Practice report: October 12th, 2010

It’s been pointed out before by more knowledgeable folks than me that the first session back on the training field after a game is a strange beast, in that you’ll see coaches trying a lot of things that they wouldn’t do closer to game time. I’ve been told that coaches past, such as Colin Clarke, were already at least 90% sure of the next game’s starting eleven as soon as the previous 90 minutes were over. It’s becoming pretty clear that, with the versatility that so many players on this squad show, Schellas Hyndman is so much more open to a player stepping up and proving that they deserve consideration, whether in their preferred spot or somewhere else they are potentially suited to.

Sunday’s reserve game against Colorado, for example, saw a backline of Ugo Ihemelu, Andrew Wiedeman and Jason Yeisley – two young forwards and a guy who’s barely back from a concussion, and was therefore kept out of the box when defending set pieces. Sounds like a recipe for disaster, yet not only did FCD win, they also kept a clean sheet. Obviously Wiedeman and Yeisley are doing whatever it takes to fight for a roster spot next season, which can only be a good thing, but it also reflects well on a coaching staff that is willing to think outside of the box.

And so we come back to the strangeness of today’s session’s scrimmage on Field 7, in which the team of mostly “starters” had David Ferreira playing left back.

Yep, you read that right, not center mid or striker, not even left mid. Left back. Of course we can’t read a whole lot into this; Ferreira’s no more likely to play left back at Rio Tinto this weekend than I am, but it did show something that you don’t always get to see from him at his usual attacking mid/withdrawn forward role – a surprising adeptness at defense. Here is a player whose soccer IQ is high enough that you can drop him anywhere on the field and he can read the game well enough to know where he needs to be in order to make the play, whether on the attacking side of the ball or defending.

It all comes down to the “defense-first” mentality that Coach Hyndman has instilled in the team. It’s not really a secret that, in this league at least, a good offense can win you a game, but a good defense can win you a championship. There’s a reason that the top-scoring LA Galaxy in 2008 and FCD in 2009 did not make the playoffs – the Goals Against column.

The second half of last year, the team was exciting to watch – you knew you were going to get goals, but unfortunately you also knew you were going to see at least one defensive brainfart that would mean some of those goals would be for the opposition. This year, there’s still the occasional mistake, but it feels like any player on the field has the ability to cover and ensure that any chances those mistake create are at least difficult ones. I still feel like there’s a piece or two missing that can turn some of those 14 ties into wins, but in my short time as an FCD fan, this is the closest I’ve ever seen to a championship-winning team.

Of course, I doubt Ferreira’s insertion into the backline was entirely planned ahead – several players were kept out of the main training session today for one reason or another.

I’m sure you’ll all be pleased to know that all three of George John, Ugo Ihemelu and Daniel Hernandez not only came through training unscathed, but looked solid out there. John in particular was making some excellent defensive plays, and Hernandez ripped a shot from the halfway line on the shortened pitch that rattled Josh Lambo’s crossbar. With Tampa Bay’s season over, Lambo is back training with the team, but does not have a roster spot. He and Chris Sharpe traded places in net throughout the session.

Kevin Hartman continues to be sidelined, but he is showing progress, joining the team for the warm-up drills, before working with Drew Keeshan in the net on Field 4. I highly doubt he’ll be ready for Salt Lake this weekend, but with some luck and hard work, he may be back in time for LA. Time will tell.

The other players kept out today, besides Pearce and Shea with the national team, were:

- Kyle Davies, who took a knock to the head during the reserve game. No word yet on whether he has a concussion or (hopefully) something less serious, we’ll just have to watch for FCD’s injury report. He was working on the stationary bike and stretching with the trainer.

- Edson Edward, who has been suffering from some tightness in his left thigh. He too was working on the bike and stretching.

- Atiba Harris, who also looked to be carrying a left leg problem. He did warm up with the team before moving to the bike, so I’m thinking he was just kept out as a precaution after experiencing some soreness during the warmup

- Moises Hernandez. I didn’t get the scoop on his injury, but he was mostly working on some stretching and ball drills with a trainer.

After starting with some passing drills, the team scrimmaged for the rest of the session, with the focus, as it often is, on quick one- and two-touch passing. As well as the regular goals patrolled by the keepers, each team also had a small (I would guess slightly larger than hockey-sized) goal to attack/defend at each corner – any shots aimed at these goals had to be kept low or they didn’t count. I believe at certain points between stoppages, players could only pass to a player wearing a different color (red and blue “mostly starters” played white and green “mostly reserves”), but I wasn’t always keeping good enough track to be sure of that. I lost count of the number of goals, but I believe the red/blue team ended up the winners.

There were a couple of notable plays to report on, all of them involving Eric Avila, who was playing for blue/red. After winning a tackle on Wiedeman, Avila laid the ball off to Ferreira, who first-timed a pass for Avila to run on to. It looked like he’d played the ball too long, yet somehow Avila kept the ball in play with a first-timed low cross across the box, perfectly weighted for Yeisley to slam the ball home past Dario Sala. Another Yeisley goal, this time into the near corner goal, was started by Avila, who chipped a loose ball over Peri Marosevic’s head to Yeisley, who then slotted a header between Peri and Wiedeman to Milton Rodriguez. Rodriguez, following Avila’s lead, again chipped Peri, and Yeisley hit a nice volley in between the corner posts from a good distance. Four touches, including Avila’s initial play, leading to a goal without the ball ever touching the ground.

It wasn’t all sunshine for Avila though, as a couple of times he failed to spot an easy outlet (usually Ferreira) and was closed down and stripped of the ball with relative ease. For every moment of brilliance there’s a moment that shows why he hasn’t been able to lock down a starting role on this team.

From this session, it’s difficult to predict a lineup for Saturday’s game. With a few key players missing one way or another, and a few others returning from injury, what I saw today was never going to be reflective of what we’ll see face Salt Lake. Whatever happens, Hyndman has some difficult decisions to make this week. How important is continuing the push for the slim hopes of the Supporters’ Shield and at least ensuring home field advantage in the playoffs compared to resting certain players? Is the risk to reinsert formerly injured players into the lineup in order to get them match fit one that he’s willing to take? If so, what happens to players like Loyd, Jackson and Alexander who’ve all shown something during other players’ absences?

If it were me, I’d say John is ready to play comfortably for at least 70 minutes and can probably go the full 90 if needed to. I know I’ve said this before, but he looked strong out there today, and the defense looked better with him in the lineup against Colorado. I’d probably leave Ugo on the bench, perhaps introducing him in place of John late on, but Hernandez is a tougher call – as the oldest of the three, his recovery time is likely longer and potential to reinjure is higher, but he looked good out there, and there’s no question about the qualities his leadership brings to the team – something that’s been somewhat lacking since he and Hartman were sidelined. There’s also a question mark over Atiba Harris’ head – I do believe it was just a precaution today, but it’s possible that Hyndman could rest him to make sure he’s ready for the playoff games.

My best guess at the formation we’ll see isn’t a very good one, I’m afraid. I’d be able to make a better stab at it later in the week, but for now, assuming Pearce and Shea both play for the US this week, I think Hyndman will go for this:

I’m not completely convinced that he’ll rest Pearce, though I do believe Chavez will start over Shea again. I also question whether Alexander has moved ahead of McCarty on the depth chart. Of course, if Harris is kept out, then he’ll play on the wing and McCarty will retain his linking position.

As I said, this early in the week, and with so many absences, it’s just a guessing game. That doesn’t make it any less fun to play though.