Every MLS coach in the league is trying to do whatever they can to keep their players on track physically during the MLS season suspension, and for Real Salt Lake head coach Freddy Juarez, the message to achieve that objective is simple.
When the MLS season does resume, it will be under a congested schedule that will pack a ton of games into an abbreviated timeframe. That means lineups are going to be rotated by necessity, and everyone on the roster needs to be ready to play. Speaking on a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Juarez said that's the main point he's trying to emphasize to keep the players motivated to focus on their workouts, and not letting the isolation cause them to get off track.
"That's been the consistent message that I've been talking to our players about, that a lot of this is tough," Juarez said, while perhaps echoing the sentiment of many fans who also have home workout routines. "It's challenging for all of us, we're all at home, you have your kitchen right there, you have Netflix and Amazon and it's easy to just relax and turn something on when there's fitness and say, 'Ah, I'm not going to do it in the morning, I'm not going to do it in the afternoon.'
"But the message to the guys has been, look, everyone's going to get used," he continued. "When this happens and they decide to start the season, everyone has to get used. So we have to be prepared as much as possible. ...Right now, it's easy to just relax and put it off for later or put it off for the next day, but we've really got to challenge ourselves mentally to push ourselves through that, because when you do the get the opportunity this year potentially, I think everyone will get a shot. And when you get it you've got to find the best way to help the team win."
It's not just a point of emphasis for the younger players. Juarez cited veteran midfielder Luke Mulholland as one example of the type of player he might have to lean on, and someone he thinks is intent on seizing the opportunity to contribute. Mulholland has been limited to just three first-team appearances over the past two seasons, but Juarez said he's champing at the bit knowing he's likely to see minutes whenever the games start.
"Luke's a veteran," Juarez said. "Luke knows just keep doing the little things, I've got to be ready, I've got to be healthy, and soon as I get an opportunity I'm not going to let go and I'm going to have the confidence from the staff to start getting in the mix. I think that's a learning curve for a lot of the young guys, so it's something we continue to repeat."
It's a mental grind, to be sure, but Juarez said from what he's gathered so far from communicating with his players and the fitness so far, the message has been received.
"One of the things since I've been here, I constantly tell all the guys that it's the mental strength part," he said. "A lot of that comes from the individual. I can bring it up, I can talk about it, but at the end of the day, the players just have to have that competitive drive where they know, 'I'm going to get an opportunity when the season starts, what am I going to make of it?' And if you want to make something positive of it and help the team win, that's going to be your driving force for these times right now."
Whenever the league's training moratorium is lifted and the team can resume practicing together, Juarez said he'll be able to tell right away which players were able to maintain their physical level. And that's going to factor into who gets the bulk of the playing time.
"That's how it works," Juarez said. "If you're not fit you can't do what you want to do. If an individual can't do it, we have to try to find a guy, who, even if they can do it 10 percent less tactically or technically, but they can do a little bit more on the physical side, then you've really got to give that a lot of consideration.
"There's a lot of dialogue, a lot of texts, a lot of calling [with the young players]," he added. "I think the twice a week meetings are really good for our young guys because they get on video and they get to chat and have fun with the guys and have team camaraderie. Our staff is doing a very good job of getting things to them if they need stuff. Most of the guys have families that are older and those younger guys have been away from home for already four years with the academy, so they're pretty mature beyond their years in that aspect."