Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Training with the Charleston pros
CHARLESTON, S.C. -- "No farting in the locker room." This edict might be one of those universal unspoken rules applied by most teams -- but for the Charleston Battery, it's essentially a law. It's immortalized as one of the key clauses in the Battery's posted list of locker room statutes. Perpetrators of the crime are fined $5 with additional fines for other misdemeanors such as "general stupidity."
One of the rare occasions I touched the ball during my stay with the Battery. (Vin Duffy/Other)
It's into this environment that I walk on my first day on the job. My directive is simple enough -- to spend a week training with a pro team and report on the ins and outs of the lifestyle. Unlike a lot of other professional sports, soccer is one of those things that the average recreational player who's sitting at home watching the game sometimes believes that he, too, could be on that field. After all, unlike the physical behemoths of the NFL, or the hang-time gifted NBA athletes, most soccer pros are not especially gifted with an inordinate amount of size or speed. My own playing background in the game is less than stellar, but at least passes a minimum criteria of competency. I grew up in England and am actually the unofficial all-time leading goal scorer for players born between the months of May and August before 8 a.m., for the 7-year-old age group at Thomas Jones Primary School in Ladbroke Grove in London. Oh, I also played in high school and dabbled a tiny bit in university as a midfielder, at least until I realized that sacrificing Friday or Saturday night out on the town to wake up early for games that involved no fanfare, no cheerleaders, no professional aspirations and no BMOC status meant that there was little gain to be had. Of course, that was all a very long time ago, pre-knee injury, pre-declining fitness, pre-loss of speed and pre-30-something, which is the situation I find myself in now.
Even so, signing the player contract handed to me by coach Mike Anhaeuser, and the not-so-subtle waiver promising not to sue the Battery if I suffered a cardiac arrest on the practice field, was oddly thrilling. Or maybe it was just the presence of a camera, pushed to within 2 inches of my face as I signed the papers.The Battery are based on Daniel Island, in Charleston, S.C. They're one of the better franchises in the USL, having won a championship (in 2003) and having a who's who of players listed on the all-time roster. Names such as Terry Phelan, Raul Diaz Arce, Eric Wynalda and Robert Rosario have graced the roster. The Battery also has a progressive owner, Tony Bakker, who built the first privately financed soccer-specific stadium in the U.S. that has an eco-friendly outlook with its solar panels providing energy. Blackbaud Stadium seats up to 5,000, and on average, the Battery draw around 2,000 to 3,000 fans for each home game.If you take the marquee names like David Beckham and Juan Pablo Angel out of the equation, there's arguably not a huge difference in standard between the USL and MLS. "I think all around the quality from the top to the bottom is higher in MLS," said forward Ian Fuller, who like most of the Charleston players has spent time in MLS. "In our league, the top five or six guys on each team are equal to probably the No. 7 to 20 guys on a MLS team, they just have the top-notch guys that we don't have."
Sitting in the locker room, it's a daunting task to learn everyone's name and face -- there are currently around 28 players in camp, a figure that will be slashed to around 23 before the season opener, and the team is only in its second week of training.
One player, defender Kevin Nylen (whom I spent most of the week inadvertently calling "Keith") asks me where I'm from. I tell him that I've just flown in after attending a conference up in Boston.
"Boston? Boston's a great town," said Nylen. "A bunch of us on the team are from around there, myself, Chris [Corcoran], Brandon [Curran]."
"Don't write that about us, it's embarrassing," said captain Dusty Hudock.
Once introductions end, we head to the practice field, and already I can sense some apprehension about my ability to perform. I admit to Andrew Bell, the Battery's director of soccer, that I haven't played since November. Bell, an English ex-pat, reassures everyone by stating, "That's OK, you're English -- it's innate!"
The initial training drills prove to be fairly easy stuff. Run around a set of cones forward, backward and sideways, and copy the guy in front of you if you have no idea what you are doing. We did that for an hour or so and then we started 5-on-5 scrimmages with one extra player playing as the extra man on offense for whichever team had the ball. The scrimmages were the first eye-opener for me, and I learned several things:
1. It's hard to call for the ball from a teammate when you have no idea what his name is. 2. It's hard to shake loose and even find space from pro defenders, especially in confined spaces. 3. Pro players keep the ball very well. It's almost a waste of time to try to grab it from them.
My main objective in the scrimmage was to score a goal. I failed. I had a couple of golden opportunities, but a combination of the crossbar, poor finishing and the goalkeeper meant I would return to the hotel empty-handed. My camera crew was underwhelmed: "Hey, at least you made a nice pass," one of them said.
For the second day, Anhaeuser divides the players into two teams, termed "old" and "young" (young defined as those being under the age of 23) -- but I'm lumped in with the "young" even though I single-handedly raise the group's average age by double digits. I suspect I've been lumped with the "young" because the old guys want to keep their undefeated record.
Since training started, the old guys have dominated the keep-away drill -- an 11-on 11 drill with one team passing the ball around while the other tries to intercept. One side is considered to have scored a "goal" after completing 10 consecutive passes. Today's no different, the old guys cruise easily to a win. My tally consists of a couple of decent passes, a couple of turnovers and one semi-nifty dribble past an onrushing defender and completing a pass which earns us a point. (At this stage, Anhaeuser had lowered the target for the young guys to just six consecutive passes.)
We wrap up the session with a shooting drill in which a teammate lays the ball off to us and we shoot from outside the box. In five attempts, I score twice and hit the upper right post on another attempt. I even take a penalty against Hudock and score with a side foot to his left. The players congratulate me, even though it looks like Hudock didn't really try to save the shot. "No really, that's his thing," said one player. "He always just stays still to see if the shot is coming up the middle." I remain skeptical.
It's game day for the Battery against the San Jose Earthquakes in the Carolina Challenge Cup. I'll be warming the bench for this one and observing from the sidelines. The game is marred by some horrendous weather, shaky refereeing and a 2-1 loss for the Battery. "Hey ref, that's an ugly-a-- shirt you're wearing. Just because it's Italian, don't mean it looks good," yells one Battery fan after yet another dubious decision. Day 4
Thursday is the day I get my big chance to go up against an MLS team. The Battery have arranged another scrimmage against San Jose, and both teams will field reserves and those who played limited minutes the night before. The pregame speech from Anhaeuser lets the team know exactly how he's strategizing to compensate for my inclusion in the lineup. It's a confidence-instilling talk.
"Louie [Rolko] and Dominic [Cianciarulo], you're going to get your work in. I need you both to cover more; remember, with Jen in there, it'll be like playing with 10 men."
I'm slated to play maybe 10 minutes at the start of the second half at forward. Presumably, the logic is to minimize the damage I can do. "If any of you get Jen an assist, lunch is on me for three straight days," said Anhaeuser as we leave the locker room. I'm not sure if lunch is a compelling enough reason, so I bolster the payoff. "If you pass the ball to me, I'll assign a writer to do a top story feature profile on you for Soccernet," is my counter-offer.If it was hard to get the ball in the 5-on-5 scrimmage, it's even harder in an actual game, especially playing as a forward. The Quakes move the ball with precision and accuracy and spread the Battery across the field. I spend most of my time closing down defenders, trying to limit their passing lanes as per Anhaeuser's instructions. I touch the ball a grand total of maybe two times in 20 minutes. Apparently Anhaeuser had decided to give me the extra playing time because he thought I did well. Personally, I think he was just being generous because it was proving to be a valuable training exercise for the Battery to play with a handicap. Even so, we're tied 0-0 when I leave the field, but we end up losing 2-0. The one positive -- my plus/minus rating (if there were such a thing in soccer) is positively neutral.
As for my thoughts on playing against the pros -- the reality is the fitness level and the speed of the pro game is far more stunning when seen up close and personal. The gap in technique, though obvious, isn't as marked as the gap in physical conditioning and the speed of thought required to play at the pro level.
The only thing planned for my final day is a beep test, which is there just to measure how badly out of shape I am relative to pro soccer players. The general acceptable curve for a pro is considered to start at a score of 12, and midfielder Darren Spicer is this year's beep test champion -- he checks in with 15.3. I've been advised that a score of 10 would be considered respectable, whereas anything less than 8 would be embarrassing. Defender Brian Bell gives me some pretest tips about "looping" around the markers in the early going so that I save stress on my pivot leg. I will say this: I've always been more about speed than endurance -- in high school I ran the 110-meter hurdles for what constituted our track team, but never managed to finish any of the 2- or 3-mile runs. Halfway into the beep test, I was already cognizant of the fact that it was highly unlikely I'd hit a score of 10. You know when you run for a long distance and your insides start burning and you have to reach down and dig out that inner drive? Well I don't -- never have, probably never will, and wasn't about to start with the beep test, either. I wimped out once I started feeling reasonably tired and asked what my score was. The Battery measured me at a grand total of 7.4 -- a score that puts my fitness level somewhere between a comatose racoon and an elderly poker player.
Suitably humbled but not entirely surprised at the score, I headed back to the hotel. At least I've still got my day job.
Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPNsoccernet and also writes a blog Armchair Musings. He can be reached at: email@example.com.