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MLS Preseason

MLS Preseason: An Exercise in Contradiction

The clashing expectations and mindsets of the coaches and players makes for interesting theatre in Arizona, one of the locales where MLS teams convene to prepare for the upcoming season.
BY Jon Arnold Posted
January 31, 2013
5:33 AM
TUCSON, Ariz.—Two players go in for one ball. They get tangled up. Both young men spring to their feet and puff out their chests. One yells at the other for going in too hard, punctuating his displeasure at the aggression level with an exclamation.

“What the f*ck, man. It’s preseason!”

Such is the paradox of MLS preseason, when players are simultaneously asked to put everything on the line and take it easy, and also make sure nobody gets hurt. There’s the glut of trialists whose livelihood could depend on how hard they play in a friendly match while more experienced players are trying to ease their way back to full fitness and avoid costly injuries.

The result is a strange mix of effort and apathy—at times from the same player. During the six weeks of the preseason how do you know when you need to be playing your hardest and when you should be taking it easy?

“It’s just kind of guess and check,” said San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Sam Garza after a 2-0 victory in a friendly against Houston. “A lot of people are different. Some guys can just come in and be naturally fit and other guys have to work for it. I’m one of those guys who has to work to be fit, so it’s just trying to find that training regimen that helps you. Like I said, game fitness is totally different from training fitness.”

Garza has established himself as an MLS player and is looking to show he can be a regular starter during this preseason. More than half of the players he lined up alongside Tuesday, however, were trialists who haven’t yet secured a spot on a roster. Some will find a job in professional soccer and seek the team or league that fits their style. Others might not get a second chance. Those are the players who don’t have any option. They have to showcase their best whenever possible.

“Opportunities don’t always come along often, so when you get a chance, take it,” Earthquakes manager Frank Yallop told his players before their first preseason friendly. Later, he told me, “I wanted them to express themselves. I wanted to make sure that they know the parameters of what I want with the team, and hard work is first. You play for the team football-wise and, in that framework, express yourselves and go play. Don’t be afraid to play.”

Even with a pre-match chat it can be tough to figure out exactly what a coach or manager wants out of his trialists. Improvement is consistently cited, but it can be hard to demonstrate in a short time period. Plus, play too aggressively and injure one of the team’s star players and a player could find himself in the doghouse—or worse, out on the street.

There’s also the fact that even with friendlies against other MLS teams, it’s tough to gauge how players will react in an actual match situation.

“It’s very different for our guys too because there’s no fans,” Caleb Porter, the Portland Timbers manager said after his team got a 3-1 result against Colorado. “That’s why for me I can’t call it a real game until (there is) the pressure, the crowd and the atmosphere. And when you’re playing for points, and today we weren’t really playing for points, it changes the feel of the game.”

But it not being a "real" game doesn’t strip the experience of value.

“So for me, for our guys, you don’t get that with the crowd," Porter said. "But that’s not why we’re here. We’re not here to get a crowd. We’ll get a crowd two weeks from now when we have our tournament and we have 10,000 fans for a preseason game, so we’ll get that feel at that time.”

To say there are no fans isn’t quite accurate. MLS preseason has the same allure that has made baseball’s spring training such a beloved institution, and a mix of a few hundred locals and traveling fans generally turn up. The fans who make trips here, to Orlando, or to one of the other sites, are closer to the players than any other time. They trade that access for some, at times, shaky soccer.

Most teams haven’t yet figured out what their team is going to look like, Porter said, and most players who will definitely be starters when the season begins in March are playing no more than a half of these early friendlies. The former Akron head man also called the games artificial, since coaches are more concerned about seeing progress and positive play from their teams rather than getting results, though he clarified teams are never going to step onto the pitch and try to lose.

But even with artificial games made up of players who may or may not be giving their all, Porter still sees value in the preseason.

“It’s great to change settings. It allows us to be together a bit more, which is always good to form your group,” he said.

The preseason has its role and its place. It’s clearly not the main event, but everything has to start somewhere. Why not here with some guys fighting for spots and other guys coasting into season mode?

“It’s just going out there every day and working your hardest,” Garza said to sum up the winter. “Obviously it’s preseason. You don’t want to go too hard where you’re killing yourself. It’s a six-week preseason, so I think we’ve got a little bit of time for that. But like I said, every time I get the ball I want to show the coaches what I can do, and I think everyone does. Everyone’s vying for a spot, so I think everyone’s going to give it their all.”


Jon Arnold (@ArnoldcommaJon) is a writer based in Arizona and is ASN's CONCACAF correspondent.

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