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Friday, March 12, 2004
Osorio has coaching mojo

Marc Connolly

Editor's note: ESPN Soccernet.com writer Marc Connolly spent five days in England at the end of February visiting Americans who are part of the growing U.S. contingent who play and coach professionally for top-notch clubs on both the first-team and reserve sides. This is the final installment of the series.

MANCHESTER, England -- Even during a leisurely lunch with a group of visiting youth coaches from Connecticut, Juan Osorio is teaching. And learning. Always learning. Always thirsting for more knowledge to add to his extensive repertoire of coaching philosophies and ways to train soccer players that has brought him to Manchester City F.C. as the only American coaching in the vaunted English Premier League.

Connolly in England
The series of articles that Marc Connolly is writing from his travels in England during the last week of February will be published as follows:

Thurs, March 4: Jonathan Spector on the Man. United way
Thurs., March 4: Kenny Cooper thriving for Man. United's reserves
Mon., March 8: Zak Whitbread's life at Liverpool
Thurs., March 11: Claudio Reyna is the toast of the town at Man. City
Fri., March 12: Lone Wolf: Juan Osorio is carrying the flag for U.S. coaches at Man. City

The napkins are out, and training drills are being diagrammed much faster than the food is being eaten. It's impossible for Osorio to stay seated as his passion for his profession causes him not only to jump out of his chair to demonstrate and exercise, but also when making a point.

Officially, he is Man. City's strength and conditioning coach. But he's more of a pure soccer coach -- and manager-in-training -- who happens to be an expert in fitness, rather than a fitness coach who happens to know soccer.

It's apparent in his training drills, both the ones he's diagrammed for his guests, and the few he used with the first-team that morning during a 90-minute training session in advance of the team's match against Chelsea, that he uses fitness to better his players' soccer skills, and soccer skills to better their fitness.

"I regard fitness and football as one entity," says Osorio, who immediately outlawed long-distance running and the "put the balls away, we're going to run" English mentality he encountered when he was brought in to the side in 2001 to revolutionize the team's training. "The best way for me is to have everything related to the game."

That's why small-sided games -- 6 v. 6, 4 v. 4 with a neutral player, etc. -- are a large part of his regimen, as are a succession of four- and five-minute exercises where the players are going all out rather than one where pacing is needed over a 25-minute scrimmage.

"I believe in high intensity sessions with a low volume, rather than high volume with low intensity," he says.

This sort of philosophy has been pieced together over the past fourteen years while Osorio has traveled the world and spent time at some of the most prestigious clubs in the world to study their ways.

You name the club, and he has been there, whether it is Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Ajax, Manchester United and Benfica in Europe, or River Plate, Boca Juniors, Santos and Flamengo in South America.

"Going from club to club to observe trainings has been the best school for me," he says. "All the coaches that I've met and watched have something good to offer. I try to be like a sponge and take it all in, while also exchanging ideas."

Judging from his vast collection of books, videos and filled-up notebooks in his home office, Osorio is a library of knowledge himself.

It also shows in his coaching, as his style is hard to pin-down, since it's a cornucopia of ideas from several different continents.

One day he'll use a drill that he has borrowed from 1860 Munich in Germany and tweaked to make it work for him, while another day he'll put some of the EPL's most revered players through an exercise he saw a youth coach use in Brentwood, N.Y., a decade ago.

That sort of uniqueness and change-of-pace was immediately popular with the players when he joined the squad, and has been cited by several people throughout the club as one of the reasons Manchester City was able to win a promotion back to the EPL in 2002 and finish in ninth place last season.

Longtime star goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel is one who felt those benefits early on in Osorio's career at Man. City.

"Juan Carlos's fitness training is different from anything else I have encountered and for me that is tremendously exciting," he said in the summer of 2002. "When you go through as many preseasons as I have been, you need some inspiration and that has definitely come this year."

Part of that inspiration comes from Osorio's own inclusion in the exercises.

Still looking as fit now at 41 years old as he was playing for Southern Connecticut State during the late-eighties, the Colombian-born Osorio often beats his own players in skill drills.

Sometimes it's during a popular two-touch juggling exercise which has players facing off one-on-one to see who can outlast each other, which he routinely defeats midfielder Steve McManaman. Or during a sprinting exercise where a player is making square passes and dodging flags slalom-style in 45-second intervals that finds Osorio challenging Costa Rican striker Paulo Wanchope to pass and move as quickly as he is playing.

"He's the best, man," says an out-of-breath Wanchope after a one-on-one training session on the morning of the Man. City-Chelsea match. "Juan makes it fun, too."

Osorio is popular within the squad, as U.S. National Team captain and Manchester City midfielder Claudio Reyna is quick to point out, but he's far from being a pushover.

He barks orders with the intensity of a drill sergeant, and will get on the multi-millionaire stars in the same fashion he pushes players on the reserve team.

Lothar Matthaus could tell you a little about Osorio, as well, as the assistant coach was the only one to throw the German star out of practice during his somewhat-tumultuous time in Major League Soccer.

These qualities were unknown to the Manchester City brass when they first contacted Osorio in May of 2001.

They were going completely on the word of a man Osorio calls the best fitness coach in the U.S., Vern Gambetta, who has worked with the Chicago White Sox, tennis star Monica Seles and several successful track & field athletes over the years.

Osorio had met Gambetta at a seminar four years earlier, and the two remained friends as he continued to get coaching experience with the Staten Island Vipers of the A-League, the semi-pro Criollos from Queens and from earning his science and football degree from John Moores University in Liverpool.

"It came completely out of the blue," says Osorio, who had just started the 2001 season with the MetroStars as part of Octavio Zambrano's staff. "On Gambetta's recommendation, I became one of 25 candidates to be the team's strength and conditioning coach. After I interviewed with them on the phone, the next thing I knew I was being flown there as part of the final four candidates. After I ran a session with the Reserves, they offered me the job on the spot."

So Osorio took off for Maine Road in June to immediately begin preparing for the team's preseason a month later. Only two years earlier, he was merely a student at John Moores, fully utilizing his view from his apartment that overlooked Liverpool's Melwood Training Grounds, and now he was part of a staff that would be competing with the vaunted club, as well as some of the best teams in the world.

"It was quite a move for me," says Osorio. "Being South American and American doesn't make it too easy to get a job over here, so I was quite fortunate."

Looking back, the Man. City staff should have listened to Osorio upon his arrival, as he told them about a young goalkeeper in the U.S. by the name of Tim Howard. He also mentioned Clint Mathis and Mike Petke, who Osorio still believes could play in the Premiership, to his fellow coaches in the club, but there was no interest whatsoever.

Of course, the club's interest in U.S. players since then has increased drastically due to the National Team's success in the 2002 World Cup, as well as the play of Howard, Brad Friedel, Kasey Keller, Brian McBride and, of course, Reyna in the EPL. They're even hot on the trail of 16-year-old Danny Szetela after watching him shine during the U-17 World Championships last August.

Osorio keeps the club informed about happenings in MLS, but it's not always easy for him to see games.

"Sometimes, I have to wake up at three or four in the morning to see an MLS match," he says. "But I always talk to my friends on the phone or on e-mail about which players are doing well and how the teams are doing."

It's for good reason, too, as Osorio would love to return to Major League Soccer as a manager in the near future, which would also please his wife, Juliette, who is a New Yorker, and their three-year-old, Sergio, and 11-month-old Sebastian.

"It has always been one of my goals to go back to MLS as a head coach," says Osorio, who was brought in to interview for D.C. United's head coaching job back in December. "In the past, (when other opportunities arose) leaving England wasn't the right move. But now, I do think it's definitely the right time. It's my third season here at Man. City, and I think I've learned all the good things there are to learn about the English game. I've also been able to work-out with world-class players on a daily basis, and have obtained ideas from foreign coaches and other clubs all around the world, as well.

"Now I think I'm ready to be in charge. I want to be able to decide how we play and how we are to approach the games, as well as select the players that are going to play for my team and decide when they should be playing and not playing."

In the meantime, Osorio is busily preparing for the Manchester City-Manchester United Derby on Sunday, and is working non-stop to help players at all levels throughout the club.

Being on the go and getting as much accomplished as is humanly possible in one day is something he thrives on. When he needs a reminder, all he needs to do is check out the note on his locker inside the team's Carrington training center that reads:

There are men who try one day, and they are good. There are men who try many days, and they are better. There are those who try one year, and they are even better. Then there are those who try every day, every year, and they are the indispensable ones.

It's when he re-reads that, looks around the immaculate facility, that he is reminded that he's in the middle of what has been a great experience with Man. City.

"It has been an incredible job for me," he says, "and one that I've tried to benefit from the most I could."

One that will perhaps lead him back to the States in the coming years.

Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: shaketiller10@yahoo.com.


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