Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Montreal Impact are from San Jose, California

The scoreline through two preseason friendlies for Crew SC against Brazilian competition isn't pretty - 10-0, if the handful of reports online are true.

You will not find that on the Crew social or site news feeds. Some might say that it isn't meaningful enough to comment on. But, is it not? And what of the larger picture of general talent levels this rare event of an MLS team traveling outside their comfort zone gives us?

What is happening in Brazil can't help but overshadow training when your team isn't able to manage a single goal after conceding ten in just two sessions/games. Is part of the mission to get some important team building time in and learn a new system? Absolutely. But, players are competitors. None of them play at a pro level without having won a lot at some point in their life.

Because of the complexity of purpose in the preseason, this doesn't mean that what is happening down is Brazil to the Crew is necessarily bad. After all, failure is an important part of learning. It is entirely possible that when the team returns back to the MLS bubble to play in South Carolina they will be two steps ahead. Maybe even closer as a group for having made the journey. But, you see? This is the very part of what matters about preseason. Why it is important to think about how this impacts the group going into 2017.

The second part of this unusual expedition by Columbus to a foreign land is that it gives us a rare opportunity to see MLS players outside of their comfort zone. You can even lump the overall USMNT program into this. All of them are accustom to playing in friendly and familiar environments.

Much of this is extremely planned out, not for the sake of getting better but for the sake of building a positive narrative. Positive momentum. Look at your EA FIFA game or even Sega's Football Manager. The player ratings and value of MLS and USMNT players is so far inflated when you put it up against reality... it's ridiculous. Look at where players are. US born and trained players rarely transfer for over $500k and there are practically zero performing at all, let alone well, in the top five leagues in the world.

The US Soccer Federation has done such a remarkable job at creating a "product" by carefully curating when and where things happen that it has many believing a fantasy.

Did you watch the "January Camp" USMNT games this past week? Another example of "preseason" and the excuses we get along with it. Excuses flowed for below standard players and lack of energy despite having a new coach while playing in extremely friendly confines of carefully selected cities that MLS wants to squeeze over 100 million dollars from.

All of this is okay if you look at it for what it is, but that doesn't happen as often as it should. The narrative of "it's just warming up" took hold for the USMNT this past week because the play was not good. Imagine if results against a Serbian "C" team (jumping 4 time zones) and a Jamaican team, who look like they were just scrambled together, went well? Now imagine if this USMNT made up of MLS players traveled to Serbia to play or even a neutral site.

The reality of the situation is that if the US played more of a balanced international home and away schedule the marketability of the product would suffer (take a look at the US record away the last few years, or even games in Texas or southern California). We are starting to see this with the women's national team as well, although the forces at work there are different in regards to the global game.

Going back to the rare event that is the Columbus Crew making the trek down to Brazil.

Well... back up. I'll get to the Crew in a minute.

Let's go back a few years to 2014 when Fluminense FC traveled up to Orlando to play in what then was called the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic. A fun tournament and a great way to see a lot of teams all in one place in a short period of time.

U23 Fluminense FC, March 2014
The way the tournament was constructed you could watch four teams in various stages of preparation and play at any given moment. In front of you might have been a match between, say the Philadelphia Union and NY Red Bulls and behind you, in clear view, was Columbus Crew SC warming up and Toronto FC players cooling down.

That year Fluminense FC fielded a U23 team in the tournament that in reality was mostly a group made up of teenagers.

What was immediately and strikingly different was the way Fluminense handled each of these stages. Their pregame warm-ups were different. It was intense but controlled. Organized. Most of it away from the goal and in small groups, all close to a ball. Coaches close by. Across the field was Toronto FC, their next opponent. It was random. Players 50 yards apart launching passes. There was also, what appeared to be, a shooting drill from outside the box that looked not unlike one you might see before a high school basketball game. There were also players clustered around the sideline talking with coaches or players from other teams in the stands. It was very casual.

Fluminense controlled the match from the whistle. Even after scoring early they didn't change their approach to the match. When Toronto's newly signed Michael Bradley scored from a free kick 25 yards out, Fluminense just continued about things, weaving in and out of TFC defenders, and jumped back ahead not long after.

Behind the stands was a collection of Crew players arriving to get warmed up. They were doing what looked to be shuttle runs in between chatting and stretching. Players arrived intermittently but were more focused than the other MLS teams there. It was Gregg Berhalter's first preseason and no doubt that had something to do with it.

In the stands with the fans was a collection of Philadelphia Union players sitting behind Fluminense bench watching. Attention and conversation was centered around a player named Fabinho, who is from Brazil and has played for no less than ten teams as a pro and as far away as Australia before being signed by MLS. The English speaking US players were poking fun at him for thinking that the Montreal Impact were from San Jose, California. Fabinho, who is still with the Union, was sitting sort of separate from the group and seemed more interested in what Fluminense were doing.

[U23 Fluminense in white, Toronto FC in Red. March 2014]

As the game progressed there as a change to the attention of the Philly players. They were all watching more intently. Toronto was being outplayed and it wasn't even close. Anyone who watches soccer knows the familiar possession statistic can often be misleading, which it is, but it wouldn't have been here. And, if there was something that measured control of the ball it would have been 90% Fluminense. Toronto couldn't figure out how to get the ball for most of the match.


Columbus is in the final act of a three-part play down in Brazil right now. In the first act Crew SC prepares, travels, brushes the cobwebs out and loses to São Paulo 7-0 in two games consisting of four 25 minute periods. The second act had the team playing a closed door match against Gremio Osasco last night where they were beaten 3-0. The final act is a preseason match against Ituano on Monday. It might not be a great play so far, but it may turn out to be an important one.

[Columbus Crew SC in gray. Sao Paulo in red/black. February 2017]

Win or lose, these games are valuable for Columbus if the leadership handles the experience correctly and no question it is and trip of a lifetime for many of the players. The hope is that everyone in the organization is sitting up, paying attention. Taking notes. Taking it in.

Will all this matter when the games finally matter? That's a tricky one. When do MLS games matter? Summer? Fall? Looking at it this way you can make an argument that these games are even more important than half of the domestic season and for most of the players who don't see time, this is the moment of their year.

It matters.

No comments: