Thursday, March 10, 2011

Preseason training camps in Major League Soccer

Jason Davis of US Soccer Players Newsletter writes of the trials and tribulations of preseason training camps.

The weeks between the opening of Major League Soccer training camps and the start of the new season are a metaphorical minefield of meaningless results and poorly informed conclusions. Fans anxious for a hint of what’s to come during the Summer and Fall desperately grasp at anything from these games. Goals, and the sense of a menacing attack or individual momentum they provide, are agonizingly precious. Clean sheets and the successful collaboration of players it takes to create them, are reasons for hope. Individual performances take on massive meaning, much more than they should. Overreaction infiltrates everything.

Never mind that these matches are glorified practices. The results mean nothing, full stop. The day-to-day motivations of MLS head coaches, especially in terms of what their particular area of focus might be at a given moment, are mysteries to everyone watching from afar. Those of us watching aren’t privy to the process. Because winning isn’t really the point, clear notions of where the team actually stands are nearly impossible to come by.

Is today about the attack? Or is it the midfield? Does the number of goals conceded actually mean anything? How about goal scored? Is this about possession, chances, or both? Why are so many guys out of position, only playing a small portion of the game or sitting on the sidelines in street clothes? How, exactly, can there be three “halves”?

Lineups rarely stay the same for very long. Substitutions are more often than not made for reasons only clear to the coach and his staff or to just get a player a look. What’s on display bears no resemblance the strategic versions that will come when the games begin to count.

Opponents can range from college teams and semi-pro sides to lower division clubs and MLS outfits working through their own pre-season preparations. None present the type of challenge teams will face during the regular season. Even the MLS competition - the only foes likely to give observers any real idea of how well a team is playing - will have experimental lineups or include trialists who might not be around much longer.

If you need an example of just how meaningless pre-season matches are, look no further than the events that transpired in Arizona on Tuesday. Two MLS teams faced off in a “match” just over a week ahead of their respective openers. Presumably, it should have been a glimpse of season-ready sides going through their final paces. Instead, it turned into an exercise in futility.

Real Salt Lake, pre-season power rankings toppers and favorites for a number of trophies, faced Sporting Kansas City in Phoenix. The game devolved into a rash of bad tackles, red cards and near physical altercations, leading to Real Salt Lake pulling their players off the field. Whatever progress the two teams had hoped to make towards the regular season (and in RSL’s case, a Champions League match on Tuesday) went out the window. There might be some temptation to call it a farce, if such a label wasn’t totally inappropriate for something so meaningless.

Essentially, pre-season games provide coaches the opportunity to put their players through their paces in a controlled environment that replicates a game scenario. But it is ultimately a poor substitute. Generally, matches follow the standard game format of two 45 minute halves. This gives the illusion of importance. Practically speaking, however, they don’t really rise much above the level of full-field training sessions.

Pre-season results will become irrelevant the moment the first regular season ball is tapped off the center line. These practice games serve a purpose, but it’s best to be careful about how much weight we give them.

A “good” pre-season, whether it be it in terms of wins, goals, or some other selected metric, doesn’t necessarily foreshadow a strong league start. Neither does what appears to be a poor run-up preclude a club from charging out of the gate. Some of the clubs that look the worst right now (can’t formulate a bit of offense, seem unable to keep the other team out of their net) will win come First Kick. That won’t really come as a shock.

Keeping in mind the amount of turnover MLS sides go through in the off-season, available evidence is limited to last season’s standings and pre-season form. The former, especially in a League known for its parity, is unreliable at its best. The latter is like a funhouse mirror image of a club. It resembles tangible evidence, but it distorted to the point of being nearly useless.

That makes it rather hard to get a grip on just how good anyone is. Losses to third division Mexican sides or middle of the road college teams just muddy the waters. Victories, no matter the opponent or score, don’t do much to clear things up.

By virtue of its place in the calendar, Major League Soccer’s pre-season happens at the same time as that of its namesake, Major League Baseball. The two leagues have more in common than just a label. Both go through pre-season preparations that are more about fitness and than results. The nature of team-building, throwing 30 players together and molding them into a cohesive unit over the course of a weeks, makes winning little more than an afterthought. At most, it’s nice byproduct of the process and a confidence builder.

Thankfully, the season starts next week. Coaches will put out their best possible lineups. Players will give everything they have as they take the first steps on the road towards MLS Cup. Results will matter again, points will be won or lost, and the judgments we make will finally be made based on how well a team is playing when it counts.

Not that there won’t be plenty of overreaction. But at least it will be justifiable.

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