FOX Soccer Exclusive
Focus turns to players after layoff
The fury stopped right around the time the final whistle blew at Rio Tinto Stadium two Sundays ago. Four teams emerged from the taxing gauntlet created by a FIFA match date situated in the middle of November and imposed by their march through it. More toil lay ahead, but an enforced respite stood between them and their pursuit of MLS Cup.
Relief and silence greeted them as they wondered what exactly to do with two weeks before the decisive second leg of their conference championship ties. It is somewhat jarring to lose all semblance of rhythm ahead of the most important game of the season. No one wanted it to play out that way. Major League Soccer attempted to tinker with the slate on the eve of the postseason to smooth out the cadence and spread the matches out a bit, but the international demands skirted during the regular season took precedence now. No team wanted to play without a key figure at this decisive stage.
The sensible path forced these clubs to replace soothing monotony -- the driving force and the lifeblood of a season, even when the calendar interrupts it -- with an unfamiliar pattern to pass the barren period and prepare them for the rigors ahead.
“It's definitely not the easiest of challenges,” Sporting Kansas City manager Peter Vermes said during a conference call on Thursday. “It could become complete boredom for the guys. They've already been through a long season and they've already been through a lot of training sessions."
Each of the remaining competitors found their own way to navigate through that superfluous week. Vermes chose to shorten his practices and his talking points to place emphasis on sharpness. Real Salt Lake coach Jason Kreis said he tailored his approach to different segments of his squad -- the players in need of rest, the reserves in need of exacting toil if duty called -- based upon the knowledge culled from similarly barren stretches earlier in the year. Portland boss Caleb Porter dubbed it “kind of a throw-away” given the distance between games and sidestepped any substantive talk about the upcoming second leg at home against RSL. Houston coach Dominic Kinnear used the time to rejuvenate his players after playing seven MLS and CONCACAF Champions League in three weeks.
“We knew, first and foremost, the guys needed some rest and they needed to get away from each other, get back to their families, almost get back into their normal lives because the schedule and the travel was thrown at us all at once,” Kinnear said. “I'm glad we're talking about it because we were successful and we're still involved in the playoffs, but it was difficult on the players.”
Those somewhat disparate views converged this week with usual service resumed. The focus shifted from maintenance and recovery to match preparation. The scenarios -- Sporting and Houston deadlocked at 0-0 heading into Saturday's second leg at Sporting Park, RSL protecting a 4-2 lead against the Timbers at JELD-Wen Field on Sunday -- in these two-game, aggregate goal series received the necessary scrutiny. Injured players went through their fitness assessments (Portland's Diego Valeri and Sporting's Lawrence Olum could feature, but RSL's Álvaro Saborío won't travel due to a hip flexor complaint). Normalcy -- or whatever passes for the concept with the season on the line -- emerged once more.
“Really, this week was when we started to ramp it up, focus on the game and talk about all of the things we need to do to get the result and pull this thing off,” Porter said. “I think it's been good this week. I think it's been normal. We have a seven-day period. We had six training days and then the game. We tried to follow the same progression and rhythm that we followed all season long to try to make it as normal as possible.”
The benefits of returning to a more predictable course will manifest on Saturday and Sunday. It is down to the players to turn this peculiar sequence into a strength with their seasons on the line. They must produce the ardor and the intensity generated during the opening stages of the playoffs with their fresh minds and their recuperated legs. It is more difficult to muster those qualities after a break, but they must restore the lost rhythm promptly to ensure their body of work does not wrap up one match ahead of schedule.
The binary outcomes on the table and the supporter-led symphonies awaiting in Kansas City and Portland will offer inspiration along the way, but it is on their shoulders now. They must compel the fury once more and cope with it well enough to book a place in MLS Cup next month.
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