning players and how they look in that group. Seeing which parts fit together well is a big part of preseason.
There comes a time when every coach becomes concerned. Either they have not got all the pieces or realize some players are not what they thought. The search to add players via allocations, discoveries and the like continues on in preseason. The MetroStars have just signed Youri Djorkaeff, and they went into preseason knowing that they would add a number of players. There will be more moves coming up. Los Angeles picked up Michael Umaña. Is Greg Vanney returning to MLS and where he will he end up? Who will replace Ryan Nelsen at D.C. United?
Injuries always happen. Some are just unfortunate occurrences, others are fatigue related and still others are ... well, it sometimes seems the same guys always pick up a knock in preseason. All coaches want to keep this to a minimum but it is a constant of preseason. Some injuries turn out to be long term, and that forces a team to start looking for new players again.
Finally, there is national team duty. The United States, Costa Rica, Guatemala and the others all want their players to get ready for the qualifiers or just for friendlies. Players like to play in these games because everyone wants to play in a World Cup and for national pride. The extra cash also helps motivate this activity. International duty is just another obstacle for coaches to deal with in preseason. When these players are missing it is harder to see how things will fit together. Sometimes who is held onto in a squad is a function of what players will miss regular season games for national team duty.
Preseason is not an easy time. Coaches want to avoid injuries, they want to get their team fit. The coach needs to decide his style or his concepts and find the players that can best execute that for him. He now needs to get his point across so the team starts to play as a cohesive unit. At the same time players are being added late and others missing for the national team while you they are trying to accomplish this goal.
On top of all that the fans want to know how the team is doing. The fans wonder what scores of training games really mean. "Are we on the right track?" is the question everyone wants to ask. The general managers are busy selling tickets although some like to busy themselves watching the team. And all the while you have some nervous players who wonder every day "Did I make the team?"
Ah, a coach's life. I love it.
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 MLSnet.com.